TOAST Magazine

THE ART OF WRAPPING | HOLY VARIETY OF EVERYTHING

ARTS & CULTURE

For Pre Collection we took inspiration from the wrapped silhouettes of old Japan. Here Joy Hendry, professor emerita of social anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, introduces the highly complex art of wrapping and its cultural significance - from clothing through to speech. 

Wearing a kimono in Japan entails a careful wrapping of the body in layers of fabric that have not necessarily been made to fit the individual they are enfolding. Instead, each layer is adjusted around appropriate padding and tied in place. This preparing of the wearer's body ensures that the final garment is set off beautifully. For it is the perfectly straight lines of the garment, not the curves of the wearer, that are sought.

The number of layers worn signifies the wearer’s social status as well as the importance of the occasion. A formal kimono may have intermediary layers showing neatly at the peripheries. Long, swinging sleeves mark an unmarried girl, while a crown princess might wear a garment of twelve sumptuous layers. Colours and decorative designs signify the formality and nature of an occasion. A wedding garment displays elaborately embroidered colours over a pure white undergarment - the former expressing wealth and taste, the latter a “clean sheet” or the new stage of life for the bride. The female relatives of the receiving family wear a black kimono embellished with a household crest.

It is unlikely that the individual wearing the kimono would be able to dress herself properly. Kimono kitsuke (dressing) is an art which must be studied in a special school to achieve maximum effect. Each part of the attire must be folded and tied in a pre-determined way, although there is some variation between schools. Many girls used to study this art as part of their growth into adulthood, but those with the skills are rarer now, and most only wear the less elaborate summer yukata except for those special occasions.

In kimono dressing the individual wearer matters little - what the kimono is saying about her place in the world is much more important. In the case of gifts too, in Japan, the way they are wrapped and decorated says much more about their purpose than whatever the object inside does. Indeed, mundane objects like baskets of fruit, trays of steak, or even packets of washing powder, may be formally presented as gifts to express a polite and deep obligation, if they are suitably wrapped and purchased from a high-ranking store.

My own introduction to this field of Japanese wrapping actually started with language. Working as an anthropologist in Japan, I needed to speak the language, but as I grew past the student stage into more senior teaching roles, my closest Japanese friend gently explained to me that I needed to use more polite expressions. As I set out to study this politeness, I gradually realised that there is a lot more to polite communication than speech. Speech is a form of wrapping too, appropriate not only to the person, but also to the occasion, and language for a classroom is quite different to that used on a tennis court. I asked my friend one day whether she adjusted her language when wearing a kimono and she responded immediately. “Of course”, she said, “you can’t kick your legs out when you are wearing a kimono”! If you have been carefully encased in a marker of your status, you need to demonstrate that you can use language suitable to the event. A wrapped person must also use wrapped speech!

In Japan this notion of wrapping spreads even beyond the body, language and gifts. Think of a Japanese garden … this is another form of wrapping, the wrapping of space, easily illustrated again in those Japanese rooms that are enclosed in paper sliding screens, and so carefully prepared for tea ceremonies and other ritual occasions. The lessons I took in the art of tea ceremony were all about tiny details of this sort, and kneeling on the aromatic Japanese matting and using the fine, fixed language is actually made a lot easier wrapped in a kimono! Then there is wrapped food – think of the makizushi – those neat swirls of rice and colourful tasty contents we call sushi. If you have tried to make sushi you will know that considerable care is required. And it is care that is the principal theme being communicated in Japanese wrapping. Care in preparation indicates care for those who will see the results.

Words by Joy Hendry

Images by Kate Allchin

Joy Hendry has drawn here on research that became a book entitled 'Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation and Power in Japan and Other Societies'. She has also written a book entitled 'Understanding Japanese Society' and a more personal account of her work called 'An Anthropologist in Japan'.

The Art of Wrapping is the third in a series of stories –  under the title The Holy Variety of Everything – that we’ll be telling through this late summer, autumn and winter. These stories celebrate the varied cultures, traditions and crafts that have blended, in one way or another, into this season’s collection. 

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