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Friday, March 5, 2021

Fashioning Identity Through Kimono Patterns

Our current exhibition, Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design, is the first show devoted to examining the kimono as a major source of inspiration and experimentation in Japanese print culture, from the Edo period (1603-1868) to the Meiji period (1868-1912). Print artists during these periods documented ever-evolving trends in fashion, popularized certain styles of dress, and even designed kimono. The show explores how different artists creatively engaged with the changing idea of the kimono and fashion throughout the history of Japanese woodblock prints. 

With kimono (lit. “thing to wear”), the pattern, through both decoration and color, can indicate one’s social status, personal identity, and cultural sensitivity. This is particularly helpful when identifying figures, such as kabuki actors and courtesans, in woodblock prints, whose depicted faces, before the 1760s, were typically generic. 

For example, in the print below (Fig. 1), created by Torii Kiyonobu (1664-1729), the figure wears a robe featuring a crest, consisting of a large, black circle surrounded by smaller ones, which identifies him as Sawamura Kodenji, who was a star onnagata, a male actor of female roles. Here, Kodenji is shown as the female character, Tsuyu no Mae, from the play, Kantō Koroku’s Up-to-Date Figure (Kantō Koroku imayō Sugata), who goes mad and performs a “lunatic dance” (kyōran), with a bamboo stalk in front of the Tadasu Shrine.

Fig.1. Torii Kiyonobu (Japanese, 1664-1729), Actor Sawamura Kodenji I
as Tsuyu no Mae
, Japan, 1698, woodblock print with hand-applied color (tan-e).
53.2 × 30.9 cm (20 15/16 × 12 3/16 in.). John Chandler Bancroft Collection: 1901.59

Some actors also are identifiable by the particular designs and patterns that they promoted as their signature motifs, with the help of their close affiliations with textile retailers. For instance, in 1741, Sanogawa Ichimatsu I (1722-62) wore a robe with a checked pattern for his performance in the play, The Young Leaves of Ink Stained Cherry Blossoms (Sumizone futaba zakura). The pattern became known as Ichimatsu moyō (Fig. 2). As kabuki actors were also popular fashion icons, the craze of the Ichimatsu moyō quickly extended from Ichimatsu’s circle of loyal fans to the wider fashion-conscious townspeople in Edo (Fig. 3).

Fig. 2. Okumura Mansanobu (Japanese, 1686-1764), Segawa Kikunojo I as a
 High-Ranking Courtesan Attended by Sanogawa Ichimatsu I as a Young Male Attendant
Holding a Processional Umbrella and a Girl Attendant Holding a Portable Tray of Hot Coals,
Japan, about 1748–1749, color woodblock print in red and green (benizuri-e).
45.3 x 31.1 cm (17 13/16 x 12 1/4 in.). John Chandler Bancroft Collection: 1901.73 

Fig. 3. Ikeda Eisen (Japanese, 1790-1848),
A Woman Returning from a Public Bathhouse,
about 1835, wooblock print. 65.6 x 21.9 cm (25 13/16 x 8 5/8 in.).
John Chandler Bancroft Collection: 1901.256

As mentioned above, courtesans also could be identified in prints through their kimono. These types of prints usually functioned as advertisements for the houses that the women were affiliated with as well as for the kimono designers. Courtesans on parade were a popular subject in ukiyo-e. They commonly depict these women in resplendent finery, often accompanied by their child attendants in matching kimono, on route to meet a client of for special occasions as is the case here. 

The top-ranking courtesan shown below (Fig. 4) is Yoyoyama of the Matsubaya, or “Pine-Needle House”. Her sash (obi) features a repeat pattern consisting of an elaborately framed phoenix, while the back of her kimono bears a large depiction of white bamboo, which looks striking against the black background. What is interesting about the latter is that it is meant to represent a brush painting. It was common to commission artists to paint directly on lavish kimono, further augmenting their value. The artist also included their seals; in the case of this print, its artist, Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1867), ingeniously incorporated his. 

Fig. 4. Kikugawa Eizan (Japanese, 1787-1867), The Courtesan Yoyoyama of
 Matsubaya with Her Two Kamuro Standing Under Cherry Blossom Branches,
 Japan, about 1830,woodblock print, ink and color on paper.
38.4 x 25.9 cm (15 1/8 x 10 3/16 in.).
John Chandler Bancroft Collection: 1901.59.2650 

There are, of course, instances in which patterns on kimono have more general, symbolic meanings, and are not tied to a person’s individual identity. The print below (Fig. 5) features a female figure, belonging to a genre within ukiyo-e prints known as bijin, or “beautiful people”, which is a reference to “beautiful women”. She wears a furisode (lit. “swinging sleeves”), a long-sleeve kimono, with a striking pattern comprising of peaches—representing immortality—set against a black ground on the sleeves and along the bottom. The robe of the young female attendant is decorated with a complementary youthful design of stylized plovers, a type of bird, paired with the motif of evergreen pine, a symbol of longevity.

Fig. 5. Torii Kiyomasu (Japanese, fl. 1690s – 1720s),
Courtesan Holding a Finger Puppet and Teasing her Attendant, Japan, about 1715,
 woodblock print (tan-e); ink on paper, with hand-applied color.
57 x 15 cm (26 3/8 x 5 7/8 in.). John Chandler Bancroft Collection: 1901.60 

—By Rachel Parikh, Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art
March 5, 2021

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