Exploring the Meaning of Color Through Red and White at Tokyo Museum

Courtesy of Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum
A girl’s kimono from the 1930s, left, An English wedding dress from around 1840

What do the colors red and white mean? This is the question at the center of a clothing exhibition being held at a museum in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

The impression people have of what you are wearing can be affected by the color of your clothing. Color can also sometimes express the ideology of an individual or ethnic group, as well as the social status of the wearer.

The exhibition being held at the Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum presents about 130 pieces of clothing and accessories from some 40 countries, including Japanese kimonos, ethnic costumes from Asia and Africa, and European dresses.

The section entitled “red and white for celebration and mourning” — which begins by exhibiting a pure white kimono — presents special garments that you wouldn’t see in everyday life, such as those for births, weddings and funerals. In this section you’ll find a bright red kimono from the 1930s for the “Shichi-Go-San” festival held for children that turn three, five or seven years of age; a wedding dress from England, where the color white took after the 19th century; and a red costume worn during a wedding ceremony in Turkmenistan.

In the section labeled “red and white as status symbols,” a crimson velvet dress from early 20th century Turkey is on display. The dress is richly embroidered with gold threads, indicating the wealth and power of the wearer. Dyeing clothes red is said to have been a challenge in an era when only natural dyes were available.

The section devoted to “practicality” exhibits men’s ethnic shirts and pants from India in the 1970s and 1980s. The garments are made of undyed cotton, which reduces heat absorption even when exposed to strong sunlight.

Cool white was also favored for yukata, a type of informal cotton kimono. “We hope visitors will compare red and white costumes from different countries and enjoy the similarities and differences between them,” said Mitsuyo Kanai, curator of the museum.

The exhibition will be held weekdays from Monday to Friday through Feb. 14. Admission is ¥500.