Japanese art & design: colour
Colour is often used to convey messages in Japanese design. The wearing of certain colours, or the use of particular colours in the home, could indicate a person's beliefs.
Colour is often used to convey messages in Japanese design. The wearing of certain colours, or the use of particular colours in the home, could indicate a person's beliefs. The Buddhist philosophy emphasized that to reach enlightenment and escape from earthly desires one must lead a simple, frugal life. At various times the shogunate also issued dictates on which colours could be used by different social classes on particular occasions, in order to limit ostentatious display in everyday life and the home.
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Shibui (refined austerity) colours: Indigo blue
The indigo plant was used as a textile dye from the 9th century onwards. Indigo was often used to form resist-dyed decorative patterns on a plain white fabric. Indigo was traditionally used for everyday workwear, so is associated with 'honest' hard work, and represents reliability and dedication. As in the West, lighter shades of blue are also thought to be cool and restful. Blue is also associated with the sea.
Indigo-dyed ramie, with white cotton stitching (kogin)
Width 100 cm x height 129 cm
Museum no. FE.141-1983
This kimono was made and worn by a woman living in Tsugaru, a penisula in the very north of Honshû, the main island of Japan. It is woven with fine indigo-dyed ramie. The decorative panel on the upper part has been stitched in white with a diamond pattern, a technique known as kogin. If she was to make a good marriage it was essential that a Tsugaru woman master the skills of kogin, and training began at an early age. By her wedding day the bride was expected to have woven and embroidered a number of fine garments for herself and her future husband. These would be worn on special occasions.
Shibui (refined austerity) colours: Green
Green has always been associated with the natural world and rural life. Green also represents peace and tranquility of spirit. It is therefore an appropriate colour for an older person to wear. Green is also associated with evergreen plants and trees and so symbolises eternal life.
Satin silk, embroidered in silk and metallic thread
Width 124cm x height 189 cm
Museum no. FE.11-1983
The long 'swinging sleeves' (furisode) of this kimono indicate that it would have been worn by a young unmarried woman. The family crest, mon, across the shoulders suggest that she was probably a woman of the samurai class, the military aristocracy of Japan in the Edo period (1615-1868). The garment has a large padded hem and was designed as an outer kimono for winter wear. It would have been worn without an obi, the sash that secures the garment, so no part of the beautifully embroidered design would have been obscured. The pattern of floral roundels was a favourite among women of the samurai class.
Shibui (refined austerity) colours: Black
As in the West, black is associated with mystery, the night, the unknown, the supernatural, the invisible and death. However, as death is part of the cycle of life, it can be an everyday colour. On lacquer, black is usually a background colour used to set off other colours, and is considered refined. Black and white in combination is solemn and symbolizes intuition.
Width 135 cm x height 135 cm
Museum no. FE.147-2002
Given by Moe Co. Ltd.
In constrast to women's garments, kimono for men tend to be restrained in both colour and pattern. They can nevertheless be rather elegant, as in this example which is patterned with a subtle diamond motif woven in black silk and metallic threads. It has a matching kimono jacket known as a haori, the dark exterior of which hides a more extravagant lining hand-painted with a landscape scene.
Shibui (refined austerity) colours: White
White is the colour of the gods, and represents purity, sincerity and innocence. It also symbolises death.
Width 131 cm x height 171.5 cm
Museum no. FE.154-2002
Given by Moe Co. Ltd.
The traditional Japanese wedding ceremony takes place in a Shinto shrine and is attended by only close family members. The couple are purified, drink sake (rice wine) and the groom reads the words of committment before offerings are made to the gods. The bride wears a white under-kimono and heavy white outer-kimono known as a shiromuku, shiro meaning white and muku meaning pure. This outer-kimono has a design of a large noshi, an auspicious ornament traditionally tied to goodwill gifts, the ribbons of which cascade down the front and back of the garment. The bride's hair is also elaborately styled and she wears a hood called a tsuno kakushi. This is meant to hide her two tsuno, or horns, to symbolize obedience to her husband. After the ceremony the bride exchanges the white outer-kimono for a brightly coloured one and joins her family and friends for the reception. She may also change clothes a further time, today often into western-style wedding or party attire.
'Luxurious' colours: Red
Red, red/white, red/black: red represents life, the sun, blood and vitality, and is associated with worldly pleasure. When combined with white, which represents the spirituality of the gods, it illustrates the positive harnessing of the human spirit. Red and white is therefore a festive colour combination and is associated with happiness, optimism, strength and celebration. This combination is also found on the Japanese flag. Both red and red/white are often found on expensive silk kimono and would be worn by a young woman. Red dye for textiles was produced from safflower petals and was extremely costly and laborious to produce, which meant that it was an expensive luxury and showed the wearer was wealthy. The red/black combination represents a mixture of the human spirit and the mysterious and unknown. It symbolises passion, sexuality and the erotic.
Width 125 cm x height 144.5 cm
Museum no. FE.142-2002
Given by Moe Co. Ltd.
The dynamic kimono designs of the early 20th century are noted for their bright colours and bold designs. The red of this garment is dazzling, while the simple, yet effective, black pattern that dances up the surface creates a highly-charged rhythm.
'Luxurious' colours: Gold
Gold is a colour associated with power and with royalty and the spiritual world. On lacquer, gold is considered sumptuous and expensive.
Width 134.5 cm x height 173 cm
Museum no. FE.153-2002
Given by Moe Co. Ltd.
The traditional Japanese wedding ceremony takes place in a Shinto shrine. The bride wears a white under-kimono and heavy white outer-kimono known as a shiromuku. Before joining her family and friends for the reception, the bride exchanges the white outer-kimono for an elaborate and brightly-coloured one. This example is decorated with a design of cranes, symbols of longevity, flying over a landscape of gold, blue and green flowers on a bright red ground.
Kimono (detail), Japan
'Luxurious' colours: Multicolours
The use of multicolours is not considered vulgar in certain situations. They are viewed as lively and exciting when used at festivals, public celebrations and inaugurations. They symbolise novelty.
Monochrome figured satin silk or artificial silk, with printed decoration
Width 123 cm x height 142 cm
Museum no. FE.127-1988
This 20th century kimono would have been worn by a young woman. The design of open fans, flowers and a meandering stream is a traditional one, but the dense, lively pattern and brilliant colours would have made it a very modern garment.