Japanese Textiles / Discovering The Power of The Garment in Everyday Life

Japanese Textile History

The Textile arts have played a prominent part in the cultural history of Japan. The Kimono and Obi became Japan’s national dress during the 19th Century, and particularly after the opening of Japan during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). Traditional modes of life were vanishing quickly because the Japanese became infatuated with Western clothing and an unprecedented modernization of the country. Increasing prosperity among large segments of the population subsequently caused an upswing in Kimono fashion during the 1920s and into the 1930s. As with so many cultures during the time of change, traditional dress was regarded as ‘old fashioned’, and for men, particularly, was considered effeminate.

Japanese Textile History

The Imperial Capital, Kyoto, had been the center of silk weaving and dyeing, and where the Nishijin artisans brought artistic uniqueness to the woven and embroidered Kimono and Obi, (Brocade in particular), establishing its reputation as the garment of the Royal Court. As time continued to evolve, ordinary women continued to dress following Tradition, and Modernity was the choice of men. Additionally, women began to wear the hakamashita, (skirt), over their kimono and in combination with a Haori, (jacket), which developed from the pleated hakama, (trousers), men used to wear.

Japanese Textile History Kimono

As a contrast in rural Japan, most people were still clad in hand-spun cotton garments, mostly decorated using indigo dyes, and decorated with ikat and sashiko techniques and patterns. Shibori, (shaped, resist-dyeing), which took advantage of the fact that cloth wrinkles, folds offered an opportunity to produce resist designs in textiles by shaping them, securing cloth in various ways before dyeing, introducing a new textile/garment of wonderful design and patterns. And finally, it must be noted that the textile arts and the fiber artists in Japan and abroad continue to influence the textile design industry today. Yet in no other country or place has the creative potential of this basic principle of dying, weaving, embroidery, stitching, and applied patterns been understood and applied as it was in Japan.

Japanese Textile History

The Japanese Haori & Michiyuki | Kimono Jacket

A Haori and Michiyuki are overcoats worn over kimono. Though they are most commonly found as jacket length, there are also full or floor length versions. Their usage, colors, and motifs vary, depending on the wearer's age and gender. Women wear these lightweight garments, which are meant to hang open in the front, to better show off the kimono. There are different colors and motifs, used for the most common type called the Naga-haori which are the knee-length version, and the Michiyuki, (rain coat), which has a square neckline, no lapels, and is usually closed by fabric covered buttons. In the past, Haori were worn by men in battle as overcoats to protect against the cold. The Haori is a traditional Japanese hip-or-thigh-length kimono-style jacket, worn over a Kosode. The standard Haori, as well as the Kuro Mon-tsuki Haori, (commonly regarded as the most formal attire for men), is worn open or kept closed by a cord that connects the lapels. During the Sengoku period, (1467 to 1615), sleeveless Haori were worn over the armor. During the Edo period, economic growth allowed the middle class to afford the Jaori, (jacket with a loose fit), because of new laws against ostentatious display of wealth by all but the warrior caste; this in turn gave birth to discreet Haori designs with lavishly decorated lining. When a man entered a room and removed his Haori, he would turn it inside out to display his beliefs or what he valued.

Japanese Textile History of Kimono Jackets

The Fireman’s Coat

In addition to the garments for formal and casual wear, we find, during the Edo period, (1615–1868), what was referred to as the Fireman’s Reversible Coat (Hikeshi Banten), that each firefighter in a given brigade was outfitted. The socially-segregated brigades formed to combat these fires were made up of either Samurai (Buke Hikeshi) or commoners, (Machi Hikeshi), but whatever their class, their methods were the same: they would destroy the buildings surrounding the fire in an effort to contain it.

Many of these coats were plain, with the name of the brigade on the outside, and decorated with richly symbolic imagery on the inside. These were made by using a resist-dye using the Tsutsugaki method. These coats would be worn plain-side out and thoroughly soaked in water before the firefighters entered the scene of the blaze. To give them courage and to psychologically strengthen their spirit, many had mythological heroes and creatures represented on the inside side and hidden from the public at-large.

Japanese Textile History of Fireman's Coat

The Motif in Japanese Textile Designs
Their Relationship to Kokeshi

Textile motifs have long played an important role in Japanese society, with a rebirth in the 1960s-1970s, in which we see surface ornamentation becoming a vital influence on all artists and craftsmen. Diverse motifs, along with being used for garments, were used in the design of Japanese Sosaku Kokeshi, representing stories related to the changing seasons and auspicious animals.

Flora Motif

Although Japan's repertoire of symbolism is large and diverse, two categories of motif are frequently seen in Japanese arts, crafts, and textile designs. Flora, (plant life from the four seasons), as well as regional Fauna, (animal life), are depicted on carved, or painted, lathe-turned wooden dolls. Represented are Ume, (plum flower), which is one of the first blossoms to open during the year, and has always been closely associated with the coming of spring, are a symbol of refinement and purity, along with a reminder of former lovers. The Sakura, (cherry), blossoms heralding the arrival of Haru (Spring), has been revered by the Japanese, and closely associated with its philosophy of ‘Mono No Aware’. The flower’s brief blooming time and the fragility of the blossom has always been linked to an association with the transience of life, and an appreciation for fleeting beauty. Samā, (Summer), appears in the form of Ayame, (Iris), Komugi, (Wheat), and Take, (Bamboo). Aki, (Autumn), led to adorning Kokeshi with depictions of Momiji, (maple leaves in red, orange, and yellow colors), and Kiku, (Chrysanthemum).

Japanese Textile History Flora Motif

Fauna Motif

We see Fauna, (auspicious animals), on Kimono, Yukata, and Juban, such as the Tora, (Tiger), who protects against evil spirits, wind, disease, and bad luck. Tsuru, (Crane), is most commonly used to represent longevity and good fortune. Appropriately, they are found during the Japanese New Year and during wedding ceremonies in textile prints. We find Kisetsu no tori, (seasonal birds), Tonbo, (Dragon Fly), symbols of courage, strength, and happiness, and appearing in art and literature, especially Japanese haiku. Also, Doragon, (Dragon) representing balance, freedom, and good luck. It also is known to have supernatural powers and wisdom. Additionally seen is the Kohitsuji, (Ram), representing goodness, gentleness and being part of 'the herd’, which in Japanese society, being a team player is critically important for success and advancement. Usagi, (Rabbit), is a symbol of cleverness and self-devotion, and appears in myths and folk tales throughout Japan. The Koi, (Carp), which succeeded in swimming upstream and climbing the waterfalls at a point called Dragon Gate on the Yellow River. Once there, would transform into a Dragon. Based on this legend, it became a symbol of aspiration and perseverance. And finally, Oni, (Devil), in a type of demonic creature often of giant size, great strength, and fearful appearance in Japanese folk lore. The devil is considered to be foreign in origin, and and introduced into Japan along with Buddhism, which is concerned with the soul and the afterlife. Oni are said to be cruel, malicious, and the worst fate that can befall a sinner, who can, nevertheless, be converted to Buddhism. 

Japanese Textile History Fauna Motif

Reading next

Japanese Kokeshi History