Dressed to Kill

Rhonda Sonnenberg/Selvedge Magazine

Japanese Samurai warrior armour 

Perhaps more than any other, the Japanese culture possesses a seductive, delicate, and yet bellicose sensibility that finds precise expression in the arts. Arising in no small part from its foundation in Zen Buddism, this paradoxical sensibility is quite perfectly espied in Samurai warrior armour (yoroi). This armour can be traced to the late 5th century, but it attained its purest Japanese form in the classic period of the 10th-15th centuries, and evolved into a more complex and sumptuous art form during the relatively peaceful, succeeding Edo Period. In 1868, the Meiji era began, and the elite Samurai warrior class finally gave way to modern government and firearms, and was no more.

The select use and appearance of textiles in the construction of the ferocious-looking Samurai warrior armour prompts the viewer to ‘espy’ rather than merely ‘see’. Ornamental tassels, metal-wrapped silk, but also durable hemp and finely woven cotton were often employed with subtle discretion, almost hidden. This is completely unlike the military costume of most cultures, where the textile component is on full view (think of indigenous Native American’s combat garb).

While a textile element in Samurai warrior armour might take the form of a rich, silk-brocade and doeskin skirt or haidate, for example, its primary role was functional, to connect the iron or rawhide plates – usually lacquered – or steel mail (kusari) and to provide strength, flexibility, and blow-deflective cushioning to the wearer’s body. This functional role led to the innovative use of silk and leather lacings and connective and support backings, whose exact styles and use evolved with technological changes in warfare over the centuries, resulting in changes in the overall design of the armour. Samurai warriors were originally mounted cavalry soldiers but later fought increasingly on foot, with bow and arrow and curved long swords.

To stand before a suit of Samurai warrior armour and closely inspect the remnants of its fine silk lacings or brocade is to be surprised, even astonished, by the dichotomy of soft and hard, refined and fierce, poetic and lethal. Explaining the dichotomy in Japanese arts, Barry Ellsworth, one of the world’s leading experts and a longtime dealer and collector of Samurai armour explains, ‘Zen Buddism as a philosophy talks about the transience and insignificance of human life, yet it has a reverence for nature and the fleeting moment… A lot of death was through violence, and war. So it’s an incredibly brutal culture and at the same time, an incredibly aestheticised culture’.

Like Japanese society, the Samurai were divided into a rigorous hierarchy of four levels. The highest ranking Samurai commissioned custom- made suits, which reflected the power and prestige of the wearer. Samurai fought in small groups of five to 20 warriors of the same clan. When war became more common during the Sengoku Period, known as the Age of the Warring States (c.1467-1600), lower-ranking Samurai suits were mass produced. The textile components were purchased from workshops that served the Samurai class. Interestingly, the word ‘sode’ for the Samurai’s shoulder guard is the same as for a kimono’s shoulder piece, reflecting that fact that the armour was as much a contemporary fashion statement as body protection.

Strong, malleable, soft, and colourful, functional textile elements on the arm, shoulder guards, torso covering, shin guards, and the some 15 other component pieces lent a sense of personal ornamentation to Samurai armour. Even the fear- inspiring iron helmut (kabuto) was lined and padded with fabric, often hemp covered with silk, known as ukebari. Though the shogunate (top military leaders) limited access to the outer world, the Samurai were fascinated by Europeans, and Dutch and Portuguese traders were active in feudal Japan in the 16th to 19th centuries, bringing wool and other fabrics that were used in the creation of Samurai armour.

During the classic period, the oversized, curling neck guard (shikoro), which made the wearer appear larger than he was, bore the symbol of the warrior’s clan (kamon), such as a plum blossom or chrysanthemum. He wielded on his back, fixed in place with brackets, a large flag called a sashimono, which also proudly announced his kamon. In the 18th century the jinbaori became an additional fashion accessory that announced the wearer’s kamon. It could be made of tightly woven silk, hemp, wool, feathers, and other exotic materials and was worn over both shoulders.

The most dramatic and ingenious use of textile in the Samurai warrior outfit was the horo, a cape that was a mere piece of plain silk fabric that billowed in the wind behind the warrior. This lightweight, yet strong fabric could deflect an arrow flying from afar at 80 miles per hour by entangling the arrow head in the wind-swept silk and stopping the shaft from penetrating through to the warrior’s body.

‘As a child growing up in New York City, I spent a lot of rainy afternoons in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fascinated by arms and armour and particularly the armour of the Samurai,’ says Ellsworth, who has been selling Samurai armour through his Santa Fe, New Mexico, gallery since 2002. ‘I was drawn to the extravagant and exquisite image of masculinity in battle dress. I also liked to read about war and how people behave and survive in extreme life or death circumstances. To wear something as splendid as ancient warriors wore to go into battle and stare death in the face seems like the ultimate act of fashion’.

And the ultimate act of poetry: each Samurai bore inside his armoured sleeve a small brush and ink stone with which he composed a ‘death poem’, a haiku, on rice paper before battle. When the soldier was killed on the battlefield, his victorious opponent took the defeated’s head to his commander and presented it as a trophy along with the poem.

Imbued with heroism, romaticism and otherness, these magnificent Samurai armour ‘poems’ are bought and sold for prices ranging from $40,000 to a million dollars. •••Rhonda Sonnenberg

“La Creacion Discrimina,” inkjet print. Wannam’s painterly use of glitter is reminiscent of fleeting sand paintings, despite appearances of an imposed, fixed narrative in the statuettes