The Sugino Costume Museum is ensconced among campus buildings in a quiet residential area in Tokyo’s Meguro district frequented by college boys in the days before World War II who were curious to glimpse female dressmaking students in stylish Western clothes.
Today, while Western clothing is no longer a rarity, people continue to visit. Only now it is to take a peek at history through the evolution of Western fashion.
Opened in May 1957 as the country’s first museum dedicated to Western dresses and accessories, it was built upon the vast collection of the late Yoshiko Sugino, founder of the dressmaking school Sugino Gakuen, and her husband, Shigeichi.
“Our museum is small compared to other museums with similar collections, but it houses a lot of items hard to find at other places,” curator Koichi Tsukada said.
One of the most famous items on display is an art nouveau evening dress made around 1880 by Charles Frederic Worth. The designer, who earned his reputation in 19th-century Paris, is credited with establishing the foundations of haute couture.
The designer of the dress was a mystery for decades, until last year when the designer tag, caught in the waist joint of the mannequin it was being displayed on, came off when museum staff rearranged the figure for a photo shoot.
Another rare piece on display is a pleated silk dress made by Italian Mariano Fortuny in 1910. Its design is remarkable given that making a lasting pleat pattern on silk fabric was extremely difficult at the time, according to Tsukada.
In addition to classic Western clothes, the museum also exhibits traditional Japanese palace costumes, like “juni-hitoe,” and ethnic clothes, including those of the indigenous Ainu. Even the museum’s mannequins deserve more attention than their sisters in shop windows enjoy.
Created by revered sculptor Ryokichi Mukai, many have individual facial expressions designed to fit their dresses.
“Not a few visitors come to see these mannequins,” Tsukada said.
The museum urges would-be visitors to check out its Web site, on which pictures display the museum’s items from a variety of angles under optimal lighting conditions, accompanied by detailed explanations and historical charts.
Currently, the site is available in Japanese only, but a French-language version is to be created soon.
“You can learn a lot about culture through the window of fashion because it reflects a country’s culture very strongly,” Tsukada said.