Stenciled warps and wefts (meisen)

This kimono seems to draw a lot of its influence from Paul Klee, who often divided his work into quadrants with strong horizontal lines and bright pastel colors.

Infant’s light jacket(?)
Silk, silk padding

This garment references the legend of Momotaro, or Little Peach Boy, a child hero for all little boys to aspire to. Although traditionally identified by a banner featuring a peach, in this design Momotaro must be identified by his friends, the dog, the monkey and the pheasant. Even though this is only a print, the designer has put a lot of thought into the design, dressing the characters in samurai clothes (including a two-legged mortar), and marching them much the way samurai are depicted marching on screen paintings. Their faces are serious, as samurai faces would be.

In all this sobriety, the artist inserts humor in the form of an entire firefly on a human body. With none of the solemn dignity of his compatriots, he runs to catch up with the end of the parade, his huge eyes going in two directions at once.

The white oblong shapes are all ‘broken’ versions of the shippo, or seven treasures, design. Completed, there would be four, end to end, forming a circle.

Obi with Noh masks
Tapestry weave

In classical Japanese Noh drama, certain figures immediately evoke very particular emotions, the same way Romeo and Juliet evoke love and MacBeth evokes the lust for power in classical Shakespearean drama. This obi presents a collection of well known masks from different plays, so the reference is to all Noh, not to a particular Noh play.

Underarmor Vest
Koyori (paper thread), cotton
Macrame, katazome

Worn under armor, this hand knotted vest kept the wearer from direct contact with his armor and allowed for the circulation of air. The combined use of macrame and paper thread is uncommon in Japanese garments. The soft cottony paper is knotted in the auspicious shippo, or seven treasures, design.

The blue and white stenciled collar is also slightly atypical. The less paper that is cut from a stencil, the less time and labor are required to complete it. Such stencils will produce white designs on a predominantly blue background. For the stencil that made this design, by contrast, most of the paper was cut away, so the background is white, and the flowers are dyed blue. Because of the large amount of white ground, this material would have had to be resisted identically on both sides, or the designs would have lacked clarity and crispness. This doubles the labor process and raises the cost, so white grounds are less common than blue grounds.

Panel, probably from a boy’s kimono
Paste resist, dyes, pigments, hand painted

Compare the tortoises above, probably painted around the turn of the 20th century, to the two pages below, taken from a design book dated 1846.

Note that the two tortoises in the design book differ only very slightly from the two tortoises on the kimono. Little besides the position of the left tortoise’s head has been changed.

The 1846 design book hints at the water that the tortoises stand in, while on another page of the same book, the artist has drawn bold swirls of blue currents. The painter of the kimono seems to have combined the tortoises from one page and the swirls from the second design to create a single design for the kimono.

Silk, silk and cotton lining
Stenciled warps and wefts (meisen)

This design bears an uncanny resemblance to the Bauspiel Building Blocks designed by Bauhaus student Alma Buscher in 1923. A small number of Japanese students enrolled at the Bauhaus, including Michiko Yamawaki, who was enrolled in the weaving workshop and later taught Bauhaus methods in Japan. German art magazines of the period also had subscribers in Japan.

Barry Bergdoll, Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, gives a brief illuminating talk and demonstration of Buscher’s building blocks. To see the video, click here.

Yukata (informal summer kimono)

The seigaiha (literally blue ocean waves) pattern is very popular in Japanese design. Note the two shades of blue – from greater and lesser saturation of the dye – which provide great contrast with the white ground.

Katabira fragment
Asa, gilt paper-backed couched thread, silk thread
Stenciled, embroidered

This is a fragment of a katabira, or summer kosode, worn by a wealthy woman. Depicted are cherry blossoms – some in outline only, some in red (safflower?) silk, and others in suribitta, or stenciled kanoko shibori. In the middle is the character for bird in satin stitch. Calligraphy as part of kosode design was popular for much of the 18th century. This particular example, mixing the concept for bird with actual blossoms, shows sophistication and subtle humor on the part of the designer. The soft, loose embroidery with untwisted threads is typical of the period.

Tsumugi (waste silk) warps, paper wefts
Double faced weave

With the rise of militarism in Japan in the early 20th century, political themes, including soldiers, maps of Asia, flags, tanks, ships and planes became popular on clothing. One child’s kimono even featured a dog wearing a gas mask.

Supplying the military expansion meant that many commodities became scarce to civilians, and low quality goods circulated widely. Although this obi may well have paper wefts because more traditional materials were unavailable at the time, the material is nevertheless very soft and supple, and the graphic design is visually very appealing.

Skeins of thread

Dyed but unwoven kasuri thread.

Bundled together.

Skeins in the bundle.


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