Silk, metallic paper-backed thread

The muted background color of this late 20th century obi is in direct contrast to the bright colors of the embroidery thread. The three characters are almost certainly Prince Genji and two of his paramours, taken from the 11th century novel, The Tale of Genji. Said to be the world’s first novel, The Tale recounts stories of imperial intrigue. The figures on the obi are dressed in Heian imperial finery. The calligraphy on the obi most likely repeats a famous line from the The Tale.

The wide formal obi is the perfect canvas for the the noblewoman’s flowing junihitoe (literally twelve layered garment).

According to the literature of the Heian period, there were fashionable and unfashionable ways to wear junihitoe. Some of the characters named in Genji were much admired for their great taste in layering subtle shades of color, while others were ridiculed for their lack of fashion sense.

Heian robes were severely restricted in acceptable variations, so much emphasis was placed on sleeves (sleeve close-up above). In the Heian period, women held audiences behind scrolling blinds (sudare) that hid their faces. This gave rise to poems praising women’s sleeves, since the sleeves were the most vividly visible portion of the lady during these audiences. Tagasode (whose sleeves) is an expression that even modern Japanese are familiar with.

In the photograph above, the square behind the noblewoman is a shikishi, and the long pale rectangle that starts beneath her and trails behind her is a tanzaku, both papers for writing poems on. To the right is one of the scrolling blinds. The shikishi is decorated with are purple mists in the shape they often appeared in in Heian period paintings.

During the Heian period, the convention for the depiction of women’s faces was “slits for eyes, hooks for noses”, meaning that both were only hinted at by the lightest touch of the brush. More attention went to the eyebrows, which Heian ladies shaved off, and then painted on, high on their temples. The noblewomen in this obi both have irises, and a somewhat delineated nose, in keeping with modern conventions. Below is a panel from a 12th century painted scroll of The Tale of Genji, in which the conventions of the period, as well as the all-encompassing robes, can be seen.

(Double click on the third, fourth and sixth photos for greater detail.)

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