Folding screens in Japan functioned both as a type of furnishing and as decoration. Byōbu , the Japanese term for folding screen, comprises two characters—byō refers to a wall, fence, or screen, and the character for bu, also read as fu, means wind. Literally, the byōbu functioned as protection against the wind. Screens served to divide large open spaces into more intimate and private areas, often for the purposes of dressing or sleeping. The glimmering gold-leaf surfaces characteristic of folding screens reflected ambient light and enlivened the space with the pictorial scenes upon them. In outdoor settings, screens could be arranged to function like portable walls, demarcating space and shielding revelers from prying eyes.
The subject matter of a painting often hints at its original function and its patron’s preferences. Hawks and pines by a well-known Kano School painter were considered appropriate for the interior spaces of a military warlord‘s castle, whereas a gnarled, ancient plum tree portrayed by Kanō Sansetsu (1590–1651) decorated the sliding doors of a Zen abbot’s quarters (1975.268.48).
The original function and context of a genre of screens referred to today as “whose sleeves?” screens, or tagasode byōbu, are less well studied and understood (29.100.493–4). As revealed by more than forty extant examples, artisans from various painting schools depicted on folding screens an array of sumptuously patterned garments casually draped over clothing stands. Executed in mineral pigments against a solid background of gold-leafed paper, the rich materials and subject matter convey the wealth of the paintings’ owners. Yet, devoid of human figures, with the only hint of human presence or activity suggested by the discarded clothing, accessories, or other accoutrements, these screens of imagined interiors remain enigmatic. Securely dated works have yet to be identified, although many are catalogued as seventeenth-century productions. Stylistically, attributions to painters ranging from Tawaraya Sōtatsu (d. ca. 1640) and his Rinpa-style legacy to the Hasegawa and Kaihō schools have been posited, but remain in question. Most are attributed to the hand of anonymous “town-painters,” or machi-eshi. Even the use of the term tagasode byōbu is circumspect. A survey of written documents suggests that the earliest reference to the term dates to an auction catalogue published in 1911. Despite their identification under the anachronistic label of “whose sleeves?” screens, it is clear that in seventeenth-century Japan, screens with garments draped over clothing stands became a popular subject for painters.
Based on composition, the types of garments displayed, and the presence or absence of game boards, musical instruments, or perfume bags, there are at least three distinct types within this genre. A pair of screens in the Metropolitan’s collection represents the first type (62.36.2–3). Viewed from right to left, an obliquely positioned green bamboo clothing stand occupies the first four panels of one screen. Three garments are draped over the upper rack, and four on the lower rack. To the left of the bamboo rack, two garments are piled on the floor. In the other screen from this pair, a black lacquered clothing stand is decorated with chrysanthemum and paulownia motifs in gold. The upper and lower racks each display four garments. In general, the garments depicted in this pair of screens appear to represent clothing trends of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This first type is further characterized by its distinctive composition of a single green bamboo stand appearing on one screen and a single lacquered stand on the other screen, with a pile of garments on the floor between them. Among screens of this type, garments are clustered or draped in recognizable groups, and motifs of individual garments—fans, stripes, or specific floral patterns—are rendered in a similar fashion. At least eleven screens of this type, with slight variations, exist.
In the second type, musical instruments, folding screens, or sliding doors suggest a more fully articulated interior setting and create a sense of depth on the otherwise flat surface of the painting. A single screen in the Burke Collection, New York, includes two clothing stands on a single screen, with an amulet holder hanging from the stand in the foreground and a koto on the floor. In another example of this second type, in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the lower half of the clothing stand is itself a painted screen and some garments are draped over folding screens rather than on a clothing stand. These garments appear to represent clothing trends of the second quarter of the seventeenth century.
The third type is distinguished by multiple clothing stands on a single screen. In contrast to the neatly folded and carefully positioned garments in the Metropolitan’s screens of the first type, garments depicted in this third type are casually draped as if to highlight their opulent colors and bold decorations, and often reflect fashionable styles of the late seventeenth to early eighteenth century, or later.
Painted images and printed documents divulge the social context for the practice of draping garments over stands. They appeared in paintings as display racks for kimono makers, within interior settings of military residences, or within brothel scenes. A twelfth-century document, purportedly written by a man named Masasuke, describes the interior furnishings appropriate for a room in an aristocrat’s house that included a clothing stand (ikō) draped with garments. By the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, the clothing stand had become a conventional item included in the bridal trousseau of wealthy women. A “clothing stand picture” (ikō ga) is listed in an early seventeenth-century inventory of the Tokugawa shogun’s household possessions. During the seventeenth century, the custom of decorating rooms with clothing draped over stands persisted among the wealthy, particularly members of the elite military class. Eventually this practice seems to have filtered down to the world of the courtesans, who mimicked the practices and lifestyles of their social superiors.
By recasting these screens as pictorialized versions of actual clothing stands laden with lavishly patterned garments, we can associate them more closely with interior furnishings and displays of wealth. A page from an illustrated encyclopedia for women (Joyō kinmō zui), dated to 1687, describes appropriate furnishings and etiquette for a wedding ceremony that includes a clothing stand screen, labeled ikō byōbu. In an illustration from another book dated 1750 on protocol for wedding celebrations (Konrei shiyō keshi bukuro), garments draped over clothing stands occupy an entire corner of a room filled with items for a wedding trousseau. These documents suggest that clothing stands and the garments that adorned them were significant items of a bride’s trousseau and represent the material possessions women brought into a marital alliance.
Economics may have played a role in the genesis of screens of this type. The painting of garments may have replaced a potentially more costly array of actual silk garments displayed on lacquered stands. If we consider the expense of producing approximately seventeen silk garments woven of the most luxurious materials and a black lacquered stand decorated with gold on which to display them, and compare it with a painted version of the entire ensemble, which set would have been less costly to produce? Perhaps what are today referred to as “whose sleeves?” screens were manifestations of a desire to preserve a particular moment in which an array of select garments was frozen in time through their conversion into a painted screen.