Designing for the Empress
In 1911 the Empress of Japan, known today as Shōken Kōtaigō (1850-1914), donated one of her formal court gowns (taireifuku) to Daishōji Imperial Convent. Based on the tailoring, the garment has been dated to around 1889 or 1900, just about when the Japanese promulgated their first constitution. It is thus the oldest extant example of a Western-style gown belonging to the Meiji Empress.
Rose sprigs facing left and right have been woven into a flowing pattern to fashion the slim bodice and long train. Since documents attest that the Empress’s first Western taireifuku was fashioned in Berlin, we researched European textiles of the period for a comparable fabric, but so far have come up with none. Another consideration was that in 1887 the Empress stipulated the use of Japanese fabric to make the new Western-style clothing, so it is quite probable that this fabric, too, was produced in Japan.
Whichever the case, a close investigation of the design and how it was realized in the weaving process guides our understanding.
Here is a photo of the minimal pattern unit of the fabric.
It is made up of rose motifs of different sizes and colors. These are surrounded by by more roses rendered purely in off-white, the same color as the satin-weave ground and using the same warp and weft.
First, we will look just at the colored rose sprigs.
There are three types of large roses: red, yellow, and orange.
as well as four small roses
and and and
Each type of rose faces one way on the left side of the design, and the other way on the right. They are not, however, lined up on the horizontal axis, but rather displaced.
Above, the pattern repeat unit is enclosed in a blue frame.Each flower is shown in mirror view on the left and right of the blue vertical axis displaced by a half-unit height. Note that while the red and yellow roses face up, the orange ones face down. This creates a nice counterpunctal movement when the pattern is joined vertically to make the woven fabric and horizontally when sewing lengths of fabric next to each other.
Technically, a small repeat pattern across the fabric is the easiest to produce, requiring the least number of patterning rods, and therefore the cheapest. Splitting the fabric in the middle and having mirror-view left and right repeats is one step more ambitious (expensive). Displacing the mirror view repeat creates the largest pattern unit (across one width of fabric) is, naturally, the most expensive.
Each of the colored roses is rendered in discrete areas of color.
For instance, the red roses use three tones from pink to dark red combined with green-brown for the leaves. Further effects are created through varying the weaving texture.
At present the train is beging conserved, and this has exposed the patterning technique. All the color threads run from selvage to selvage but only one is seen on the face of the fabric in any given place. The others lie behind the warp threads. In the photo below the white, pink and red threads running horizontally are the weft threads, which are worked above and below the dense white warp threads.
Over the years wear and tear has broken some of the warp threads, leaving the weft threads that lie underneath the surface exposed. The other weft threads are held in place at the back of the fabric.
Depending on the light, the white self-patterned roses appear as rich adornment or fade to almost invisible.
Metallic embroidery –spiral and faceted purls, sequens, and Japan thread––was added along the edges of the train and to the bodice. This embroidery surrounds the colored flowers by following the contours of the white rose patterning. It differs in detail from rose to rose.
The same pattern area, plain (left) and embroidered (right).