The British Museum in London is home to more than 2,300 tiny and remarkable sculptures called netsuke. These intricately wrought objects are preserved cultural relics that were all the rage as men’s fashion accessories during Japan’s Edo period from the late sixteenth century to the nineteenth century.
In her book called Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan, Japanese art curator Noriko Tsuchiya details historically significant netsuke, with selections including a glowing ivory carrier pigeon to a terrifying ghoul carved in excruciating detail. Netsuke is an artform that is still practiced today, in mediums ranging from ivory and porcelain to lacquered wood and hippopotamus horn.
Apparently, during the Edo period, the government was quite strict about what townsmen could and could not wear according to their rank and social status. Tsuchiya explains that although samurai dress code was very strict, men could complement their simple uniforms “with decorative additions, providing that they were worn discreetly or were hidden in the folds of their robes.” These netsuke were fundamentally fashion accessories and aesthetic symbols of social status.
To wear a netsuke, a silken cord was attached to it and then looped around the obi, which was a sash tied around the wearer’s waist. Peeking out the top of the obi, the netsuke acted as a fastener to hold a lacquered wooden container, which the Japanese called an inrō, in place as it dangled below. Some netsuke were hollow, allowing their owners to secret away forbidden or pornographic items while more ordinary objects were stored inside the inrō.
Tsuchiya draws contemporary comparisons between netsuke and cellphone charms, as well as cufflinks. Men would choose a different obi every morning, much the same as an English gentleman will select a tie for the day.