Traditional Japanese society was divided into four distinct groups: samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. At the top, the samurai were the military elite who possessed the most power and wealth. At the bottom, the merchants were low in status because they did not produce any goods or materials, as the farmers and artisans did. During the prosperity of the Edo period, merchants had a new found wealth and were able to purchase more elaborate pieces of clothing.
The extravagant garments worn by members of the lower class troubled the wealthy and powerful classes. In order to maintain the social order, the government imposed strict laws (“sumptuary laws”) prohibiting the use of expensive fabrics, certain colors, ornate embroidery, or silver and gold in the merchants clothing.
The merchants found creative ways around these restrictions. While they used simple cotton to make their outer robes, they lined these garments with the richest silk, in the boldest colors, to show off their wealth. A new style, known as iki, emphasized the refined elegance of subtle details and muted colors in clothing.
These kimono likely uses the technique of Ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e was established during the Edo period and was cherished as a form of mass entertainment by common people across Edo (present-day Tokyo). Its origin can be traced back to around the late 17th century. Its initial artists produced woodblock prints and paintings of such subjects as female beauties; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica. The term Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) translates as "pictures of the floating world".
Artists rarely carved their own woodblocks for printing; rather, production was divided between the artist, who designed the prints, the carver, who cut the woodblocks, the printer, who inked and pressed the woodblocks onto the final medium, whether paper or fabric.The 19th century also saw the continuation of masters of the ukiyo-e tradition, with the creation of the artist Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa, one of the most well-known works of Japanese art.