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Picture of the Month



A plate from "Costumes civils actuels de tous les peuples connus, dessinés d'apres nature..."
by Sylvain Maréchal, 2nd edition, 3rd volume, no date.

The whole makeup of the book suggests that it is from the 18th century, probably the last quarter. There are coloured plates depicting the costumes of various nations, as the title (Current civil costumes of all the known nations, painted after nature) promises. But is the promise kept?

The above picture depicts, according to the caption, a man from Japan.

This Picture Of The Month is a lesson in healthy mistrust even of contemporary sources. If the painter/engraver lived in the region the costume of which he professes to depict, fine: He should know the subject firsthand. But who, in the 18th century, had the opportunity of travelling around the world? Even if we set aside the financial difficulties and the time required to visit each country the costume of which is allegedly depicted in this book (which in the 18th century must have taken decades), very few aliens ever got access to Japan proper from 1603 until 1868 since all non-Japanese ships where required to dock on an artificial island, Degashima, off Nagasaki. So whoever professed to depict the costume of Japan in the 18th century must have gone by verbal descriptions. Among the select few who were allowed off Degashima and into Japan were Lafcadio Hearn and Philipp Franz von Siebold, but I guess that they had other things than costume on their minds.

Let's look at the picture, then. We see a barefoot man in a shapeless, knee-length yellow garment with long, narrow sleeves, belted around the waist, a trailing blue "cloak", a green skull cap with a rolled hem and a red ball on top of a short hairdo, and a walking stick.

Let's compare Maréchal's pictures to the above ones*, which were painted by Maruyama Ôkyo (1733-1795) at around the same time. Except for the one samurai in evidence (2nd from left, dressed in green kamishimo), the commoners are indeed dressed in knee-length garments despite the season (they are busy preparing for the New Year festival). However, they are not barefoot but are all wearing the customary straw sandals. Sleeves are very wide as they always were throughout history, and where they appear short and less wide, that's due to their being gathered up with paper or fabric loops around the shoulders (see white diagonal strip on left figure in the third pic). Cloaks or other trailing pieces of fabric are nowhere to be seen, and indeed anyone who wore a knee-length kimono rather than a full length one did so purely for practical reasons and would not have hampered himself with a cloak. Even the apparently short kimono would probably go all the way to the ankle if they weren't gathered up for comfort. I've never heard of walking sticks or seen any depicted although I have a degree in Japanese Studies under my belt.

A skull cap as depicted by Maréchal is not in sight. I think that caps of a roughly similar shape were worn in China at some point, but if Japanese men of the late 18th century wore anything on their heads at all, it was a lot more elaborate than that, resticted to the higher ranks of society and sat on long hair. If I remember correctly, yellow as a garment colour had the same meaning as it did in China, where it was the Imperial Colour, viz., reserved for use by the Imperial Family.

So, obviously Maréchal's engravings were not painted "after nature", whatever he claims, but he probably used vague travel diaries as a source. The lesson from that is that costume books cannot be trusted unless we know for a fact that the painter/engraver has himself been to the country in question.

*) taken from The Shogun Age Exhibition Executive Committee (ed.). Shogun. Nagoya, 1984. (exhibition catalogue)


Pictures of the month archive

If you want to find older Pictures of the Month, you may use one of the above links to jump to a previous edition, and from there to yet older ones etc.

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