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Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men's fashion - British Museum

Exhibition preview

THE British Museum’s new temporary exhibition, Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion, is on display in Room 3 until August 17, 2014.

This Asahi Shimbun Display features a selection of five delightfully detailed netsuke and other traditional Japanese male accessories from the British Museum’s collection.

During the early 1700s, Edo (present-day Tokyo) was one of the largest cities in the world and its merchant population grew increasingly wealthy. In the social hierarchy of Edo-period Japan (1615-1868), however, merchants occupied the lowest class; below samurai warriors, farmers and craftsmen.

Restricted by government laws regulating their clothing, allowing them only to wear dark silk or cotton with simple patterns, merchants instead displayed their wealth and taste through the latest fashion accessories. Netsuke (pronounced net-ske) were well suited to this purpose, as they were functional objects as well as fashion statements.

These intricately carved toggles were used to hang personal objects (sagemono) from a sash (obi) tied around a kimono, very useful as these traditional robes had no pockets. They could be concealed beneath the folds of a man’s kimono thus allowing the wearer to subtly express their personality and prosperity. In this way, men participated in fashionable Edo life with both flair and discretion.

Traditionally, one of the most widely used materials to make netsuke is wood and there is an intricate example of this form of craftmanship in the exhibition. The ‘lion-head goldfish’ or ‘ranchu’ was carved by Masano l of Yamada in Ise Province (present-day Mie prefecture) in boxwood. Masano l was the founder of a regional group of netsuke carvers who created animal subjects from this material.

This netsuke was carved in the 1800s, at a time when keeping goldfish as pets became popular and affordable, where people in Edo could buy them from street pedlars or win them at festivals.

Another netsuke in this display is a finely engraved turtle made of silver. Netsuke made from metals demonstrate the growing popularity of the fashion in Edo Japan. As demand grew, metalworkers who did not specialise in the art were able to supplement their income by crafting netsuke like this one.

The turtle is known in Japan as an emblem of happiness and longevity. The minute detailing of the turtles’ legs and head stand out in strong relief to the scalloped edges that make up the shell. So this netsuke is both a fine work of art and a symbolic emblem, all in one small form.

Although netsuke became outmoded around the start of the twentieth century as Japanese men adopted the Western suit, the kimono has recently come back into favour among fashionable men in Japan.

Netsuke have previously been viewed as individual art objects, and while the best examples are indeed miniature masterworks, they were in fact functional items that were part of an ensemble of male fashion accessories that would be chosen for wear depending on the mood, the season and the specific event that the owner was attending.

The Asahi Shimbun Dispay seeks to show netsuke in context as part of a male outfit, allowing for a deeper appreciation for the medium and also for the sartorial tastes of Edo-period men about town.

A male kimono is shown kitted out with facsimile accessories while five original nesuke, four sagemono and a sword are displayed nearby. Netsuke when seen in context reveal the sophistication of the wearer and his sense of style and even occasionally his sense of humour.

An accompanying book by Noriko Tsuchiya, Netsuke: 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan (pictured), is available to buy, priced £14.99.

The book brings together one hundred of the most beautiful and interesting netsuke from the extensive collection of the British Museum, each of which has its own special charm and story to tell. Uncovering the stories behind these netsuke and coupling them with stunning new photography, this book reveals why these tiny objects have captivated so many, the meaning they have held for those who wore them, and what they can tell us about Japanese everyday life.

There are also a number of accompanying talks.

Admission: Free.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG