Once in a lifetime, you come across an antique textile that is so unique and rare that it must be possessed. That is truly the case with this unusual item of dress intended for the military raiment of a Daimyo Lord or the most important of the clan’s Samurai. There are numerous books on the ancient costumes of the military elite of Japan, but in none of them have I come across an explanation for this triangular scarf-like textile. It shows its wear through the sweat marks on (what appears to be the area) where it would be attached to the uniform…my best educated guess would be as the neck piece attached to the helmet at the back of the head; meant as identification by the clan for the battlefield. By the early Edo Era (1617-1867), Mon or family crests were basically an established fact; utilized not only by allies on the battlefield, but also by the wearer himself to ensure recognition of his noble lineage. In none of the historical materials could I find a photo or description of a fabric placed on the back of the neck; perhaps because my study does not usually include military regalia, or perhaps because it predates the Edo Era when battlefield identification was in its infancy. Reinforcing the ancient quality of this dramatic textile art are the Glass Eyes of the dragon. They are unusual and very rare and date the piece to the early Edo Era.
The dragon (Ryu) on its field of red felt (Sen) is found frolicking among the swirling clouds represented by the felted black insets and tiny, hand stitched white beads. The black cloud swirls have been further enhanced with the addition of cords of black thread laid on top and surrounding the cloud (Kumo) swirls (some of these threads have come loose). The dragon is magnificent! His head, body and tail are made of precious metals whose threads have been created by hand. These were accomplished by painting a layer of liquid gold, platinum or silver on thin handmade rice paper and then wrapping it around several strands of silk. Because of its delicacy, it could not be sewn into the fabric; but was, instead, laid on top of the garment and then hand stitched or “couched” to it. The image of the flying dragon is one of the most historically powerful images in Japan. Rather than inspiring terror, however, dragons were often thought of as benevolent…carrying the sins of the earth away with him as he flew to the heavens.