Noh evolved from several strands of the performing arts and has been performed in Japan since the fourteenth century. Its status advanced during the Muromachi period (1392–1573), when the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu supported the work of Kan’ami (1333–1384) and his son Zeami (ca. 1363–ca. 1443), an actor and playwright who also wrote theoretical works about the art of Noh. In performance, Noh’s austere bare stage and the severe elegance of its powerful masks combine with the multiple layers of shimmering costume to give the actor an oversized sculptural presence as he moves with the music and chanting of the chorus. Fittingly, Zeami’s concept of yûgen (sometimes translated as “quiet elegance” or “elusive beauty”) is frequently applied to Noh performance.
The Development of Noh Costume
From its beginnings, Noh has been closely linked with Japan’s samurai class. Early Noh costumes paralleled the everyday wear of the samurai; indeed, some costumes were military and court garments presented as gifts to actors. Finally, in the fifteenth century, certain garment types arose that differed from regular samurai wear and were meant specifically for the Noh stage; these included mizugoromo jackets and maiginu dance robes.
In the subsequent Momoyama period (1573–1615), bold pattern layouts and opulent textile techniques characterized the garments of the samurai elite. Women often wore robes of nuihaku, a textile combining embroidery with gold or silver leaf. Another sumptuous technique was karaori, a woven textile with brocaded polychrome patterns. Sometimes the silk patterning wefts are so long that at first glance motifs look embroidered instead of woven. These two techniques were used for Noh costumes, and they also lent their names to types of kimono-shaped Noh robes; in fact, the karaori, usually worn as the outer garment for women’s roles, is often considered the quintessential Noh costume. By the end of the Momoyama period, these splendid layouts and techniques were commonplace in Noh costumes, where they eventually became codified and persisted even after they were seldom seen in regular clothing.
During the Edo period (1615–1868), the Tokugawa shogunate officially sponsored Noh, and feudal barons (daimyô) throughout the realm were expected to learn Noh chanting (utai) and dancing (shimai) as part of their cultural training. High-ranking samurai supported Noh troupes, built Noh stages for their performances, and published Noh libretti. The study of Noh even spread to wealthy members of the merchant class. In the late Edo period, collecting and cataloguing became an intellectual concern and led to the production of costume inventories and such works as the multivolume Ken’eirô gasô (Compilation of Graceful Designs), which contains hundreds of full-color illustrations of Noh costumes, masks, and props, some still extant (1989.367). The notations in these volumes occasionally provide the identity of the daimyô who commissioned a costume or the troupe or role for which it was intended.
Noh Plays and Noh Costumes
Most plays of the Noh repertoire have only a few roles, played by a main actor (shite), usually masked, and one or more supporting actors (waki); all the actors are men. Many Noh plays have a dreamlike quality where boundaries of time and identity are blurred. Frequently the shite reveals himself late in the play as a ghost or spirit with an obsessive attachment to a person or event from his past that interferes with his Buddhist salvation, and a climactic dance follows. The costume of the shite changes according to the change in identity.
The main pieces in the Noh wardrobe are divided into two groups, ôsode (literally, “large sleeves”) and kosode (literally, “small sleeves”). The ôsode garments are outer robes and jackets with broad sleeves completely open at the wrist. Among these are the kariginu (91.1.62), chôken (32.30.4), maiginu, happi, and mizugoromo (2002.386). By contrast, the kosode group refers to kimono-shaped garments with small wrist openings such as the karaori (19.88.2; 61.151.6), atsuita (19.88.3), surihaku (32.30.5; 58.97.1), and nuihaku (29.100.541; 1989.367). Trousers, headbands, sashes, and other accessories complete the wardrobe. In Noh, the combinations of garments and methods of draping for various types of roles—warrior, aristocratic lady, monk, demon, etc.—have become codified, but within such overall constraints the final choice of colors and patterns is generally left to the actor.
Nevertheless, through time certain roles became associated with particular types of garments, patterns, and methods of draping the costume. An example is the title role in Okina, one of the oldest pieces in the Noh repertoire. As befits a godlike old man, Okina wears a kariginu, which conventionally features an overall geometric pattern called shokkô, consisting of octagons and squares (91.1.62). For the role of the woman in the play Dôjôji, a particular nuihaku is worn under the outer karaori: it has a black or dark blue background with colorful scattered roundels (29.100.541). Late in the play, when the woman is revealed as a demonic serpent, the nuihaku is folded down at the waist in a draping style called koshimaki (“waist wrap”), which shows an inner robe patterned with glittering gold triangles that represent the scales of the serpent.
Noh Costumes at the Metropolitan Museum
The Metropolitan Museum of Art began collecting Noh costumes in 1891, with the acquisition of four by bequest from Edward C. Moore (91.1.62), silver designer for Tiffany and Company. By 1932, more examples had entered the Museum—one by bequest from Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer (29.100.541) and several acquired by purchase, including nine from the collection of Louis V. Ledoux (32.30.4; 32.30.5), a collector of Japanese woodblock prints and promoter of Japanese culture. In an early effort of its type, the Museum mounted a special exhibition of Noh costumes in 1935, displaying the Museum’s Noh robes alongside national and international loans, mostly from private collections in Japan and the United States. Since that time, the collection has continued to grow through both donation and purchase, with high points such as the gift of a robe formerly held by the distinguished Japanese textile collector Nomura Shôjirô (1989.367). The most recent Noh costume to enter the collection is the Museum’s first mizugoromo (2002.386).
Denney, Joyce. “Noh Costume.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nohc/hd_nohc.htm (December 2008)
Kennedy, Alan. Japanese Costume: History and Tradition. Paris: A. Biro, 1990.
Kirihata, Ken. Noshozoku = Noh Costumes. Kyoto: Kyoto Shoin, 1993.
Nagasaki, Iwao, and Monica Bethe. Patterns and Poetry: No Robes from the Lucy Truman Aldrich Collection at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1992.
Takeda, Sharon Sadako, with Monica Bethe. Miracles & Mischief: Noh and Kyôgen Theater in Japan. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2002.
Denney, Joyce. “Longevity in Chinese Art.” (August 2010)