Dressed by Nature at the Minneapolis Institute of Art: Not the usual Japanese textile exhibit

(Last Updated On: August 13, 2022)

Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) features traditional textiles from Japan made from natural materials. That includes clothing made from a variety of plant fibers, paper, fish skins, and more – but no silk kimonos! There’s even a section with clothing made for firefighters.

Photo of clothing once used by Japanese firefighters on display in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

But hurry if you want to see it, as this special exhibit closes September 11, 2022.

An unusual collection of Japanese textiles

This special Japanese textile exhibit is a large one. It sprawls over more than half-dozen galleries and includes over 100 textiles dating from about 1750 to 1930. Items on display come from the far north of Asia (including Siberia and other parts of Russia), central Japan, and Okinawa in the far south. It also includes thematic displays on clothing for firefighters, travel, festivals, work, and more.

Robes for cold climates

Dressed by Nature begins in the far north of Asia, on the islands that run from Japan to Russian and into Siberia. Two different indigenous ethnic groups come from this area: The Nivkh people in the far north and the Ainu to the south.

Nivkh clothing

Nivkh people are native to Siberia and northern Sakhalin Island – areas that are part of Russia today. Traditionally, they were semi-nomadic fishermen and hunters.

The section on the Nivkh is one of the smaller exhibits in Dressed by Nature. However, it includes a couple of fabulous pieces. One favorite is an intricately appliqued and embroidered fish skin festival coat.

Photo of a 19th century pieced and appliqued Nivkh fish-skin coat on display in Dressed by Nature: Japanese Textiles at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

A 19th century pieced and appliqued Nivkh fish-skin coat from Russia.

This coat would have been worn by a woman attending a festival or other special occasion. It was made by piecing together carefully prepared fish skins and would have been worn over other layers to repel wind and water.

Read more about fish skin coats at Cleaned and repaired, fish skin coats from Siberia reveal indigenous knowledge.

Ainu clothing

Most of the exhibit on northern clothing traditions focuses on the textiles of the Ainu people, an indigenous people from immediately south of the Nivkh in the Russian Far East and down into Japan’s northernmost islands. The clothing displayed in this part of the exhibit was all made to be worn for special occasions and ceremonies.

Photo of a woman looking at an Ainu coat on display in Dressed by Nature: Japanese Textiles at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

The star of the exhibit is an unusual 18th century robe thought to have belonged to be a sea captain. Here it’s being examined by one of many visitors at the exhibit who dressed in their own finery for the occasion.

Robes for travel

A small selection of coats designed for traveling are also included in Dressed by Nature. These include a couple of capes and shawls, as well as a beautiful travel coat made of arrowroot and cotton and lined and trimmed in silk, and a paper rain jacket.

Photo of 19th and early 20th century Japanese travel coats on display in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

A selection of 19th and early 20th century Japanese textiles designed to protect travelers and their clothing from dirt and rain.

Yes, you read that correctly. The dark coat (a jacket, really) is made of paper!

Photo of a paper raincoat on display in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

A late 19th or early 20th century Japanese raincoat made from mulberry paper.

Mia explains that paper raincoats were made of thick sheets of mulberry paper that were treated to make them strong, flexible, and (I assume) water resistant. These sheets were then glued together, dyed, and rubbed to give them a bit of shine and softness before being sewn into a coat or jacket like this.

Raincoats of this type were popular in Japan. They worked well enough, were lightweight, and cheap enough to simply discard when they got worn and dirty.

This one has an inscription on the front (impossible to see in my photo) that is thought to advertise a business. Like modern workers who wear jackets with the name of their employer emblazed on them, this one was probably worn by the owner or an employee of this business while traveling.

Robes for firefighters

One of the coolest parts of Mia’s Dressed by Nature textile show is the gallery where some traditional firefighter gear and ceremonial jackets are displayed.

Photo of a room with clothing once used by Japanese firefighters on display in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

Mia devotes a large gallery to the traditional clothing once worn by Japanese firefighters.

With a flickering life-size enlargement of a Japanese city in flames (reproduced from a print), there’s plenty of drama on hand. And don’t those fire fighters look like characters out of a superhero movie!?

19th – early 20th century firefighters’ clothing made from layered and quilted cotton.

In a way, Japanese firefights were superheroes.

Clothing for festivals, work, and more

The middle of the exhibit covers a number of things, some which don’t really seem to fit into one neat category. These included a selection of garments for festivals (although many of the garments throughout the entire show would only have been worn for festivals and other special occasions), indigo-dyed items (a lot of indigo items), work garments, and a few other items that demonstrate a variety of techniques for weaving, dying, or embellishing textiles.

A few of my favorites are included here.

A splendid shibori (tie-dyed) festival robe

Shibori is Japanese tie-dying, but it’s nothing like the tie-dying American hippies did in the 1970s. Proof of that can be seen in this incredible festival kimono featuring a carp.

Photo of part of a shibori- dyed Japanese kimono with a carp on display in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

The pattern on a late 19th-early 20th century kimono from Akita prefecture was created using a variety of tie-dying (shibori) techniques.

Although the exhibit sort of explains how this was done, I still can’t imagine anyone actually creating this with tie-dying!

Double ikat weaving

I’ve long been aware of double ikat weaving. (I even went searching for weavers working with this technique while in Bali.) However, until this exhibit, I never really understood exactly how it was done. Now I do. And it is kind of mind-blowing.

It’s too complicated to explain here, but, at its most basic, it goes like this: Instead of dying the woven fabric to create a pattern, double ikat patterns are created by dying patterns in the fibers that will be used to form both the length and width of the fabric so they create a specific design when woven together. (In a single ikat, only the fibers used in one direction – warp or weft, but not both – are dyed to form a pattern.) This technique is very difficult, but the resulting patterns can be very complicated, as in this child’s kimono.

Photo of a Japanese child’s kimono woven using the double ikat technique on display in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

Late 19th century child’s double ikat woven kimono.

Indigo textiles

Mia’s Dressed by Nature exhibit includes a huge section on the use of indigo dye in Japanese textiles. That includes the double ikat child’s kimono above, where the fiber was tied to form patterns and dyed with indigo before being woven. But there are lots of other examples of indigo textiles, many of which are very different from each other.

Photo of Japanese textiles dyed with indigo on display in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

A selection of Japanese textiles dyed with indigo.

Traditional Japanese work clothes

Natural indigo dyes are more than a way to decorate textiles. The dye itself changes the property of the fabric, making it stronger and at least slightly resistant to fire. (The protective clothing worn by firefighters was dyed with indigo to help strengthen and fireproof it.) It also has antibacterial, odor-prevention, and insect-repellent properties. These features made it ideal for work clothing. Like American blue jeans, Japanese work clothing wasn’t dyed blue to make them pretty, but because indigo dye made them last longer.

Dressed by Nature includes a variety of everyday items and work clothes dyed with indigo.

Photo of indigo textiles, including an early 20th century boy’s uniform for swordsman practice and a late 19th - early 20th century Japanese farmer’s winter coat, on display in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

A mix of indigo items, including a boy’s uniform, a bed cover, and a farmer’s coat.

Much of the work clothes on display has a lot of simple embroidery. Like the indigo dye, this embroidery was as much functional as beautiful: Embroidery strengthens the material. It can also be used to create padding that makes the garment more comfortable when hauling loads.

Embroidered indigo clothing for ordinary workers and laborers.

A few items where natural materials look really natural

Although the theme of the exhibit is Dressed by Nature with a focus on the use of natural, often hand-harvested materials in traditional clothing from Japan, in many cases the use of natural materials wouldn’t be obvious to the casual observer. But there are a few exceptions.

One of these exceptions is a rain cape made from rice straw, bark, cotton, and indigo dye. It would have been made by a man for his wife or fiancée to wear to a festival.

Photo of a late 19th - early 20th century festival rain cape from Aomori Prefecture in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

Would you guess this rain cape is from Japan?

Textiles from Okinawa

The last sections of Dressed by Nature feature textiles from Okinawa. And, while not traditional silk kimonos, these are more like what most of us probably think of as Japanese textiles.

Today the Okinawa Prefecture includes over 160 islands in the very south of Japan. But most of those islands were part of the independent Ryūkyū Kingdom until it was annexed by Japan in 1879. The finest of Okinawa’s textiles were created for the Ryūkyū aristocracy. However, they were also very popular with the Tokugawa shogunate in Tokyo!

This is a hot, humid area, and Okinawa’s textiles reflect those conditions. Traditionally, they are woven from ramie, nettle, and a type of banana fiber to create lightweight, breathable fabrics. The finest of these were considered as luxurious as silk, but much more comfortable in the heat of summer. Hence the demand for them as summer clothing in Tokyo.

Photo of textiles from Okinawa (Ryūkyū) on display in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

A selection of Okinawan textiles where the beauty is in the weaving

While these light-weight textiles were in high demand for their comfort, Okinawa as also famous for an intricate dying process that created elaborate patterns bursting with color.

Photo of 19th - early 20th century printed Japanese textiles from Okinawa on display in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

Dyed textiles from Okinawa were famous for their intricate designs and bold colors.

Called bingata, the dying technique used in Ryūkyū involved using stencils to control color placement. These stencils were used to create patterns with multiple colorful layers. The most complicated patterns had up to 18 layers.

Detail of birds and flowers from a mid-19th century robe decorated using the bingata stencil technique from Ryūkyū (Okinawa) on display in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

Close-up of the bingata pattern on the fourth of the five robes pictured in the lower row above.

In 2017 the Textile Museum in Washington DC held a large exhibit of Okinawan robes decorated using the bingata printing technique. They even had some of the stencils used to create these patterns. You can see some of those robes in my story on Bingata! Only in Okinawa.

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These Japanese textiles are now part of Mia’s collection

All of the textiles on display in Dressed by Nature are now part of Mia’s collection. And many are new to Mia, having been acquired in 2019 from California Asian art collector Thomas Murray. Those recently acquired textiles include 25 Ainu robes (14 of which are in this exhibit), giving Mia the largest collection of these robes outside of Japan.

I hope we will have many more opportunities to see these and other items from this wonderful collection.

Visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art

The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) is located in south Minneapolis. It is Minnesota’s largest art museum and one of the larger ones in the entire USA. The collection spans thousands of years from pre-history to the present and includes artifacts, craft, fine art, architecture, religious items, and more. It includes items from the US and around the world, with a particularly strong Asian collection.

Over the past few years Mia has been updating galleries and exhibits in some very interesting ways. If you haven’t visited in awhile, it’s time to return.

See Dressed by Nature

Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan is on exhibit through September 11, 2020.

Photo of a late19th – early 20th century embroidereddAinu robe on display in Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) in Minnesota © Cindy Carlsson - ExplorationVacation.net

Embroidered cotton Ainu robe.

Mia is open Tuesday through Sunday.

While the museum itself is free, some special exhibits, including Dressed by Nature have a fee. The fee for this show is $20, with a discount for members. Donors and youth are free. Timed tickets are available online or at the museum.

Start with this exhibit, because it is large. There’s one path through it, although you can always walk back to see items in previous rooms. I don’t think there are any restrooms in the exhibit area.

Parking is available for a fee in Mia’s parking garage. Limited street parking is available around the museum. You can download a map with directions and parking information for the neighborhood on Mia’s website.

The museum is also accessible by bus. Route 11 runs right past the museum, but other buses also stop in the area.

Photo of a Japanese robe with text “Dressed by Nature – Minneapolis Institute of Art” detail photo of a kimono with dragons and text "Bingata! Only in Okinawa the Textile Museum - Washington DC"

 

2 thoughts on “Dressed by Nature at the Minneapolis Institute of Art: Not the usual Japanese textile exhibit”

  1. You reminded me how wonderful this exhibit is. It’s well worth a visit. As an aside, THANKS for noting transportation to Mia beyond just the car…plenty of arty (and functional) bike racks outside too!

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