In an age of peace, the samurai’s martial skills were rarely required and samurai armour was no longer an implement of war but was instead worn during processions, or displayed at auspicious times of the year.
This example of samurai armour was created during the Genroku era (1688–1704), often regarded as a ‘golden age’ in Japanese history, with a hundred years of peace having fostering an unprecedented fluorescence in the arts. The ingenious integration of lacquered iron, chain mail, silk lining and cords, provided light weight and flexible protection while the stencilled doe skin, gilded copper and wood, animal hair and embossed iron breast plate are all beautifully crafted to portray the aesthetic sensibility of the first owner. The suit embodies the samurai’s life pursuits: to cultivate martial prowess and an aesthetic sensibility.
The embossed breastplate of the suit was created in 1699 by Myōchin Munesuke, a twenty-fourth-generation metal craftsman and premier armour and sword expert who lived in Edo (Tokyo). The refinement of the suit contrasts with the wrathful depiction of Fudō Myōō, the Buddhist deity most often associated with samurai, and the frightful sculpture of a demon or shigami on the helmet, which was intended to strike fear in the opposition and endow the wearer with protection.
The term katabira refers to an unlined garment created from light fabric and worn as an outer layer over other robes during the summer months. The sheer white ground of Summer robe was made from the baste fibres of a nettle or hemp plant and allowed the wearer respite from the heat and the humidity of summer. It displays motifs reserved for female attendants in the households of prominent daimyo and the shogun.
Summer robe was created in the late eighteenth century for a high-ranking woman in a samurai family and evokes the most prized aesthetic ideals of the military aristocracy – a subtle balance between extravagance and restraint. It is elegantly decorated with a profusion of floral motifs, created using naturally dyed and gold-wrapped silk, embroidery and paste resist and stencil techniques.
In the 17th and 18th century in Japan what garments, tools and weaponry indicated who you were in society? What judgements or assumptions do we make about people’s attire today?
Make a list of the different types of professions that require a uniform. Why do you think uniforms are important, including your school uniform?
If you were to design a samurai suit for the 21st century, what might it look like? What materials should it be made from? What new additions might the suit require?
What types of traditional dress do you associate with different countries around the world? For example in Japan you might think of the kimono or the sari in India. Design a traditional dress for Australia.
Look closely at the Samurai armour. Considering all the things you now know about Japanese battles how protective or functional would this suit be? How might the samurai move in it? Select an area of the suit and describe its functionality? What protective attire do we wear today? What are these garments made from?
Samurai were often identified by their crest which was sometimes inspired by nature. Design and create a personal crest inspired by your personal characteristics. Does your school have a crest or logo? What do the icons on this design represent?
Floral motifs have been stencilled onto the Summer robe. Research a variety of Australian summer flowers or plants. Collect a variety of images of your favourite ones. Practice sketching these and reducing them to simple, yet recognisable, shapes. Draw your floral shape in the centre of a piece of thick paper or thin card and cut out the shape to create your stencil. Paint your stencil onto a long strip of fabric. Repeat your stencil using different colours to create an interesting design. Hang the fabric strips in your classroom.