Review - The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu

Murasaki Shikibu is mainly known for her The tale of Genji, but she has made another important contribution to the literary heritage of old Japan, and that is her diary, or nikki as they are called in Japanese. A nikki is a collection of reflections and describtions of events, but not perhaps in a way a modern diary-writer would understand the task. Fair enough, this is written a little over a thousand years ago, conventions on writing change over time.

This diary is written in the first years of the 11th century, in a period called Heian. She is recently widowed and has a place at the imperial court, and the first part (and the end) is a description of life in the imperial household. The diary begins when the second consort of emperor Ichijo, Shoshi, was expected to give  birth to her first child, and then revolvs around this, the rituals surrounding birth and newly borns, but also court life as such. The second part of the book has the shape of a letter, both telling of Murasaki's thoughts on life (which come across as rather gloomy) and her opinions on other courtiers.

The main focus is descriptions. She describes rituals, people, nature and clothes. Everything is very beautiful and to the point in a way any modern writer could take notes from. But this is an old text and to a modern reader that can present a problem, you have to know quite a bit to be able to fully appreciate the text. That is why I would recommend any reader to sit down with a version with extensive footnotes. It might sound a bit boring, but it really isn't, and if you don't you will soon see the problems: not only are the officialls mentioned only by their titles and in a way that hints very little of who they were, but even the colours of the ladies in waiting's  robes are described in ways unknown to most modern readers (not to mention non-Japanese), and let's face it, most of us know precious little about rituals and their shape and meaning in Heian Japan.

All in all a beautiful read and an important document!

More about her can be found here!


Mary Curzon and style

Mary Curzon
Mary Curzon, who deserves a blog post in herself (and I might get around to that) was an American heiress who married George Curzon who was to become Viceroy of India at the end of the 19th century. At the moment I'm reading Nigel Nicolson's biography on her (Mary Curzon) and his description of her and her wardrobe when she was to become Vicereine is worth quoting in spite of its length (page 138 in the Futura paperback edition from 1978) to give a flair of the exotic, and what was expected of a woman in the late Victorian and Edwardian period:

"She took immense pains with her trousseau, knowing that she must match the magnificent jewels, uniforms, turbans and saris of her host and hostess, and how much importance an oriental people attach to outward appearance. She must be ultra-feminine when the men were ultra-masculine. She must not give offence by adopting the Indian style, but pay tribute to it by discreet reminders that she knew what it was. She had special materials woven in India to her design; embroidered Parisian clothes with Indian motifs; bought costume jewellery in Calcutta bazaars. Many of her clothes survive in the costume-museum of Bath, a few displayed on dummies in the exhibition-hall, the remainder carefully stored in the original trunks in which she brought them back from India. There, seventy years later, I was allowed to unfold and handle them. They were still in perfect condition. Evening dresses, garden-party dresses, trains, morning gowns; silks, satins and brocades; padded, boned and upholstered. She had a taste for slithering materials which changed colour as she walked, or crisp ones which rustled (sound has gone out of modern clothes, to their loss), and for lace edgings which would have dirtied withing an hour had she not taken great care. Almost every dress was made by Worth in Paris, and  on most were stitched Indian designs of flowers, or whorls following the skirt-hem or caressing the neckline, strengthening the flowing silk or satin with encrusted dragons or insects unknown to entomology. She preferred glowing colours, rich reds and purples, imperial colours, but pink was her favourite. In the daytime the dresses were loose and flowing, or tightly waisted. In the evening, her splendid shoulders emerged candlelike from the tight socket of her gown. Her beauty complimented  the material and jewels, her wearing them the designer, and all combined to satisfy her desire, her obligation, to be the loveliest."


Norwegian woman

Woman from Kristiania
Date: The 1910's
Photographer: Selmer Norland & C:o
Sitter: Unknown
Provenience: Kristiania (nowadays more known as Oslo), Norway

The dress makes it possible to date this photo - because the frame of the photo itself has a look that would offer no closer date and could just as well have been some 20 years older. On the other hand, the dress (blouse? jacket?) is typical of the fashion you would associate with the First World War. This can be seen in the simple silhouette of the clothes, a far cry from the overly intricate fashion from the eras before. Other typical details of this time are the buttons (note the big buttonholes), the asymmetrical piece of lace running down the front of the clothes, and the soft collar, reminiscent of sailor or middy collars.

The dress looks quite expensive - the lace is definitely of an expensive kind, if it's home made (which I doubt) it must have been done by an expert. I suspect it has been bought. The white collar with the little bow is quite exquisite and the fabric of the dress (blouse? jacket? you really can't tell, can you?) seems very soft with an almost velvet-y quality.

I have no idea who this woman is. The photo comes from a family album, but this is the only photo in the collection of her - and the only photo from Norway. It is possible she is a Swedish woman who moved to Norway and sent a photo home to old friends and family.


January 1852

January 1852

Date: January 1852
Originally published in: Stockholms mode-journal
Description: Six women in more or less formal dresses, worn under coats.

From left to right:
The woman in white is wearing a coat of the model 'Rachel' with a hood. The coat is made of cashmere, with yellow ribbons in silk and with silk lining. This is worn over an evening dress made of white taffeta with lace frills. Her hair is decorated with flowers.
The woman in pink and purple has a coat of the model 'Stuart' made of velvet, with wide sleeves. Her pink bonnet is frames her face and her curls arranged in a fashion known as Sevigné.
The woman in matching green jacket and dress has her clothes made out of alpaca, decorated with velvet ribbons. The model of the jacket is known as 'voyageuse'. Her simple bonnet is decorated with matching green velvet ribbons.
The woman in blue and black is wearing a Parisier walking coat made out of blue silk, with darker blue velvet decorations. It is rather close-fitting at the upper part of the body and then loosens up over the skirt of the black silk dress. 
The woman in brown has a coat known as frileuse - the name comes from the pleats on the front, collar and sleeves on the coat. The sleeves are close fitting. It is made out of silk. The bonnet is dressed in silk and with a plume. 
And the last woman is wearing a green camara-coat, made of cloth decorated with velvet and soutache boards. The brown silk dress worn under has a similar board. 

I can't help but wonder, when reading the original descriptions of these clothes, how many who actually wore these clothes made of silk and velvet, and not just made versions in wool and cotton. (And the habit of giving pieces of clothing names is quite endearing!)