"Karaori" (Noh costume), Lozenge, paulownia, chrysanthemum, and cherry tree design on red and white checkered ground


"Karaori" (Noh costume), Lozenge, paulownia, chrysanthemum, and cherry tree design on red and white checkered ground

Textiles / Azuchi/Momoyama

Azuchi-Momoyama period, 16th century


This karaori garment was used as a costume in Noh, a traditional Japanese performing art. Karaori are outer garments worn mainly by actors performing female roles, but the term originally referred to a type of fabric. The silk threads of the patterned sections are fluffed up and thus appear embroidered, though in fact they are woven. Karaori are characterized by richly-varied designs and woven textures that feel like embroidery.

This karaori was handed down by the Konparu family, the founders of one of the oldest Noh schools. The Konparu family prospered under the patronage of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the samurai warlord who unified Japan at the end of the 16th century, with this karaori also produced during the 16th century. Karaori costumes from this era are characterized by designs of flowers and trees on bright red, white or yellow grounds. This karaori also features various woven designs on a red and white checkered ground. The red ground is decorated with zig-zags and the paulownia and chrysanthemum crests of Hideyoshi's clan, while the white ground features drooping cherry blossoms. Noh costumes that feature vermillion colors are known as “with red.” They are worn by actors playing the roles of young women. Checkered designs were also used when portraying people of high social standing.

A closer inspection reveals several different pieces of cloth sewn onto the right sleeve, while the left sleeve has been supplemented by a piece of cloth taken from the front area, perhaps to extend its width. Costumes had narrow sleeves in the 16th and 17th centuries, though wider sleeves became more popular from the 18th century, so perhaps this karaori was refashioned to meet these changing tastes. This reveals how traditions and social formalities were carefully passed down through the ages.

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