The Institute and Our Community

Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion

Exhibition: 19 June – 17 August 2014
Room 3, The Asahi Shimbun Displays, The British Museum


In recent decades men’s fashion has been largely overshadowed by the frills and frocks presented for the ladies. But with David Beckham and other popular icons embracing male fashion, the cult of the Man is back again to re-define men’s desire to harness dapperhood. The current exhibition in the Asahi room at the British Museum is a nicely timed show. While the West, particularly Britain and France, was once famous for their dashing dandies, Japan during the Edo period was bustling with men in pursuit of the trendiest swagger. In fact, as the West sees yet another surge in the revival of classic menswear, Japan too is experiencing a bit of a boom with more men slipping into kimono.

Dress to Impress’ exhibition is an homage to the Edo period observers of refined fashion. Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, who is Research Director of the Sainsbury Institute and worked closely on the exhibition says ‘Dressed to Impress exhibition is thrilling because it puts the focus back on men and men’s fashion. In addition it shows how male fashion accessories were used in context, rather than simply showing individual items as works of art. [All items] were part of an ensemble.’ This curatorial pinning is apparent in the small yet carefully formed exhibition. From a collection of ornate netsuke and inrō to decorative swords, the show captures the essence of 18th century townsmen’s fashion in Edo. These men were, according to Nicole, ‘probably some of the most fashionable dressers in the world at that period, despite constant issuance of the government’s sumptuary laws that tried to regulate, among other things, dress and accessories.’ The show is a delightful opportunity to peer into the highly sophisticated fashion culture of the Edo period men and a source of inspiration for those in pursuit of refined material appreciation.


The exhibition also coincides with a new publication by Noriko Tsuchiya from the British Museum. ‘Netsuke: 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan’ published by the British Museum Press features perfectly formed examples of netsukeNetsuke are carved toggles. They were essential for a clothing culture not accustomed to pockets. Attached to one end of a silk cord, the netsuke would be passed through the obi or kimono sash to suspend medicine or seal case (inrō), writing tools, money and tobacco and other personal paraphernalia fastened to the opposite end of the cord. Although netsuke are small in size, they were visible to both the wearer and the observer. The discreet visibility made them particularly popular amongst the merchant class who favored them as means of flaunting their wealth without upsetting the officials. The toggles with wealthy patrons eager to collect some of the best pieces quickly developed into its own art form involving exquisite design, craftsmanship and material. The men would fashion netsuke depending on the season, weather, occasion and their mood. Ranging from still life depictions to scenes from famous tales, mythical figures and peculiar narratives,netsuke captured a complex world in miniature.

For those interested in fashion that extends beyond the garment, visiting ‘Dressed to Impress’ is a nice treat to add to your London visit. Noriko’s book, ‘Netsuke: 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan’ compliments the exhibition experience. In praise of the author, Nicole describes the thoroughly researched yet accessible book as an important bibliographical contribution: ‘Noriko positions netsuke as a lens through which to view Japanese culture and history afresh. These 100 masterworks are brought to life through her descriptions, stories and photographs.’

Special Event in Norwich
We are delighted to welcome Noriko Tsuchiya and host the Norwich launch of her new publication, Netsuke: 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan on Friday 1 August, 6pm at the Sainsbury Institute.

For details on the exhibition, please click here:

The British Museum

For more on how to purchase your copy of ‘Netsuke: 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan’, please click here:

Netsuke: 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan

Dress to Impress’ is on show until 17 August and is free to enter. ‘Netsuke: 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan’ is available for purchase through the British Museum shop for £14.99. For those still curious to see hownetsuke is suspended, Noriko demonstrates with commentaries in a short clip here on Youtube:

Kazuko Morohashi
Research, Planning and Public Relations Officer

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