We’re so used to seeing netsuke (tiny ivory and wood carvings) reverently displayed in museums, it’s easy to forget that they’re actually fashion accessories, as important to the Bertie Woosters of old Edo as a Rolex is to their equivalents today. Or as a cigarette case and lighter was to Bertie and his chums at the Drones club before we found out that smoking kills. But now there’s a new mini-exhibition in Room 3 at the British Museum titled Dressing to Impress to bring us up to speed with samurai fashion.
Actually, it wasn’t so much the samurai, who were often quite poor, working in administrative jobs at the castle like civil servants today, who were the style leaders. It was the merchants in the towns and cites who had the money to spend on clothes and having a good time. And smoking a lot, of course, which meant they needed to carry their pipes and tobacco pouches around with them, not to mention their money, medicine, writing implements and so on.
They didn’t have pockets in their kimonos so they hooked everything onto their obi (a broad belt) with strings. But then, how to stop the string slipping off? You needed a toggle on the other end, and the netsuke was born. That’s why netsuke always have two little holes in the back, to tie the string to.
Here’s Santo Kyoden,an 18th century writer, textile designer and bon viveur, smoking a pipe. Santo Kyoden ran a popular tobacco pipe and container shop in Edo, where everyone went to buy their smoking needs and hang out.
And the kind of pipe, in wood and silver, he would have sold,
But what about the netsuke? There are five of them on show in Room 3, beautifully displayed in their own little glass case with magnifying glasses available so you can get a really close up look.
This ivory rat might have been worn by someone born in the year of the rat – a bit like having your zodiac sign on your button.
This is a lion head goldfish, carved from boxwood with horn eyes.
This pond turtle is made from silver, and would have been weighty enough to balance the fullest tobacco pouch.Turtles were symbols of happiness and longevity.
The exhibition is free and continues until 17th August. Room 3 is immediately on the right as you enter the museum.