Dressing up the fabric of time in Kobe

by Hana Sakuma

Special To The Japan Times

A dazzling show of 100 detailed replicas of historical women’s garments, “Kimono: From the Kofun to the Edo Period” at the Kobe Fashion Museum takes us back in time in two ways.

The first way is obvious. The time span of the costumes on display, from Kofun (250-538) to Edo (1603-1867), offers a rare opportunity to see very early styles of Japanese dress and its development over time. These outfits are displayed on mannequins, making the exhibition a theatrical and dream-like trip through Japan’s history.

Some pieces are based on designs from before the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) and before the kimono was even invented, such as a Kofun Period replica that consists of an upper robe with a charming leaf pattern, an ankle-length pleated skirt and a mantle, which the wearer would use to gesture with as a means of silent self-expression. This shows the strong influence of other areas of Southeast Asia on Japanese culture, and is quite different to the kimono.

Much can be learned from the exhibits. The Nara Period court dress, which has a similar silhouette to the Kofun piece but with the exotic flair of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906), for example, displays distinct ancient patterns and color palette, which were diligently copied from textile remnants from Shoso-in, the treasure house of Todaiji Temple in Nara. The original textiles were created using different methods, including kōkechi, carved woodblock-and-clamp resist dyeing, a technique thought to have originated in India. Other equally fascinating examples of Japan’s fine craft traditions, such as shibori (tie-dyeing), yūzen (paste-resist method of dyeing), Chinese karaori weaving and tsujigahana-style shibori dyeing should attract the attention of anyone interested in the history of Japanese textiles or fashion.

The second aspect of time travel in this exhibition is a little closer to home and explains how these incredible replicas came about. They were created during the Showa Era (1926-1989) and were based on detailed historical research by skilled Kyoto artisans and specialists known for their interest in traditional crafts, who included artists such as painter and printmaker Kanpo Yoshikawa (1894-1979).

The exhibits were originally used for the Senshoku Matsuri, a Kyoto textile festival that was held to promote local dyeing and weaving businesses. When Kyoto’s textile industry was at its peak, the Senshoku Matsuri, the first of which was in 1931, was considered one of the most important Kyoto festivals. From 1932, it included a parade of spectacular historical costumes. However, in 1937, when a mood of self-restraint took hold after the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the parade was discontinued. The whole festival eventually saw its last celebration in 1951.

The reproductions on display are therefore more than 80 years old, making them a part of Japanese textile history in their own right. A part that vividly illustrates the social awareness and significance of the genealogy of Japanese traditional textiles and customs at that time — something that has sadly waned in the industry today.

“Kimono: From the Kofun to the Edo Period” at the Kobe Fashion Museum runs until Jan. 12; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Wed. (except Dec. 23), Dec. 24, Dec. 29-Jan. 3. ¥500. www.fashionmuseum.or.jp