Patterns of Long Ago: Reflections of China in Japanese Nō Costume

By Lauren LaDeau

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston allows anyone to step inside and discover cultures from across the world through art.  Among the many international exhibits is an exquisite presentation of fashion art titled Patterns of Long Ago: Reflections of China in Japanese Nō Costume.  On display until May 31 is this collection of eighteenth- to twentieth-century robes used in Nō Japanese classical drama.

Nō theater was created in the fourteenth century by a man named Kannami and his son Zeami, who were both well-known playwrights and actors.  Once their Nō plays began to catch the attention of aristocrats and members of the military dictator Shogun family, the costumes evolved from everyday clothing to elaborately styled robes.  This change occurred because the wealthy viewers would give some of their garments as rewards to the actors.

Nō (also sometimes spelled Noh) theatre combines dance, music, movement, and chant, with all characters played by male actors.  Nō theater is not considered dramatic but is seen as beautiful, with slow and stylized movements. The stories told through these plays are usually focused around historical and legendary figures, gods, spirits, or ghosts, drawing inspiration from the period between 795 and 1336. Works of Heian and Kamakura literature provide the main influences in these stories. Few stage props are used during the plays, allowing for the garments to draw attention and serve as the main focus of the story.

The robes are a vital part of the productions and are decorated with Chinese symbols and themes, as well as Japanese native motifs. The costumes evoke the court garments of Japan’s Nara and Heian periods.  Not only are these elaborate robes used as costume, but they are also considered moving scenery.  Additionally, the colors of the robe can represent the rank, status, or emotion of the character. 

In the exhibit Patterns of Long Ago: Reflections of China in Japanese Nō Costume, each robe is uniquely decorated.  The heavy patterned silks and karaori, a Chinese weave, bear symbols of clouds, Chinese flowers, lightning bolts, and fish scales, as well as dragons and cranes.  These symbols may represent the scenery or the character of the person wearing the robe.  For instance, an actor wearing a robe ornately decorated with dragons could be portraying a dragon or dragon god. 

Other patterns on these robes are even more emblematic.  One of the robes features a Seven Jewels motif.  The seven jewels, which are gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystals, pearls, diamonds, and coral, are taken from Buddhist text.  Another ornamentation taken from Buddhism for robe decoration is the Buddhist Wheel-of-the-Law.  The robe with the Buddhist Wheel-of-the-Law is worn in the Nō play titled Shakkyo (Stone Bridge) by actors portraying a powerful male role.

All of the garments presented in this exhibit are from a Boston collector named William Sturgis Bigelow.  During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Bigelow traveled to Japan, each time collecting new textiles and garments.  Every garment in this exhibit was donated by him to the Museum of Fine Arts.

Emily Banis, an adjunct professor at Lasell College and current curatorial research associate at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, feels that textiles are an important aspect of the study of Japanese culture.  “Visitors to this exhibit have the opportunity to see not only the artistry and craftsmanship involved in making these robes but also the elaborate use of materials, for example, silk and gold embroidery,” says Banis. 

Anyone can appreciate the artistry of these robes and learn something from the clothing of Japanese culture.  However, fashion students may benefit especially from this exhibit.  Banis believes that “fashion students who come to see this exhibition will hopefully walk away with a better understanding of Noh Theater and also the cross-cultural language of textiles.”

The garments on display at the Museum of Fine Arts offer a glimpse not only into Japanese culture but into Chinese culture as well.  Banis recognizes the uniqueness in the pieces on display.  She explains, “What makes this show unique is the combination of Japanese wheels, cranes, tortoise shell patterning, and Chinese dragon imagery.” 

The costumes on display at the Museum of Fine Arts offer a window into both Chinese and Japanese culture and are worth exploring. Pieces such as the Nō costumes can speak volumes about traditions, cultures, art, and fashion.

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