This essay, penned for the long weekend, is part of an exploration of the idea of “infits”, which is what one wears when staying in rather than going out. An infit is the opposite of an outfit. 

COVID-19 has inspired some surprising home innovations­; one that has captured the popular imagination is the use of underwear as a face mask. You might think only a pandemic would lead to recycling undergarments, but in fact, as with so many other things, there is a historical precedent, examples of which can be found in HoMA’s collection.

When we display paintings from East Asia, we generally focus on the painting itself, and pay little attention to the mounting. But, even a cursory glance shows differences between the way in which paintings were framed in the West, and mounted as scrolls in the East. The mounts themselves are often of significant interest. Japanese mounts are not the same as Chinese or Korean ones, and if a Chinese or Korean painting has a mount with an inner border of decorative fabric—known as naka-mawashi—rather than the typical uniform monochromatic (if sometimes of superb quality) mounting, this indicates that it was at some point collected (and remounted) in Japan.

The naka-mawashi was intended to provide a sumptuous setting for treasured paintings, and the fabrics used were special. Such fabrics were not easy to come by, though, and exceptionally expensive. So, they were sometimes recycled. Buddhist temples, for example, required numerous brocade altar cloths, banners, and other textiles, and once these textiles were worn beyond use, the fragments could be repurposed as naka-mawashi for religious paintings (there are still stores in Kyoto today where such fabrics can be found for hanging scroll mountings).

Looking at Kaigetsudō Ando’s Courtesan, one might imagine that the streets of Edo were colorful indeed, filled with people strolling around in layers of stunning silks as they went about their daily business. This was not the case. The shogunal government had to deal with unprecedented social shifts that caused (from an official perspective) troublesome redistribution of wealth. Merchants, traditionally on the bottom of the social ladder, benefitted from an increasingly monetized economy, relative stability and trade opportunities to amass fortunes, sometimes larger than those of officials (who found themselves forced to borrow from those same merchants to meet their budgets). Much to the government’s chagrin, this nouveau-riche segment of the population was eager to show off its success, and sumptuary laws were regularly put in place to keep things under control. These included forbidding the general population from wearing anything other than the most humble, somber fabrics in public. There were, of course, ways around these laws, and people started wearing beautifully brocaded silks not as a top layer, but rather as an inner lining, of which only a daring glimpse might be visible as the fabric moved. The pleasure quarters were one of the few areas where sumptuary laws were in part suspended, and one of the many “pleasures” of going there, along with fabled beauties, like-minded company, entertainment, food and drink, was the conspicuous enjoyment of the most current, most exclusive fashions. In a real sense, these fashions were “infits” rather than “outfits,” and people dressed to stay in for the night (even though the place they were staying in was a brothel, and hardly met our current standards for social distancing!).

Writers, artists and other demimonde denizens were inspired by the pleasure quarters, and the women in their stunning outfits were celebrated in ukiyo-e (which was not entirely respectable at the time, and still carries overtones of scandal today). This is well-known to HoMA’s local audience, who can enjoy selections of the museum’s ukiyo-e prints, books and paintings during a visit (and find the entire collection online at https://art.honolulumuseum.org). From today’s perspective, we need to realize that women such as Ando’s courtesan were brutally objectified and denied any individuality that failed to sustain the male fantasies to which their social identity was confined. They were fetishized, and of course their undergarments were among the most fetishized objects associated with them. These undergarments were also among the highest accomplishments of textile artistry in Japan, and far too expensive to waste, so they are sometimes found as naka-mawashi providing appropriately exquisite—and suggestive—borders for particularly fine ukiyo-e paintings. The next time you see a Japanese painting, especially one in which the subject is a woman from the Floating World, pause for a moment to consider the mounting, and imagine the complicated spider’s-web of material, cultural and social history it might suggest (just as people centuries from now will imagine our world through textiles and the ways in which we used them).

– Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art

Kaigetsudō Ando (active early 18th century)
Courtesan (detail)
Japan, Edo period, c.1705–1710
Hanging scroll; ink, color and gold on paper
Purchase, 1956
(2238.1)

5.22.2020