Traditional Japanese society was divided into four distinct groups: samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. At the top, the samurai were the military elite who possessed the most power and wealth. At the bottom, the merchants were low in status because they did not produce any goods or materials, as the farmers and artisans did. During the prosperity of the Edo period, merchants had a new found wealth and were able to purchase more elaborate pieces of clothing.
The extravagant garments worn by members of the lower class troubled the wealthy and powerful classes. In order to maintain the social order, the government imposed strict laws (“sumptuary laws”) prohibiting the use of expensive fabrics, certain colors, ornate embroidery, or silver and gold in the merchants clothing.
The merchants found creative ways around these restrictions. While they used simple cotton to make their outer robes, they lined these garments with the richest silk, in the boldest colors, to show off their wealth. A new style, known as iki, emphasized the refined elegance of subtle details and muted colors in clothing.
Pictured in the a painting of a landscape. Landscapes enable the viewer to take in an entire world through a single kimono. Originally these pieces would pass through multiple artisans from the preliminary sketch artist, to the dyer and the shibori artist, before being finished by the embroiderer. The production process requires a shikkaiya to bring all the elements together. Shikkai loosely means “to combine each seperate item” and that is exactly the role of the shikkaiya. With the moderate size of Kyoto, it makes it easy to travel from artisan to artisan to complete the kimono.
This kimono draws strong similarities to the Japanese watercolor painting techniques found when artist used paints known as Gansai. Gansai is a traditional form of Japanese watercolors based off of Sumi inks. They were poured into large pans suitable for the large brushes used in Japanese painting and formulated for Japanese rice papers. The colors were meant to match the natural colors of the Japanese landscape, and while most are very similar to what you would find in Western paint boxes, they came in large arrays of colors so that artists did not need to mix their own. These watercolors only come in the pans and that is part of what Gansai means.