Nowadays, when thinking about Japan and fashion, we are immediately thinking of Harajuku.
About street-fashion, about the Lolita-trend with its various representations, high school uniforms, and, of course, the traditional kimono. But let’s imagine a travel back in time to the Heian era, among nobles and ladies-of-the-court. The Lolitas and the school girls miraculously vanished; so did the kimono as we know it.
Before the Heian period, all aspects of the Japanese life were influenced by the Chinese culture. In fashion, the Yoro dress-code imposed rules inspired almost entirely from the Chinese dress codes during Tang Dynasty. Nevertheless, after 894, in the early Heian era, the relationships with China gradually worsened, leading to the development of a Japanese cultural identity. Reflected in the yamato-e paintings and in kana calligraphy, this Japanese specificity started to occur in fashion as well, along with the development of an individual dress style.
This dress style, the same as all the other aspects of the social and cultural life, bore the stamp of an aesthetic sense influenced by nature, and of a refinement sometimes pushed over the border. Murasaki Shikibu’s Diary (Murasaki Shikibu Nikki) remains one of the most important documentary sources about the fashion of those times, as the author described very accurately the clothes of her contemporaries and focused on their importance, regarding both fabric and the combinations of colors used, and how they were worn. The clothes represented an important indicator of the character and style, and one of the methods used by the ladies to make themselves remarked at the Court and to express their individuality.
The Heian kimono, known as juuni-hitoe (literally: twelve layers), usually had twelve layers made of silk, of equal sizes, but in different colors. The number of kimono layers and the color combinations were decided by the 200 rules regarding the dress code. These were issued by the government and reflected the social status of the person who was wearing it. During that period, the official kimono used by the high-rank ladies at various ceremonies could have up to twenty layers. Due to this excessive refinement, the wearer of such a huge kimono became a mobile doll, being unable to walk for more than a few meters without being supported. There is even a legend saying that a lady of the Court supposedly drowned because of the heaviness of the costume. Later, the number of kimono layers was diminished to five by government decree.
The Heian kimono consisted of several compulsory elements: kosode (worn directly on the skin, a short-sleeved kimono which is actually the ancestor of the present day kimono); hitoe (a shirt that represented the first layer of a set of robes); itsutsuginu (made of five layers of robes); uchiginu (was worn between itsutsuginu and uwagi and was actually a hard corset, tailored out of silk, which wasn’t visible, but that supported the other robes); uwagi (a formal robe, worn on the outside, whose pattern and color indicated the rank; it could also have a tail whose length was adjusted depending on the social status of the wearer); karaginu (a short robe, embroidered or painted, worn together with a mo, a kind of trail attached to the back). Under all these layers one had to wear the hakama (very long trousers, often red or violet, depending on the color combination chosen). All these clothes were always accessorized with a fan (hi-ogi or akome-ogi).
This elaborated outfit was completed by the make-up, which was equally complex. The women used to whiten their face with rice powder, shaved their eyebrows and redrew them as perfect arches; they drew black (and sometimes red) lines around the eyes, painted their lips in red, and blackened their teeth. Nevertheless, men from that era weren’t necessarily interested in the feminine physical beauty, which they could rarely see, anyway. The only physical attribute they considered interesting was the hair, which had to be thick and longer than the woman’s height.
The seducing element was the women’s talent in poetry writing and the way they were wearing their kimono; a man could fall in love only seeing the sleeves of a woman’s kimono getting off a screen, or reading of a finely-crafted poem. The mannerism that characterized the Heian Court had as main feature the excessive effeminacy; white and round face; small mouth; narrow eyes and a fuzz of beard were all elements that made up the ideal of masculine beauty, the beard being the only element that differentiated the masculine and feminine physiognomy. Men wore hakama and multi-layered clothes as well, but they were more rigid and less elaborated than those worn by women; here, the additional layers were added in order to make the chest and the shoulders more prominent.
During the Heian era, the dress code indicated not only the social status, but also the Japanese perception on colors and changes of shades brought by the seasons, reflecting the importance they gave to nature and to the idea of beauty; therefore, the color combinations for the Heian kimono (kasame no irome) were very strictly established for each season. The only written document preserved until today about the chromatic combinations used for kimonos is a manuscript from the 12th century, Nyobo no shozoku ni (Colors of a Court Lady’s Dress), authored by Minamoto Masasuke, elaborated for the young empress Fujiwara Tashi. Among the most well-known chromatic combinations are waka shobu (for summer: a green robe on layers of light green, white, light pink), yuki no shita (for winter: three white robe on a dark pink robe and a light pink robe) and matsugasane (for autumn-winter: an outside brown dress on a layer of light brown material and three layers of green, from light to dark shades).
The detailed description provided by Murasaki Shikibu for the clothes of ladies and nobles proves how important fashion was to them, being a sign of social stratification: Looking around within the blinds, I could see those permitted the forbidden colors wearing the usual yellow-green and red jackets of printed silk. Their mantles were mostly of dark red figured silk, except for Muma no Chujo’s which was light purple, I remember. Their gowns resembled a miscellany of autumn leaves of varying tints, and their lined robes were, as usual, of various colors: saffron of differing shades, purple lined with dark red, and yellow lined in green, some being of three rather than five layers. […] Of those who were not permitted the colours, the older women wore plain jackets in yellow-green or dark red, each with five damask cuffs. Their robes were all of damask. The brightness of the wave pattern printed on their trains caught the eye, and their waistlines too were heavily embroidered. They had white robes lined with dark red in either three or five layers but of plain silk. The younger women wore jackets with five cuffs of various colors: white on the outside with dark red on yellow-green, white with just one green lining, and pale red shading to dark with one white layer interposed. They were all most intelligently arranged. (The Diary of Lady Murasaki, translated by Richard Browning, Penguin Books, pages 24-25)
Juuni-hitoe gradually transformed in time, becoming the traditional kimono of the present day. Nevertheless, in the official ceremonies, the imperial family still wears this type of costume, as an acknowledgement of the refinement that governed the dress code in the Heian era.
Co-founder and former editor-in-chief of CosplayGEN Magazine, editor at CollectiKult, and a translation industry professional.