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Noh Robe with Design of Butterflies, Pampas Grass, and Clouds

Noh Robe with Design of Butterflies, Pampas Grass, and Clouds

Noh robe with design of butterflies, pam­pas grass, and clouds, 1800–1868. Japan. Edo period (1615–1868). Asian Art Museum, 2003.10.

Noh Robe (detail)

Noh robe (detail; 2003.10).

Noh Robe with Design of Butterflies, Pampas Grass, and Clouds
Noh Robe (detail)

What type of garment is this? When would it have been worn?
This silk robe was part of the costume worn by a male actor during the performance of a Noh drama. Noh plays have been performed in Japan since the fourteenth century. The plots, often drawn from classic literary sources like The Tale of Genji and The Tales of the Heike, emphasize Buddhist themes and often focus on the emotions of a main character tormented by love, anger, or grief. Performances take place on a simple, even austere stage. They typically feature a single principal character, sometimes accompanied by two secondary players.

Slow moving and stately, the Noh performance combines music, dance, and acting with stylized, precisely choreographed movements used to symbolically convey the character’s emotions. Costumes like this one helped to express in a visual way the spirit and essence of the play, when worn by the main actor together with a painted wooden mask.

What are the main features of the robe’s decoration? What do the decorative motifs found here mean?
Called karaori, or “Chinese weave,” the fabric of this robe was made using an imported technique of weaving metallic threads into heavy silk. This luxurious technique was used primarily for the costumes of female characters (all the parts in Noh are traditionally played by men). The background pattern consists of large, alternating blocks of two colors, created by dyeing the warp threads (lengthwise threads on a loom) in bands of blue and red, then matching the weft threads (crosswise threads that weave up and over the warp threards) to each color. While weaving, glittering gold thread was worked into the ground to create a repeated pattern of clouds. Floating on the surface in colored silk thread are colorful butterflies of various sizes, flitting among tall pampas grasses.

The decoration of this robe suggests that it may have been made for the role of the butterfly in the Noh drama by the same name. In the play, the butterfly, which has taken the form of a beautiful woman, meets a traveling priest in Kyoto. She expresses regret to the priest that though many flowers welcome her advances, the plum blossoms of early spring have so far eluded her. The butterfly motif also has other literary connotations, of which samurai viewers might well have been aware. It alludes to a famous chapter from The Tale of Genji, titled “Butterflies,” and to the swallowtail butterfly as the medieval crest of the Taira clan, whose battles with the Minamoto are described in The Tales of the Heike. In general, butterflies were associated with magic and immortality, but could also be considered spirits of the dead.

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