Visible Cultural Heritages: Traditional Costumes of Romania and Japan.

This exhibition introduces the subject of traditional costumes in the context of two very different cultures, Romanian and Japanese, and focuses on the complexity of textile materials and related technologies pertaining to each culture.

Seeing the costumes side by side of two countries geographically distant from each other, exposing the differences between the two clothing cultures, we wonder what distinctive evolution produced these characteristics in each country.  

Europe’s fascination with the unknown territory they called the Orient started in very early centuries. Explorers, merchants, and missionaries traveled far to discover the East and to seek trade contacts. Japan’s first encounter with Europe was in 1542, when shipwrecked Portuguese sailors brought in their culture unexpectedly. After this, Japan traded with Portugal, England, Spain, and the Netherlands until the early 17th century, when the Japanese Shogunate, in fear of being colonized by the Europeans, locked the country down, forced foreigners out of Japan, and limited trade to Chinese and Dutch merchants. This isolation lasted for over 200 years, until 1853, when American warships led by Commodore Matthew Perry sailed to Japan and threatened to attack if the Shogun did not open Japan to trade with the West.

By contrast, the Romanian culture developed in a territory positioned between the Orient and the Occident. For economic and political reasons, for centuries, traders and invaders crossed Romanian territory, leaving their mark on the culture. People living in remote areas, however, developed a textile home production based on available natural resources, including wool, hemp, linen, and stinging nettle.

In typology, the Romanian costume is aligned with that of the territory surrounding Romania, while the particularities of the costume defined it as Romanian with main characteristics by region, age, and occasions. The Japanese costume, on the other hand, developed on an island, with some early influences from its neighboring countries although hundreds of kilometers away, with textile fibers limited to its natural resources—ramie, hemp, and coarser fibers like wisteria, straw, and alder tree. Silk is still the predominant fiber used in Japanese costume. Sericulture originated in China and traveled across the Asian continent through Korea reaching Japan in the 5th century. Costumes developed particularities by season, marital status, age and occasion.  

The categories of social class in both countries were traditionally structured almost similarly, except for the samurai class in Japan, but there were major differences in the way these social classes related to each other, and thus in their impact on the code of dress.

In Romania, the ruler and the aristocracy, as well as the wealthier people of the country differentiated themselves from other social classes by wearing luxurious materials produced in specialized centers outside the country, such as expensive silk fabric from Venetian or Bursan workshops.

Craftsmen were a specialized group who made costume items and accessories such as these made of metal and leather. The largest population—free peasants, wore costumes made entirely in the home textile industry, from fiber production to the final products. Rarely producing costumes for other social classes, they assured the best costume production for their family. Holiday costumes particularly were done with great care.

In Japan during the Edo period (1603- 1868)—a feudal society under the Tokugawa shogunate—to promote social stability, the population was divided into four rigid occupational orders that were hereditary: shi-no-ko-sho. And today, even though for almost 3,000 years the Emperor and Imperial Court have been rulers without power, and political affairs have been governed by the administration, as in most cultures, the heritage remains.

The top governing class was the samurai or military, bound tightly by rules, respected but not wealthy. Many worked on the farm in peacetime. The majority of Japanese society, farmers, fishermen, and outdoor workers, were in the second rank. Sometimes they were drafted as low ranking solders when war broke out. They paid tax in the form of their harvested rice or grains. The third rank, craftsmen—productive highly-skilled specialists—were responsible for textile production. Merchants, lowest in rank, were the wealthiest. In this divided society, people made clothing symbolic of their rank and type of work. Everyone raised silkworms. Women commonly did the weaving at home. Farmers made working wear out of straw.

This exhibition is co-curated by Florica Zaharia and guest curator, Midori Sato. The objects belong to the Muzeul Textilelor, Băița, and to the collections of Midori Sato, and Kristine Kamiya in New York.