Kimono and textiles

By Kyoto National Museum

Kyoto National Museum

The variety and history of Japanese clothing is vast
and complex. From monks’ robes and garments of the aristocracy to Momoyama
period (1573-1615) glitz and Edo-period chic, clothes have undergone bewildering
and radical changes through the ages and differ greatly depending on social

Kosode with Kamo Horse Racing (18th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Each thread of every item, however, invariably embodies not only the maker’s skill, but also the aspirations and joys of the people who wore them. Visitors are sure to discover a design that delights their eye from among the Kyoto National Museum’s kimono and textile collection.

Outer Robe with Flower-Lozenge Motif From the Sacred Treasures of Asuka Shrine (1390) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Outer Robe with Flower-Lozenge Motif From the Sacred Treasures of Asuka Shrine

In Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, the re-creation of the deity’s domicile and belongings is believed to impart new life energy to the deity, so the rebuilding and rededicating of the sacred shrines and treasures take place in periodic cycles. At the Asuka Shrine, the former tutelary shrine of the Kumano Hayatama Shrine of the Three Kumano Shrines, the custom of renewing the sacred treasures takes place once every thirty-three years.

According to the shrines, the sacred treasures from Asuka Shrine, now at Kyoto National Museum, along with the sacred treasures of Kumano Hayatama Shrine (stored there), were donated in 1390 (Meitoku 1) by powerful men of the time on the orders of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1408) and consist of boxes, furnishings, and court clothing. These, including other pieces probably added in later centuries, occupy a most important place in the history of medieval functional arts as they provide rare source material due to the verifiable time and background of their production.

The sacred treasures of Asuka Shrine form a set for a male deity. The courtier’s cloak ( J. hō), shown here, can be categorized as a courtier’s round-collared nōshi-style robe, which has been tailored to larger than human proportions. Although no actual court costumes remain from the medieval period, through these sacred shrine treasures we can gather some knowledge of what they must have actually looked like.

Dōbuku Coat with Paulownias and Arrow (16th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Dōbuku Coat with Paulownias and Arrow
16th Century

Popular among the daimyo of the Warring States period, the dōbuku was a soft coat worn over other garments and is the precursor of the modern haori. The stylish design of this piece follows a “shoulder-hem” layout, having a purple band with ragged edge across the shoulders and a green band with arrow pattern along the bottom, but leaving the midriff as white space enhanced by the glossy beauty of the silk and scattered with paulownia motifs in green, purple, and light blue.

This dōbuku has been passed down in the Nanbu family as a gift that Nanbu Nobunao received from the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598) in 1590 (Tenshō 18) for delivering goods to the field during the Battle of Odawara.

The entire piece is done in stitch-and-bind shibori, without any hand drawing or embroidery. To achieve the clear outlines in the design, tiny stitches outlining each motif were pulled tight, and the parts to be dyed dipped repeatedly into the several color baths, a technique requiring much time and great skill. Recently scholars have defined this art “tsujigahana,” but medieval documents generally use the term tsujigahana to refer to bast-fiber garments, rather than silk, and scholars are unsure whether those textiles were dyed with shibori techniques or not.

Kosode with Alternating Blocks of Flowers and Plants (16th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Kosode with Alternating Blocks of Flowers and Plants
16th Century

This kosode, or small-sleeved kimono, has flowers symbolizing the seasons embroidered in four large quadrants on a background of irregularly placed gold and silver leaf, displaying early spring plums, late spring wisteria, autumn maples, and winter snow-laden bamboo. If we follow the nomenclature used in Muromachi-period documents describing kosode designs by the large partitions on the back, such as “eight block,” this is a “four-block” kosode.

For those used to looking at modern kimono, the sleeves seem remarkably narrow, but this characteristic typifies kosode tailoring up through the Momoyama period.
The bold stylized flowers are filled with movement, overflowing with great life energy. The textural style of the embroidery derives from the float stitch (watashinui) where long parallel threads pass from edge to edge of each figure, tiny stitches being made only along the outline. Abrupt color changes within one flower petal or leaf enhances the long floats.

Beyond covering the body to protect it, garments have come to incorporate motifs that carry felicitous meanings. This kosode with scenes spanning the whole year, like many similar “Flowers and Birds of the Four Seasons” paintings of the same period, may well represent the ideal of the four seasons burgeoning with life energy.

Kosode with Small Motifs and Pine Bark Lozenges Bands (17th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Kosode with Small Motifs and Pine Bark Lozenges Bands
17th Century

The cloth was dyed with stitch-and-bind shibori in horizontal bands of black, red, black, and white, each band being densely filled with small motifs done in embroidery and gold leaf. Rather than being straight lines, the bands have zigzag edges that form “pine-bark lozenges” (matsukawa bishi), where diamond-shaped peaks are bent like lightning. Focusing on the detail, one is amazed at the detailed craftsmanship, such as the weeping cherry branches in rising mist done solely in gold leaf and the nested diamonds embroidered in alternating colors.

The black, red and white dyed division into three colors, the patterned satin-weave silk, and the composition of small motifs done in embroidery and gold leaf all typify the Keichō kosode popular in the early years of the Edo period. Moreover, this kosode was probably produced in the formative years of the Keichō kosode style, during the Keichō era (1596–1615) itself, since the wide body and narrow sleeve tailoring represents an old style and since the piece retains a geometric composition with horizontal bands, even though the Keichō style is best known for kosode with irregularly shaped dye divisions.

Documents recording early Edo-period customs note that on ceremonial occasions the wives of the military elite wore kosode “without background” (jinashi), where the entire garment was covered with gold leaf. Presumably this piece belongs to that category. It is an heirloom of the Ikeda family of Bizen.

Katabira Summer Kimono with Chrysanthemums and Fan Palm Leaves (17th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Katabira Summer Kimono with Chrysanthemums and Fan Palm Leaves
17th Century

On a dark brown ground, a gigantic, open flower turns upwards to the sky reaching out from a branch on the right sleeve and spreading over both shoulders. Another, more discretely open flower runs from the waist to the hem. The two flowers together sketch a large figure “7” over the back of the garment. Such bold design compositions characterize the “Kanbun kosode” popular during the Kanbun era (1661–1673), of which this piece is considered representative.

At first glance, the design seems to consist solely of chrysanthemums, but actually it is a composite design of chrysanthemum flowers in the center surrounded by fan palm leaves. This is clear from an entry in a kosode pattern book published in 1667 (Kanbun 7), Onhiinakata, that is the source of the name Kanbun kosode, where a design closely resembling this piece is labeled as “chrysanthemum and fan palm.”

The hinagata books collected popular kosode designs, and like modern fashion magazines, guided women’s tastes, presumably stimulating the production of similar garments. There are, however, very few extant garments where the design corresponds to one in a hinagata pattern book.

Kosode with Kamo Horse Racing (18th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Kosode with Kamo Horse Racing
18th Century

The design on this kosode robe depicts the ritual horse races held on the fifth day of the fifth month at Kamigamo Shrine in the north of Kyoto. In this ritual, reputedly started by Emperor Horikawa (r.1079–1107) in 1093 (Kanji 7), the winner of two horses predicts the year’s harvest. The theme of horse races on Boy’s Day (Tango no sekku) suggests the kosode belonged to a youth.

The upper portion has a checker-board pattern done in stitch-and-bind shibori, while the lower portion depicts one horse overtaking another in yūzen dyeing with embroidery added here and there. Yūzen involved tracing the outlines of the pattern with rice paste resist and brushing inside the paste-delineated area with various colors, in a technique of free-hand painting appearing much like a painted picture. Developed at the end of the seventeenth century, it soon became the main method of decorating kimono due it its great freedom.

Notable for the thin white lines known as “thread lines” (itome) left by the pasteresist and for the beauty of the gorgeous coloring,this piece, with its minute depiction in yūzen of the tense atmosphere between the two riders on racing horses, imparts a feeling of being present at the actual scene.
The design corresponds to one that appears in Tōryū moyō hinagata tsuru no koe (Crane Calls, Pattern Book with the Latest Designs), a kosode pattern book published in 1724 (Kyōho 9), indicating a probable general date of production.

Gold Brocaded Silk with Coxcombs and Soil, Known as Keitō Kinran (14th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Gold Brocaded Silk with Coxcombs and Soil, Known as Keitō Kinran
14th Century

In Japan textiles brought from China, the most advanced country in silk weaving, were always held in admiration and used as models. While the textiles imported in the seventh and eighth century can be viewed collectively among the temple treasures of Hōryū-ji and the Shōsō-in Repository, those from the medieval and early modern times are spread out in various repositories, being transmitted either as religious textiles like priest’s robes ( J. kesa) or as meibutsugire (“famed fabrics”) used in the practice of tea, chanoyu.

Of these, meibutsugire are used as mountings for hanging scrolls and as tea utensil pouches (shifuku) in chanoyu, being revered in their own right as textiles. The Kyoto National Museum’s meibutsugire were originally from the Edo-period collection of the Maeda family, lords of Kaga province. Reputedly, the collection began when the third head, Maeda Toshitsune (1594–1658), ordered his retainer to go to Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagasaki to collect pieces. It contains a wide variety of textile types, including celebrated meibutsugire, like the gold brocaded silk named Futari Shizuka kinran and the damask called Enshū donsu.

The name Keitō kinran derives from roosterhead flowers (keitō) depicted as rising up from the ground. The gold brocade (kinran) is of an older weave structure, evidenced by the gold patterning threads being held down by the foundation twill warps (rather than supplementary warps) and by the ground wefts on the reverse side running loose under the gold threads. Although badly faded, the bright reddish-purple remaining on the back suggests that this piece was originally dyed with sappan wood (suō).

Priest's Kasaya with Porny Scrolls and Ritual Buddhist Implements (Known as "Dream Robe") (14th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Priest's Kasaya with Porny Scrolls and Ritual Buddhist Implements (Known as "Dream Robe")
14th Century

Priest’s kasaya ( J. kesa) are the official garment worn by Buddhist mendicants and characterized by being a large rectangle composed of small pieces of cloth patched together. The kasaya worn by high priests were revered as treasures and particularly in the Chan ( J. Zen) sect, the transmission of a master’s kasaya, authenticated the legitimacy of one’s own religious inheritance and was treated with special respect.

Known as the “Dream Robe” (Ōmu-e), this kasaya is a transmission robe belonging to Jishōin, the mortuary temple for priest Ryūshū Shūtaku (1308–1388) at Nanzen-ji monaste ry in Kyoto. The appellation comes from the legend that on the day after Ryūshū dreamt he had received a robe from the eminent Chinese master Wuzhun Shifan ( J. Bujun Shiban, 1178–1249), someone appeared bringing him Wuzhun’s kasaya. The distinctive hand-drawn, gold-painted peony scrolls that cover the entire robe, however, bear remarkable resemblance to those on the cover sheets of Korean Goryeo-dynasty sutras.

This supports the opinion that the present work― rather than being made in China in the Southern Song (1127–1179) dynasty when Wuzhun was active—was produced on the Korean peninsula at the time of Ryūshū. Since almost no kasaya from the ancient or medieval periods have survived in China or Korea, those preserved in Japan are especially important.

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