Courtesy of Amuse Museum, Chuzaburo Tanaka Collection

There is something breathtaking about looking at clothing suspended in midair, even if it is from your computer screen. Suspension doesn’t need to imply weightlessness, levity, or airiness. In fact, it is arguably more interesting to see a garment float silently in space that seems to be weighty. At the Japan Society’s “Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics,” in New York, century-old garments are suspended in mid-air like spectres haunting palatial mansions. Despite its premature closure in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s still worth taking a virtual tour of the exhibit while gleaning some style lessons from these originators of sustainable fashion. 

Boro is an over 200-year-old handicraft and textile practice that is native to Japan. Made completely anonymously and mostly by women, these garments are the embodiment of utilitarianism, minimalism, and sustainability. The term “boro” means rags, or tatters, in Japanese. The garments were constructed out of scraps of old hemp fabric and pieced together into coats, gloves, and blankets. In parts of Japan, especially in the north where the exhibit places its focus, it was nearly impossible to grow cotton due to year-round cold temperatures. Boro, then, wasn’t so much of an aesthetic choice as it was a necessity for survival. Women would make these garments for the men in their family who often had physically demanding jobs, working as fishermen or farmers. 

When you walk through the exhibit, these garments hang alongside photographs by Kyoichi Tsuzuki, contemporary textile art by artists such as Susan Cianciolo and Christina Kim, as well as avant garde Japanese fashion designers like Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto. The convergence of these works feels completely natural. The boro textiles feel perfectly in conversation with any of the deconstructed and irregularly beautiful designs of a Comme des Garçons dress or Susan Cianciolo tapestries. They feel just as radically futuristic, too. 

I learned as much when I spoke to the Japan Society’s Gallery Director, Yukie Kamiya. She tells me that the boro movement is intrinsically tied to survival, and that the aesthetics of these garments were an afterthought. The women who made these coats and blankets took what they had, and the result was always something that ended up being beautiful as a byproduct of the process. “This is a creation for survival, and the urgency to survive,” says Kamiya. “It’s nothing about the aesthetic or some artistic beauty. But even so, we can see so many creations and the creativity they are using with limited resources.” 

Courtesy of Amuse Museum, Chuzaburo Tanaka Collection

She then drew a major parallel to our own times and our own needs and dreams for a more sustainable fashion ecosystem. “[In times] of emergency, [when] we don’t have any kind of access to the material, people can be creative,” she says. “This is an encouraging practice, and sustainability is not to endure something. We can kind of enjoy and find another value in the handicraft.”

One of the greatest joys of this exhibit is its desire to inhabit multiple artistic realms. This exhibit at the Japan Society is so exciting because it is so multidisciplinary, especially in its conceptual origins. Kamiya tells me she first got hip to the boro movement through reading Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s artistic and anthropological deep dive into small spaces in Tokyo, aptly named Tokyo Style. “He is a person who really kind of watched and discovered all these people’s points of view,” Kamiya explains “[Tsuzuk] is one of the people to discover the interest and the creativity of boro. Through his book, I learned about [the boro movement]. He joined my interest from the past and present. He also tried to bring a model to the area where boro was produced.”. 

It made complete sense for Kamiya to place his photographs alongside original boro garments as well as more avant garde pieces from the past 50 years of fashion. “[Designers like] Rei Kawakubo, Yohji, and Issey Miyake challenged [previously established] conventions of beauty. The aesthetic [of their work] is more irregular, and sometimes patchwork,” she says. Even a wrinkle becomes an interesting character, rather than a negative part. They completely changed the notion of beauty, and they give the sensation of the weird. Their aesthetic and ethics, using limited resources, and [deviating from] regular patterns, [lends itself to] an appreciation of irregularity, which is the ethics and aesthetic of boro.” 

Where the exhibit really reaches its apotheosis is not so much in anything tangible but in its social and political implications. The exhibit is made up of boro textiles that almost exclusively come from the Tōhoku region of Japan, which was the site of the devastating 2011 earthquake. “The day after the March 11 earthquake the Japan Society had been working with the Tōhoku region. We have been encouraging the culture practice in Tōhoku to recover from the devastation,” Kamiya tells me of the relationship. The Japan Society’s relationship with this part of the country focuses deeply on the concept of sustainability in art: “Those historical handicrafts [can show us], how in current society there is so much waste and so much [reliance on] fast fashion. There is joy in the handiwork.” 

Kyoichi Tsuzuki / The Japn Society

Looking at contemporary slow fashion — be it an immaculately constructed pair of Bode work pants or a Collina Strada dress with origins in Ghana — sustainability in fashion feels more relevant than ever. It is also clear that so much of contemporary upcycled slow fashion is in conversation with this brilliant and deceptively complex centuries-old textile form. There is a future and a past that can exist and has existed outside of the seemingly relentless grasp of fast fashion. The boro textiles at the Japan Society seem to say that past and present cohabitate beautifully — that the anonymous handicrafts of lower class Japanese women have forecasted the future, and hold the key to what the industry needs to aspire towards in an age of climate collapse. 

Words by Sophie Kemp