Passion Flower

For the current Japan Blue issue of Selvedge, textile artist Yoshiko Wada explores the powerful meaning of red in Japanese culture...

As a child in Japan, I was surprised, when my mother undressed, to see bright red under her kimono as she removed her layers of kimono and sashes. Later I learned that while shades of passionate red are commonly used to decorate young women in the blush of youth, after marriage, reds appear only in undergarments, where they keep hidden their zest for life.

In ancient times, various shades of red were specifically named and featured prominently in Japanese textiles and ornaments. For example, Kurenai (Castilian red), Shinku (orange red) and Enji (deep carmine) were achieved through the use of sappan wood or Brazil wood (Caesalpinia Sappan L), Asian madder (Rubia akane), and the lac insect ‘benibana’ (Carthamus tinctorius). In fact, one definition of the word iro (colour) is ‘a palette containing red’.

Since the Heian period (794-1185) fabrics dyed with safflower red have been worn close to the skin to evoke physical healing power. Safflower petals, plucked at just the right moment, are fermented, made into a patty called benimochi, and processed into a vibrant rouge used by courtiers and courtesans to colour lips and as an accent at the outer corner of the eyes. This precious dye was laborious, thus costly to extract. By its weight it was as expensive as gold. Beni red symbolises style, passion, femininity, and wealth…

You can read this article in full in Selvedge issue 81.

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