Friday, 6 February 2009

The Kimono: Cultural Identity

"For it has well been said that the most wonderful aesthetic products of Japan are not its ivories, nor its bronzes, nor its porcelains, nor its swords, nor any of its marvels in metal or lacquer - but its women" (Lafcadio Hearn)

This essay is going to introduce the photo-textual realities of the silk kimono as a Japanese cultural statement of identity. Various examples of Japanese wood-block prints and photographs will provide the visual imagery needed to inform the reader. There will also an overview of the history of how Japanese clothing evolved through the centuries. The impact of the tactile medium of the graphic designs on the different types of material and the sensuous feel of silk on skin when used as a fabric for kimonos will be also discussed. Today in the twenty-first century, as in the past centuries, the appearance of the clothed human body is judged on what message we chose to express. The human body is purely the frame on which the graphic work-of-art of the clothing is displayed to provide the fashion narrative of communication in this new-techno-age. In this information society, the transference of the embedding binary codes for your website is the norm for the technocrat. Therefore, the coded message of the choice of clothing will depend on how one would wish to interpreted by the viewer. One intriguing example would be the 'geisha' who walks with grace and dignity wrapped up in kimonos of silk is indeed the "icon of Japanese traditional culture" (Van Riel :82).

Geisha: Visual Art-Form This geisha is a visual snapshot of the past on how the high-class courtesan of the ShImabara's brothel district used to dress as a woman available for anything of a sexual nature if the fee was high enough. The neck and the face are painted in the china-doll porcelain-like mask of chalk with blood-red lips of promise with red rogue partly drawn around the Oriental eyes. Only a geisha can wear this period wig and elaborate hair ornaments whose body is draped within these kimonos of silk/brocade with the obi tied in the front. These vintage kimonos are worth several hundred thousand dollars and therefore were worn by courtesans mirroring the eroticism of the Japanese wood-block prints of centuries past. (Van Riel :92). The kimono of a geisha is usually very plain with traditional Japanese pattern themes and the obi is usually minimalist with a small strip of tapestry. Hairstyles are usually represented as a simple bun on the nape of the neck (Geisha (Geiko).

Tayuu: High Class Courtesantext pending (there is the need to research this subject and I have found an ideal book in my personal library)

Lady: Imperial Court

It was the accepted custom, during the Heian period (794 - 1185) for the ladies of the Japanese imperial court to wear this multi-layered kimono combination. These luxurious costumes of silk were referred to as 'juni-hitoe' which translates into "the twelve-layer dress". This mode of dressing comprises of an outer kimono of silk with a pleated apron concealing the feet which were considered to be a sexual fetish object.
The under-kimonos of silk could be as many as twenty garments. The total shape of the female human body had disappeared within the voluminous layers of the sensuality of silk. Entire households would be judged, by the way these ladies arranged their kimono layers of silk with over two hundred different combinations of colour to select from to create the right narrative of refinement. The everyday lifestyle of these ladies consisted of sitting on the cold floors of the imperial court. By the 10th century, the accepted concept of the ideal beauty would depend on the complexity of the needlework and the dyeing of the silk fabric of the kimonos. This traditional shape of the kimono has remained unchanged to the present day because one cannot improve on the perfection of this two-dimensional design (Koren :44-46).

Overview: Japanese History of Clothing

The need to cover the human body dates back to the beginning of time, and for the Japanese, this was grounded in the magical concept of protection. This ancient tradition is still relevant today in the way most Japanese are dressed to attract the good energy and repel the bad (Koren :10). The Neolithic Japanese of both genders used to wear two items of clothing made from vegetable/wood fibers to cover the upper and lower parts of the human body. A cord or a sash was tied at the waist of the upper item of clothing right up to 300 B.C. (Koren :44). This clothing evolved into the early examples of the kimono-like garment among the farming, fishing and the lower-class samurai communities (Koren: 54). A basic colouring agent was derived from the indigo plant to produce a blue dye with dark undertones for the kimonos and the pants. The materials had to be re-dyed many times until the cloth has achieved the right degree of colour (Koren :57). This dye fades very quickly as a result of washing the cloth and the garments had to be continually re-dyed to maintain the dark bluish shade. (Koren :66). The colour of these garments was used as an identity signifier of their role in society over 325 years ago in Japan (Koren :57). The plant indigo was considered to a insect-repellent by the farmers and also useful for keeping snakes at bay (Koren :66).

The wives adapted to the harsh conditions by developing an individualized form of folk textiles as well as various methods of patching and re-stitching any garment that was torn or shabby (Koren :66). Therefore, the art of decoration was achieved to enhance otherwise plain cloth through the processes of either ikat weaving, stencil dyeing and tie-dyeing (Koren :54). Quilting was necessary, because of the cold climate and today these garments are admired for the coarseness of their textures and originality of their patterns. The materials for these garments consisted of the fibers of hemp and bast which was replaced with the more refined nature of cotton (Koren :54). The city merchants were able to afford to buy silk patterned fabric but were only permitted to wear kimonos sourced from cotton stenciled with very bold patterns (Koren :77). However, the fashion statements for the Japanese imperial court were imported, directly from the T'ang Court, China in the sixth century and consisted of silk shirts, trousers, robes and underskirts. This habit of importing silk textiles, clothing-making techniques and designs from China, Korea, India and Southeast Asia would continue throughout the centuries(Koren :45).

Visual Culture: New-Techno-Age

The first impressions are very important If you wish to engage in the networking game in this communication and information society of the twenty-first century. Otherwise if the code of the clothing is misread, you will be bypassed for others, who are sending the right visual messages of engagement (Koren :12). To be a Japanese, man or woman is to play the role of the character, aIIotted to you on 'life's stage' and thus belong with the right type of clothes applicable to the script. In Japan for centuries, the art of imitating the conceptual realities of how other people dress has been considered to be the norm. Therefore, this cultural mind-set of recycling the other's taste of fashion has always been practiced in this country (Koren :17-18). The most extreme form of mirroring the others' appearance is having the epicanthic folds removed from the eyelids. This type of Westernized cosmetic surgery for Japanese girls/women was a by-product of American advertisements showing tall blond, blue-eyed and long-legged tanned models after World War 2 (Paul :80). To be able to wear Western-style clothing you would first have to transform the face to mirror the ideal reflection of American beauty (Koren :19).

Westernized Concept: Kimono

In the 1980s there was a revival of this traditional concept of material shaping the body with the kimono within the Western-inspired fashions of Japanese designers. The textual reality of the material was paramount and the garments were draped on the human female body in more than ample degree of cloth. Therefore the garment, became the focus of attention, instead of the Western obsession with the shape of the body. One had to to learn to move with grace and allure instead of revealing too much as is the case with most Western clothing (Koren :22). Futurologists believed that the new Japanese fashion concept in the last century did cater for the individual through the addition of the layered style of dressing. The hidden body just wanting to be discovered within the volumes of material. This art-form of the narrative is not apparent until the wearer slips into this new environment of identity recycled within the textures, patterns, colours and shapes of fabric (Koren :28-29).

Empowerment: Fabric Design

In the twentieth century, computers started to play an important role in the invention of textual design of the cloth so ensuring that one-of-kind length of material can be produced (Koren :76). Some Japanese fashion designers also asked for assistance from various textile producers who can produce three-dimensional surface-based fabric instead of the usual textual designed material which is flat and rigid. The ability of a textile producer to be able to combine and re-invent the very nature of the fabric is truly inspiring. This outcome from a combined black and white palette of 140 threads of fibers which ensures the living soul of the material will be heard and experienced by the wearer. There is also the tendency to try to copy the apparent hand-made cloth from the past with all the imperfections as a reminder of what this tactile sensation of touch was like before the age of machinery-based fabrics (Koren :72).
Tradition: Silk-Making

To find the sense of the past, you must first leave Tokyo and go in search of the workshops of the traditional centuries-old techniques of hand-spinning, dyeing and weaving the silk worthy of the kimono. Cocoons of dead silkworms are hanging from the rafters of the wooden beams of these workshops based on this ancient craft of silk production. There is just an overview in three examples of Japanese wood-block prints about the craft of extracting the silk from the cocoon husks.

Plate: 1 The first print shows two women picking mulberry leaves and a third balancing two baskets of these leaves. One would assume that either the leaves are the food of the silkworms or the cocoons of silkworms attached to the leaves as I am unable to read the Japanese script in the text bubble (The Art Institute of Chicago :78-79).

Plate 2: The second print shows a woman boiling the empty cocoon husks of the silkworms and the long creamy silky threads being wound up onto some kind of wooden spindle (The Art Institute of Chicago : 83).
The Kimono: Cultural Identity
copyright © Marjorie Savill Linthwaite 2009
All rights reserved.

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The concept of the online 'The Kimono: Cultural Identity' is a revised/improved format of the paper-based medium 'Kimono' copyright © Marjorie Savill Linthwaite 2008 All rights reserved. Poetics and Culture subject 2008.
Work in Progress
Links: The Indigo Page / Japanese Folk Textiles / Old Photos of Japan

/ Innocence to Deviance: The Fetishisation of Japanese Women in Western Fiction, 1890s - 1990s