Japanese Aesthetics, The World of Colors

How Japanese traditionally combine colors? And why this know-how started in Middle Age

Let’s quickly start by comparing the fashion and importance of color schemes in France and Japan, in cc. 1,000 AD.

In France, we don’t really know (no document). Certainly was is very simple. As records, we still the statues of women wearing an overgarment called bliaut, on certain cathedrals, but it’s older (cc 12th century). And as far as we know, the notion of fashion really started after (13th century), after the crusages, which enabled to discover oriental fabrics.

At the same time, in Japan, it is the golden age of imperial era (Heian). Garments were strictly codified, depending on the rank in society, age, seasons, … For the nobles and the imperial family, it is known (thanks to a book called “the Tale of Genji”), rich, complex, sophisticated. Silk is dominant. An illustration is junihitoe, a feminine garment made of layers like the one below.

Litterally, Junihitoe means 12 layers.

The colors of those layers were chosen according to a pre-determined scheme. Knowing that there was a list of schemes, per season and/or occasion, mostly inspired by plants and flowers.

The outfit of a person in the court was of utmost importance, indeed an evaluation and judgement criteria (indeed, it’s still true nowadays, especially in England). The choice and harmony of colors, on more than 12 pieces, demands talent and know-how. Know-how, because, during Middle Age, the technical capabilities were really not like today (regularity of threads, weaves, dyes, ….). Talent to be differently elegant, within a determined theme. We also need to figure out that certain fabrics were sheer (for instance in summer), and then, that’s the result of the superposed colors that was evaluated.  That it could integrate patterns or drawings, embroided or stencil printed. That the luster of the material was also important (ex. matt green fabric for leaves, and colored satin to represent fruits). That accessories had to be assorted as well. Etc. This artisanal and artistic value is hardly accessible nowadays.

Let’s take now a concrete example to illustrate all this, with a scheme of that period that I would translate as “the flavours of red plum tree” (prunus mume).

Inside, there 2 concepts: flavours and prunus.

In the Japanese word, there is the logogram: 匂, which means smell, but also taste. Anyway, it imposes a progressive gradation of tone between light and dark.

As since it is a matter of personal interpretation, here is one of mine:

So that you see what it could be, now, in the 21st century.

To finish, let’s go back to the image on the top of this article. That’s the Daigo-ji, one of Kyoto’s temples. Its colors are totally different from what we are used to see here. And that is also a way to learn how to see and use other color palettes, and  appreciate their less usual harmonies.

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