Traditional Japanese fashion, by the seasons

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This blustery, billowing image of an elaborately dressed and coiffured Japanese woman with a parasol is an example of ukiyo-e - a Japanese wood-block print that is a "picture of the floating world." Beautiful women were a favorite subject in ukiyo-e, and prints of them were known as bijinga.

They were the fashion plates of the time and place - the Edo period in Japan, extending from about 1600 to 1868. The "beauties" featured in them wore the latest season's kimonos, and included courtesans, women at famous tea shops, and ladies in samurai families. The high- ranking courtesans were often celebrities. They were artistic, cultivated, and literate (some were poets), and they met exacting standards of elegance. They set the fashion trends for women beyond the closeted demimonde in which they lived.

Although they were the pinups of Edo (the original name for Tokyo), these wood-block prints are works of extraordinary imagination, craftsmanship, and finesse. When artists in the West became aware of these prints in the 19th century, they were enchanted and influenced by them.

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Keisai Eisen's bijinga became popular in the later Edo period, called the Bunsei era. He was a landscape artist, but he also designed prints of elegantly dressed women. His prints are strongly colored, imposing, and are overtly dramatic. His subjects seem to belong more directly to the natural world than earlier ukiyo-e women.

This fits the theme of the exhibition in which the print to the right currently appears. The show is called "Beauties of the Four Seasons," and it's on view at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, until Oct. 16. It consists of prints from the museum's fine collection and explores the connections between the beautiful women, their clothes, and the changing seasons.

The seasons had traditions and rituals associated with them, and these were also reflected in designs and patterns of dress materials. For instance, when an awase, or lined kimono, was worn, this indicated early summer or late autumn.

The dresses changed style and thickness four times a year. March is suggested by the print here - this woman is passing a peach tree in bloom. Her flamboyant kimono boasts a wisteria design.

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