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‘Dressed by Nature’: Mia’s Japanese textile exhibit is an inspiring journey of materials, shapes and patterns

“These captains of trading ships were very much interested in super flamboyant pieces of clothing,” says Mia curator Andrea Marks. “They wanted to look freakin’ cool.” 

In the Okinawa section are several robes made from banana plant fibers.
In the Okinawa section are several robes made from banana plant fibers.
MinnPost photo by Sheila Regan

Banana leaves, elk bark, nettle fiber and fish skin are just some of the materials used in making an extraordinary collection of garments on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), in an exhibition called “Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan.” 

The exhibition features textiles and clothing worn in Japan from 1750 to 1930, with much of the focus on folk traditions as well as grander pieces worn by the aristocracy. A large chunk of the over 120 works were acquired since 2019 from a donation by Thomas Murray, a collector of Asian art. 

The designs on these clothes are inspiring with their mix of beautiful shapes and patterns.

Unknown maker, Japan, light blue-ground festival kimono decorated with three oak leaves crests, late 19th century
MinnPost photo by Sheila Regan
Unknown maker, Japan, light blue-ground festival kimono decorated with three oak leaves crests, late 19th century
Mia curator Andreas Marks organized the exhibition beginning with a region just north of Japan in Siberia, traveling south through central Japan and ending in the tropical prefecture of Okinawa. “The entire show is set up as a journey,” Marks says. 

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The robes made in the most northern region are created with fish skin and reindeer sinew. Meant to be worn over many layers to ward off the cold weather, the robes feature lovely embroidery and simple stripes of color. 

Robes made by the Ainu people are striking in their design that contrasts straight lines with seductive curves, all organized in neat patterns with accents of color. The robes utilize sewing work, with some of the cloth made from elm bark decorated with appliquéd cotton and embroidery. One piece, made in the 18th century, features silk tassels and shell and bone embellishments on its fabric, made from sturgeon scales. Marks says the robe was embellished after it was first made, possibly by a captain of a trading ship. “These captains of trading ships were very much interested in super flamboyant pieces of clothing,” Marks says. “They wanted to look freakin’ cool.” 

While the overall flow of the exhibition gets laid out geographically, there are also thematic moments within the show. One gallery features pieces worn by firefighters, with a giant reproduction of a woodblock print showing firefighters at work. Projected images of fire add to the drama of the viewer’s experience.

Unknown maker, Okinawa, light blue-ground Rhükyüyan robe decorated with cranes, pine trees, and cherry blossoms
MinnPost photo by Sheila Regan
Unknown maker, Okinawa, light blue-ground Rhükyüyan robe decorated with cranes, pine trees, and cherry blossoms
Another room displays pieces died with indigo, with a room devoted to recycled textiles. “It was normal in the farming community in the countryside to actually reuse old clothes,” Marks says. Used fabric is cut up and sewn together, making a patchwork quality. Several of these works look like blue jeans sewn together into elaborate new designs. 

Toward the end of the exhibition are print patterns from Okinawa called bingita, made using stencils and a resist dying process. The rich patterns feature colorful animals, characters and flowers that will put a smile on your face. They look like a kind of precursor to “Hawaiian print” shirts, with their joyful use of colors and life.

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In the Okinawa section are several robes made from banana plant fibers. “They would pull the fibers, making them thinner and thinner and thinner,” Marks says. “And then at the end, you could create robes.” 

Marks says the banana fiber process is still employed today in Okinawa, and while he was there, he ended up buying a bow tie. Going through the exhibition, you very likely may be thinking of revamping your own wardrobe.

“River Bank in Springtime,” Vincent van Gogh
MinnPost photo by Sheila Regan
“River Bank in Springtime,” Vincent van Gogh
Besides “Dressed By Nature,” Mia also just opened an exhibition of Van Gogh paintings, in partnership with the Dallas Museum of Art and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The show focuses on a series of paintings Vincent van Gogh made of olive groves, which he painted while a resident of a mental hospital between May and December of 1889, shortly before his death. The small exhibition features four paintings from the Van Gogh Museum, one work from the Dallas Museum of Art, and Mia’s own olive grove painting. These works startle with their emotion and force of artistry. Van Gogh made nature come alive in dreamlike dimensionality. It’s definitely worth a trip to see ($16; free for children under 17). 

“Dressed by Nature” is on view through Sept. 11 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art ($20). More information here.