During the 19th century, in response to extreme cold weather, peasants in the Tohuku region of northeast Japan developed a unique insulation system for garments and blankets, by reusing readily available materials. They mended, patched, and repaired the same piece as many times as needed for use and reuse by successive generations of the same household. The literal meaning of the word used to describe these textiles, boro, is worn-out cloth, or worthless item, but today the term defines a genre of historical Japanese patchwork garments. These textiles are early examples of sustainability in fashion because of their innovative approach to recycling, and at the same time intrinsically embody the fundamental principles of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic that centers on the imperfection of objects.
I am glad I was able to see the outstanding Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics at the Japan Society before New York’s galleries and museums closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Organized by curators Yukie Kamiya and Tiffany Lambert, the exhibition presents a variety of vintage garments and accessories that explore the legacy of boro as a traditional handcraft used in contemporary practice, evident in pieces by Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto. Undoubtedly the highlight of the exhibition is a selection of traditional Japanese textiles dating from 1800 to the 1950s, from the collection of folklorist and ethnographer Chazaburo Tanaka. A visionary collector, Tanaka appreciated these unique folk art pieces which were traditionally a source of shame for the peasants who made them.
A red, white, and blue donja, (1910–1950s) or night robe, made of hemp and cotton is the first object visible when entering the exhibition. It visually resembles a padded kimono, but actually functions as a duvet or sleeping blanket for an entire family, typically covering a father and mother who would sleep with their children in one communal bed. Its great density — at a weight of 35 pounds — makes the donja able to shut out the cold and wind. The stitching is rudimentary and the insulation is made up of hemp and textile leftovers, yarns, leaves, and straw. According to Kamiya, “This is a kind of creation for and from survival. They have to pile and pile and patch and patch to make it thicker and that’s the result we can see.”
Hemp used to be the main material employed by farmers and fishermen in northern Japan since cotton was not cultivated in the region, and silk was only available to the privileged class. Most of the vintage textiles in the exhibition are dyed with indigo — which has a pungent smell that protected outdoor workers from mosquitos and other insects. The varying tones of red featured in the exhibited donja were extracted from the expensive and precious benibana flower (safflower) which was found in the north of Japan, though inaccessible to most farmers. If indigo is added to this dye, it is possible to achieve almost any color.
The inspiration for the installation design by the Brooklyn-based architecture firm SO-IL stems from the idea of showcasing wearable garments linked to ideas of sustainability and recycling. They focused on the presence of the body by giving volume, temperature, and soul to the textiles using lamps. Mirrors placed underneath the garments and accessories reveal different views that otherwise could not be seen. The architects also brilliantly recycled a variety of pedestals, vitrines, and acrylic cases created for past exhibitions at the Japan Society, which would likely have been thrown away.
The impact of boro is apparent in the Japanese avant-garde but it is also shown to influence the current generation of artists who experiment with materials, dyeing techniques, and the aesthetic of wabi-sabi which is focused on recognizing and highlighting the beauty in imperfection, impermanence, and the incomplete. New York-based artist Susan Cianciolo stitches and layers existing garments, drawings, textiles, and three-dimensional objects into intuitive tapestries, often working with others, including her daughter. One of her tapestries on view is “Collaboration Textile with Lilac, Donna and Pascale” (1968–2020) in which the patchwork cotton was done by Lilac Sky Cianciolo, the knitted alpaca by Susan Cianciolo, the 1960s quilt by Donna DiPetrillo, and the vintage Guatemalan textile patchwork by Pascale Gatzen. The other contemporary artist in the show is Los Angeles-based Christina Kim who explores rituals and memory through a creative process that reveals the history of an object. For the last fifteen years, together with a network of collaborators, including her students, Kim has reworked, repaired, and mended her ongoing project “Kaya (Mosquito Net)” (2005–2020) which is on view. Both artists also take from boro the utility of collaboration as well as in their respective eco-conscious design fashion and house wear brands RUN, by Cianciolo, and Dosa, by Kim, through which they foster sustainable manufacturing practices.
The materials, process, and ideas around sustainability and recycling developed through Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics connect not only the past to the present but also the domestic to the global, addressing several reversals: Originally, reuse and recycling was done because of the lack of material and was a source of shame for peasants. Nowadays, it’s a source of shame not to reuse and recycle considering that the fashion sector is one of the major sources of industrial pollution in the world. ( Ex: It takes 2,000 gallons of water to make and dye your favorite pair of jeans.) This exhibition doesn’t just tell us about a design practice from the past, it also links them to ideas for a sustainable future.
“Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics” is scheduled to continue through June 14 at Japan Society (333 E 47th St, Midtown East, Manhattan). Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition is temporarily closed but will be extended. Please check the website www.japansociety.org for updates. The exhibition was curated by Yukie Kamiya with Tiffany Lambert and was organized by Japan Society (New Yorkk) in collaboration with Amuse Museum (Tokyo).
Editor’s note: Please note that the Japan Society is currently closed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Cognizant of the fact that discussions around art and culture remain important during this time, we encourage readers to practice social distancing and self-isolation in an effort to mitigate against the outbreak, which may include opting to explore the exhibition virtually via these resources.
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