Ainu wearing their traditional costume, photo courtesy Roderick Eime
Have you ever heard about Ainu? Well, in case you haven't, they are indigenous people of Japan who used to live all over its territory in ancient times but not much of them are left now and nowadays they live mainly on Japanese Hokkaido and the Kuriles and southern Sakhalin Island of Russia. I decided to dedicate a post to this small ethnic group because the main element of their traditional costume, a robe worn by women and men alike, is considered one of the most unique and distinctive pieces of clothing in the world of ethnic dress. First, interesting were materials which Ainu originally used to create these robes: they could be made of plant fiber - bark of elm trees, for example; of animal fur/skin - dog's, bear's, seal's; of bird skin and feathers and even...of fish skin. Can you imagine a wearable robe made from fish skin? Honestly, I can't. But it turns out that garments made of fish skin are strong, light, durable and waterproof. Amazing, isn't it? It seems Ainu used all the nature resources available. Of course, nowadays nobody makes clothes from such unusual "fabrics" any more, with time cotton and silk started to be used, though traditional "bark" robes are still can be found.
Woman's special occasion robe made from salmon skin. Museum of Local History, Sakhalin
Second, to decorate the robes Ainu women invented unique and interesting technique of applique combined with embroidery. When cotton was introduced to Japan it was a rare thing. Ainu women bartered old Japanese kimonos or bed covers and collected them for several years. The pieces of old fabric were not large enough to make a whole coat. So, patterns were carefully cut out of it, sewn onto the robes and then embroidered. The applique on these earlier robes was applied in strips and the robes are called ruunpe. As cotton became more readily available in the second half of the eighteenth century, a new applique technique known as kaparamip developed. The most stunning of the Ainu designs were created in this technique. Large pieces of fabric in solid colours were laid over contrasting grounds, the patterns were cut out, sewn onto and then embroidered.
Men's Robe. Compliments of Joe Loux Asian and Tribal Art
Kaparamip robe. Shizuoka City Serizawa Keisuke Art Museum
Ainu robe, The Shiraoi Ainu Museum
Ainu Kaparamip robe, late 19th century. Collection of Thomas Murray
Ainu girl wearing a traditional robe. Photo source
Traditional Ainu necklace, Ishinomake City Museum
Wife of Ainu village chief. 1946 LIFE
Modern necklace inspired by Ainu patterns ToyToy
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