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Costumes and Desire

Artists used visual cues like clothing and props to communicate a great deal about the characters and situations typically encountered in the floating world. 
Such details carried a special sexy appeal within a culture that celebrated double identities, gender reversal and hidden agendas. Courtesans, attendants and apprentices paraded through the quarter in distinctive, elaborate costumes that signaled their high status and the wealth of their patrons. In Kabuki, the popular stage art of the time, male actors playing female roles wore women’s clothing, and their sleeves bore special decorative crests associated with famous acting lineages. Samurai—not officially permitted in the Yoshiwara—visited the quarter hiding their identities beneath large straw hats. Seduction: Japan’s Floating World | The John C. Weber Collection explores the language of Edo clothing, including the erotic and romantic undertones understood by Edo viewers. For example, two sisters from the 10th century Tales of Ise are shown by the artist Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1814) awaiting the return of a handsome courtier. Their costumes have been modified to re-contextualize them as courtesans, as if to suggest that prostitutes similarly yearned for the return of their “lovers.”

In addition to pictures of the floating world, Seduction features a selection of exquisite Edo-period textiles. While few courtesan costumes survive to this day, the robes displayed in this exhibition, made for wealthy warrior and merchant families, offer a glimpse of the material splendor of Edo-period fashion in the pleasure quarter.