Motifs Spanning a Millennium
The two main components of traditional Japanese attire are the kimono robe and the obi sash. Innumerable symbols, motifs, and patterns have adorned these textiles over the centuries. In this exhibition we focus on women's garments made from the late 19th to the early 20th century that are decorated with motifs from the Heian Period (794-1185). During these four centuries the Imperial Court reigned from the city of Heian-Kyo, now called Kyoto. Within the Heian Court both women and men excelled in the arts, reveled in luxurious celebrations, and indulged in romances. To this day, some kimono and obi are decorated with symbols of this golden age. These motifs, which refer to the exquisitely cultured nature of the Heian Court, imply the wearer's sophistication and signal her knowledge of history through her apparel — something long considered very stylish in Japan.
Furisode are long sleeve kimono worn by girls, unmarried women, and brides. This is a bride's furisode. It is covered with motifs that refer to the Heian Court implying the bride's status as "Princess for a Day."
Front and back, Kimono, Furisode with hi-ogi (Heian Imperial fans) (1912/1940)The Baltimore Museum of Art
This yuzen-dyed wedding furisode (long sleeve kimono), made in the 1920s or 30s, has a dominant theme of hi-ogi, the wide bladed fans carried by Heian Period noble women. Even today the Japanese Empress wears Heian style apparel and carries a hi-ogi for important ceremonies. Opening fans, in general, are considered an auspicious wedding symbol in Japan, signifying a happy future unfolding for the bride.
A misu decorates the fanciful hi-ogi on the left. Misu were wide bamboo blinds used in Heian palaces that allowed noble women to look outside their palace quarters without being seen. These women generally hid their faces from men except those in their immediate family. A hi-ogi could also be used to perform this act of modesty.
On the right of this hi-ogi is a glimpse of the flowing fabric panels of a kicho. Kicho were curtains on portable stands behind which Heian noble women sat and exchanged poems with suitors. The decorated shells and open hexagonal box (depicted here in front of the kicho) are part of the romantic Heian game kai awase, in which players matched paired clam shells to symbolize the union of a perfect couple.
Heian nobles traveled in special carriages called gosho-guruma. Only high ranking nobles were permitted to ride in these lavishly decorated vehicles. Bamboo blinds covered the openings, allowing passengers privacy, but also the ability to observe the outside world.
Detail, Maru Obi with gosho-guruma (noble's carriage) and cranes (1912/1940)The Baltimore Museum of Art
Gosho-guruma, nobles' carriages, are probably the most ubiquitous symbol of the Heian Court found on modern Japanese textiles. This gosho-guruma is a woven motif on a maru obi, the most formal type of obi, fully patterned on both sides.
Maru Obi featuring Genji-guruma (noble's carriage wheels) (1912/1940)The Baltimore Museum of Art
Obi are long sashes that wrap around a woman’s waist and are formed into a decorative knot at the back. Maru obi are the most formal obi, and were worn with wedding furisode in the 1920s and 30s, when this maru obi was made. They are fully patterned on both sides and are generally between 150 and 170 inches long and 12 to 13 inches wide. Usually they are woven with numerous colors of silk thread. Often, as in this example, gold and silver threads add to the luxurious effect of these splendid textiles.
The wheels of the gosho-guruma also became decorative motifs, in and of themselves, called Genji-guruma. The Tale of Genji, considered the world's first great novel, was written by a Heian court woman. Genji-guruma are named after the story's protagonist, Prince Genji. This section of a maru obi has Genji-guruma wheels decorated with auspicious symbols woven in brilliant silks and metallic threads.
Chuburisode are medium-long sleeve kimono worn by young unmarried women and girls. The example seen here is draped over a kimono stand. This late-19th century chuburisode is also yuzen-dyed, like the furisode earlier. However, the muted, lyrical style of this kimono reflects the aesthetics of its earlier date. The design hints at the Noh play, Matsukaze. This play relates a story of the famous Heian nobleman and poet Ariwara-no-Yukihira (818-893). Exiled to remote Suma Bay, he falls in love with two poor sisters.
Detail 2, kimono, Chuburisode depicting 'Matsukaze' theme (1868/1912)The Baltimore Museum of Art
The sisters earned their sustenance as ama divers (divers for pearls or food). The tall triangular forms of fishing nets dry on the shore of the bay, where they plied their difficult trade. At night, to alleviate their poverty, the sisters carried briny sea water to boiling huts for making salt.
Salt huts covering earthen stoves with pots of simmering sea water are depicted in several places on the kimono. Two brown buckets glimpsed between two huts represent the sisters' endless labors.
Detail 5, kimono, Chuburisode depicting 'Matsukaze' theme (1868/1912)The Baltimore Museum of Art
In contrast, Yukihira's life before exile is suggested by a gosho-guruma at lower right of this detail and a Heian palace veranda shrouded in clouds. Clouds are often included in scenes referring to the Heian Court since courtiers were referred to as "Those Living Among the Clouds" (Kumo no Uebito).
Detail 1, kimono, Chuburisode depicting 'Matsukaze' theme (1868/1912)The Baltimore Museum of Art
This curtain, made of luxurious fabrics, is the type that served as a backdrop for concerts and dance performances at the Heian Court from which Yukihira was banished.
After three years Yukihira was pardoned. According to the play, as he left Suma, he promised the sisters that he would return for them.
Detail 3, kimono, Chuburisode depicting 'Matsukaze' theme (1868/1912)The Baltimore Museum of Art
The white sea water buckets near a salt hut symbolize the beloved sisters left behind in Suma. Soon after Yukihira's departure the sisters hear of his death. Devastated, they both die of broken hearts, but their love is so deep and enduring that their spirits are unable to pass from this world into the next. They narrate the play Matsukaze as ghosts.
Detail 4, kimono, Chuburisode depicting 'Matsukaze' theme (1868/1912)The Baltimore Museum of Art
In Matsukaze, the sisters' spirits reminisce about the wild geese that fly over Suma Bay, depicted on the kimono in embroidered gold threads.
In Japan, geese represent faithfulness because they predictably return in the fall. The sisters remain faithful in their love for Yukihira even after death.
Kimono, Chuburisode depicting 'Matsukaze' theme (1868/1912)The Baltimore Museum of Art
The young woman who wore this kimono with its tragic story was making a fashion statement extraordinarily different from that of her Western counterparts. She chose to project her knowledge of history and literature over any concept of "happily ever after."
In Japan, a woman can show that she is well educated in history, literature, and the arts by her choice of kimono and obi. These beautiful garments not only create stunning ensembles but also celebrate the beauty of a knowledgeable mind. Motifs from the Heian period are well suited to project a cultured image. Although the Heian Court has long since passed, this golden age of Japanese culture is still present hundreds of years after its fall on kimono and obi of the modern era that bear witness to its imperial splendor.
Produced by: Anita Jones, Curator of Textiles, Baltimore Museum of Art; and Ann Marie Moeller, Consulting Curator
Project and Content Management: Emily Reichert
Photography: Mitro Hood
Image Rights & Services: Zoe Gensheimer, Anna Fitzgerald, Meghan Gross
Project Support: Emily Brown, Amelia Eldridge, Helen Beckstrom, Louise Wheatley