Katabira (woman’s summer kosode)
Ramie, silk (lining)
Chayazome, couched gilt thread, embroidery, stenciling

The katabira was a very labor-intensive garment affordable only to the wealthiest members of Japanese society. As explained in When Art Became Fashion: Kosode in Edo Period Japan*, “Although the exact process is lost today, [chayazome] generally consisted of the extensive application of a starch-paste resist on both sides of a fabric, leaving only fine lines an small areas of design to receive the blue color upon submersion into a vat of indigo dye.”

While in this katabira the decorations are limited to the hem and the bottom of the sleeves, it is clear that the costliest materials and decorative techniques were used.

The embroidery on this swallow is so detailed that a close-up reveals not only attention to the accuracy of the feathers, but the portrayal of a tiny curled foot with a few pale pink stitches.

Below, understated luxury is concentrated in a very small space. While some leaves are realistically embroidered in green, the silk thread of the purple leaves is most likely dyed in honmurasaki, a much prized purple dye derived from the gromwell root. The reddish leaves are embroidered in similarly prized safflower. Finally, water spray is depicted by perfect spirals of couched gilt thread. This thread has a silk thread core, and is wrapped in finely cut gilt paper. It is said that the lines of some chayazome were so fine that the paste resist had to be applied with toothpicks. The central veins of the indigo leaves might have been applied this way.

The five crests on this katabira indicate that it was intended for very formal occasions. The collar is unfinished, leaving the selvedge visible, so it is possible this robe was never worn. The pink hue at the collar and sleeve openings are from safflower-dyed silk linings. It was felt that a touch of pink in these places added a sensuous touch to the garment and its wearer.

* Gluckman, Dale Carolyn, and Sharon Sadako Takeda, eds. When Art Became Fashion: Kosode in Edo-Period Japan. New York: Weatherhill, 1992; p. 333)