Textiles provide an interesting and revealing vantage point to look at any society. This is particularly the case with Japanese textiles. Beginning in the early modern era when Japan increased its urbanization, textiles became a badge of social status. Because of their closeness to the human body in clothes and other uses, textiles show by their motif, color and garment shape much about Japan and its culture. In addition, they send messages as to an individuals age, rank, gender, social, political and religious affiliation. In Japan they also often denoted an individuals occupation, special function and association with special groups.
This is the case throughout Japanese history but is perhaps even more apt during the Edo period when economic, commercial and social conditions created levels of change that made textiles and clothing an even more important form of social identification. Many of the criteria and some of the forms and designs of the eighteenth and nineteenth century can still be seen to this day. For example, a preference for natural materials, a preference for traditional decorating techniques and as if a subtle defiance to the dwindling interest in wearing the kimono – the enduring status of the yukata. Textiles continue to this day to demonstrate their commercial uses of demonstrating a shops main activities. This can be seen in the present usage of noren (doorway curtain) and advertising banners.
Many observers believe Tsujigahana textiles are the zenith of the Japanese textile arts. These textiles which were produced between the fourteenth and the early seventeenth century for clothes, banners and other items are examples of the height of creativity and beauty. In one sense Tsujigahana textile can be seen as a reflection of Japanese historical changes. Many of the best pieces of tsujigahana reflect the decorative extravagance of the later Edo period. This comminglinging of very different artistic sensibilities produced many miracles of artistic and technical brilliance that have not yet been equaled.
Textiles reached a high degree of cultural distinction and artistic appreciation in the Edo and succeeding Meiji periods (1868 – 1912). The social and commercial importance of their role in turn instilled vigor and a greater range of artistic expression. With ties to religion, peasant life and in part as a reaction to a growingly complex urban culture, Japans’ textile traditions evolved from commoner textile traditions that had been utilized for centuries. Away from the palace workshops, weavers, dyers and neeedleworkers added to local traditions by adapting foreign techniques, revitalizing patterns by absorbing exotic motifs and creating innovative design.
During the Edo and Meiji periods, elite classes commissioned complicated and diverse fabrics in rich silk brocades and filmy gauze weaves. The lower classes, working within the strictly regulated feudal guidelines for clothing material, patterns and colors were not stagnant during this period. They often created new forms with bold images that were intricate in their subtle nuances. Dyeing emerged as an art form in its own right during this period. Although the use of vibrant colors was often prescribed by the Shogun or economically cost prohibitive, the use of brighter colors increased during this period
Through the centuries, Japanese textiles have often followed two diverse genuses – the textiles produced for and worn by commoners and those of the higher social classes. Although it might at first be thought that the one could never rival the other, in artistic form and creativity, both branches of the textile art are deeply moving embellishments of the country's folk culture.