The kimono, kosode and other traditional Japanese garments may be making a comeback in fashion these days both at the street level and at the higher end of fashion courtesy of Jotaro Saito. However, it has always frustrated me that one of the subjects that first led me to have an interest in Japanese aesthetics and art continues to be neglected with no sign of any return to fashion in sight. For those who need a quick trick introduction, sagemono are basically any container that hangs from the obi belt, secured in place by use of a netsuke (again, any object could be a netsuke from a 100+ carving to a found object) or a pipe case. The examples you are likely to see in museums are invariably those of the upper classes and were never realistically used as such, and mainly exist as exhibitions of craft rather than practical items used by people in their daily life. It is the latter which I am much more interested in, ever since a chance encounter with some of the macabre examples as a teenager looking for the gothic with a little more gravitas that the skull rings on offer in Camden market, and from there I have hopefully matured in taste, but stayed fixated on the sagemono as a means of summing up my aesthetic that I aim for in fashion.
You have to remember that not only were these all worn at the time (the examples from my collection are mainly from Tokugawa era with some pieces from late Meiji and one rare example from Taisho), and prominently displayed right at the waist by a merchant class forbidden by law from shows of wealth and even the use of certain fabrics. It is a great way of getting your head round the “street fashion” of the time with men showing their masculinity with bear fur pouches, cheeky erotic carvings and, especially as the merchants began to overtake the decadent upper classes, status. I have always thought of it as a good way of bridging the pre-modern aesthetics with the present day ones against the reputation of perceived minimalist restraint that Japanese arts has abroad, especially when most of Japan isn’t half as polished as most people seem to think, and most importantly, celebrates that fact.
My favorite topics in sagemono are found objects and celebration of nature. Here a tree root is simply hollowed out, the root from inside is then repurposed as the netsuke, finished with a coral ojime (bead that keeps the cord in check) and geometric brass detailing added later.
For me, this is my aesthetic in a nutshell, nature sitting next to craft, both bound by patina.
As we head towards the end of Tokugawa the sagemono get ever more complicated with multiple pouches in one single piece, and because of the extra weight the netsuke needs to really hook on to the waist sash – hence the more practical design and slightly redundant ojime.
Up until Meiji jewelry was very rarely worn, so the metal work of the time tends to turn up best in sagemono parts.
The raw and found materials can be problematic to the eye of today, but because of the restraint in animal farming of the time we can very safely assume that all the parts are by-products being valued in their reuse.
Here you can see how the pipe slots into the pipe case.
This very poor example by collector standards sums up the real beauty of sagemono for me, the pipe case is marked on the reverse with the owner’s name and location of where the bamboo came from, the ojime is from a broken abacus and the sagemono clumsily stitched by hand. It is a celebration of nature and resource, and given that this dates from just before the 1918 riots, was a product of necessity.
Gold stitching from early Meiji is a late addition to this piece, the poorly carved pipe case here is antler and fantastically aged.
As with fashion the times when modernist touches start creeping into Japan are some of my favorites, as exemplified by this traditional lacquer weaving meets Western purse clasp piece.
The hollow antler is modern, but was a fun addition to the set. I am not one for accuracy in the examples I use in my fashion – fashion is always evolving after all.
A couple of other examples – this is a brush case that I now use as a pen case.
This single piece type is the precursor to abandoning the cord element in design altogether, the top part of this hayamichi sagemono hooks over the obi to hold it in place and allows you to access the sagemono container quickly while still wearing it.
The top then opens allowing anything that needs to be kept dry – medicine, herbs, sewing tools and even firearm related powders to be stored.
This is probably the most common type, but look at the wonderful natural texture on the pouch.
A perfect example of the worn, and slightly macabre aesthetic of merchant class sagemono in the form of a nut netsuke delicately detailed with tiny ants that look alive at first glance.
The leathers of most sagemono are second to none and put to shame many deluxe leathers found today, especially given that all of the above (with the cloth exceptions) being well over 100 years old.
Pure silver and antler detail.
I don’t really enjoy the complicated carvings that command the highest prices (luckily), but the carvings I do have are designed for use, and often worn smooth by use – this is a cute little kappa.
An item I use regularly is this merchants wallet from late Tokugawa. It is made especially large so would have probably been custom made, mercifully it fits modern notes and cards perfectly.
The netsuke is crude, but I would feel guilty bashing about a nicer one in my back pocket!
Meishi case with Meiji-era engraving.
And a netsuke that makes for a perfect ring.
I hope you enjoyed that little look into sagemono, they can be easily worn in fashion through a belt just as with the obi, but I doubt we will see an explosion of them in the way we have with kimono. Perhaps the raw aesthetic is just out of odds with the polish of today, but I will continue to do my bit, along with a tiny group of similarly minded people in Tokyo working to create new sagemono (who will be the topic of another article), to keep this alive in fashion.