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Nō robes

Atsuita nō robe with design of paulownia crests and cloud-shaped gongs over interlocking hexagonal lozenges with flower motif, Edo period, 18th century, National Noh Theatre

Since its inception in the 14th century, nō has been closely associated with the military aristocracy. Its costumes were therefore influenced by the everyday garments of the elite samurai classes. Some of the robes were donated by high-ranking samurai or court nobles in recognition of a superb performance.

Early on, the renowned actor-playwright Zeami (c1363 – c1443) began to record the types of textiles, motifs, styles and drapery to be used in nō costumes. These elements defined the character’s gender and social status, as well as their psychological state.

In the 15th century, specialised costumes were devised for certain performances, such as the ‘dance cloak’. Further developments took place in the Momoyama period (1573–1615) when intricate embroidery (nuihaku) and weaving techniques (karaori) once common in the clothing of the social elite were used exclusively for nō robes. By the mid Edo period (1615–1868) these costumes became codified and developed into the stylised robes that we now associate with the nō theatre.

Questions and activities

  • Analyse the costumes in this exhibition and take particular note of the colour ways, use of motifs, repetition and style. What do you notice? Can you easily identify costumes for particular characters or their status within a play? Choose a favourite costume in the exhibition and design your own costume reflecting a similar approach.
  • Consider how different colours and patterns can reflect how characters in a play are feeling. Make a list of colours and patterns and match them to different emotions. Is this easy to do? Do your classmates agree with your choices?
  • Research another theatrical art form such as ballet, the circus or musical theatre. Debate how important costumes are in relation to the plot and characters.

Karaori nō robe with design of flower rafts on alternating blocks of crimson and white ground, Edo period, 18th century, National Noh Theatre