The art of boro: rags to riches

January 27th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Boro shall inherit the earth

Boro shall inherit the earth

Japan was made for hard times. Though there’s no doubt that people are really suffering in the ongoing recession, hardship is hard-wired into the Japanese outlook. Much more than people in the developed West, the Japanese feel truly guilty about taking money they haven’t earned, regardless of whatever it was that made them poor in the first place. People here are expected to make the most of what they have to get by. Economic resourcefulness is practically a sub-genre of TV programming: Like this comedian, you, too, can survive on ¥100 a day!

With such a mindset, it’s easy to romanticize neediness. That seems to be the whole point behind the Boro Exhibition at the new Amuse Museum in Asakusa. Boro, which literally means “rags,” describes apparel that has been handed down for generations and repaired when necessary by stitching pieces of stray cloth over rent or worn fabric. Over time, these garments, usually kaimaki (large coats with oversized sleeves), take on the appearance of patchwork quilts. Some of the boro garments in the museum date as far back as the Edo Period.

Because cotton was unavailable to the average person back in the day, the garments are made of very thick linen without the advantage of insulating batting, so they tend to be very heavy, as much as 14 kg. Boro were used as coats, but they were also used as bedding. Families would spread straw on the ground and sleep naked and huddled together for warmth under all the boro they had in their possession.

The style is completely born of function, since the families who passed these garments down over the years were too poor to buy new garments. Nevertheless, boro has become a distinctive form of art, which is why examples are being exhibited at an art museum rather than a history museum. According to the brochure published by the Amuse Museum, which is itself a kind of patchwork, having been cobbled together from old, dilapidated buildings, boro garments are the object of interest of international art collectors, who buy them and hang them on their walls.

In that regard, they are different from, say, patchwork jeans, another garment whose monetary value increases with the amount of wear, tear and age attached to it. Old jeans are still meant to be worn. They are a type of vintage fashion. No one buys boro to wear; they are too heavy and bulky. Collectors buy them for their intrinsic artistic value, a value derived not just from the peculiar textile technology that created the garments, but from the suffering that made it necessary to apply that technology. You’re buying more than just art. You’re buying pain.

The Boro Exhibition continues through Feb. 28.

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