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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

Outer robe with wisteria and stylized waves
Edo period (1615-1868)
Silk satin, silk, and couched gold thread embroidery, shaped resist–dyed

Garments like this one were worn as an unbelted outer layer, over robes secured with an obi sash. Several of the paintings in this catalogue show courtesans on parade in the Yoshiwara in outer robes of this type (cat. nos. 12 and 17). While sharing some of the characteristics of the robes depicted in floating-world pictures—an overall floral design, embroidered elements, and padded hem—this luxurious robe was more likely worn by a samurai bride on the occasion of her marriage.

Woven in a patterned damask weave, the fabric for this robe was taken to specialists who used shaped resist (shibori) dyeing to define key elements of the decorative pattern. After the dyeing process was completed, the design was augmented with silk embroidery and couched gold threads. Finally the garment was assembled by a skilled seamstress. According to Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, some twelve pounds of safflower petals (benihana) were required to dye the fabric, making it an exceptionally expensive garment. The fact that this fugitive, easily faded color is still so well preserved testifies to the fact that the robe was rarely worn—perhaps even just once—before being carefully stored away.[1]

Wedding robes are often patterned with symbols of longevity and love. Here trailing wisteria branches and stylized waves dance rhythmically across the fabric. Tied at the stems with silk cords, the flowers allude to the delivery of love letters, which were sometimes attached to blossoming branches.[2] That wisteria patterns appear on the robes of several courtesans in the Moronobu scroll in the Weber Collection suggests that the motif was popular in the pleasure quarter, possibly for its romantic connotations (see the samisen player in the detail on p. 97). The stylized waves on this robe may symbolize resilience, a quality equally important in love and marriage.

1. Trede with Meech, Arts of Japan, 208.
2. Ibid.

John C. Weber Collection

Image © John Bigelow Taylor.