Then and Now — Common Mistakes in Japanese Historical Clothing

When making and wearing pre-Tokugawa era Japanese clothing, there are two stumbling blocks of which one must be aware:

Although modern kimono can be considered “ancient”, the way it is worn today is truly and utterly modern.   It wasn’t even called “kimono” until the 19th century.

What the Imperial family and temple dancers wear today may be based on Heian period clothing, but it has been stylized and “updated” greatly since the 12th century.   Emulating the dress of the modern Empress will only make you look like a 21st century Empress, not a 10th century court lady.

With this in mind, observe the following pictures:


Then

Now

Notice the different in hairstyle.   The modern example displays a hairstyle similar to modern formal coiffure.   This style dates to the 19th century and no earlier.   Both hold closed fans in their hands but again, the modern version is more stylized and less functional.   In both versions, the ladies wear nagabakama, a long pair of pants which trail behind the wearer.   This is why you cannot see their feet.   In informal situations, the nagabakama were pulled up inside to ankle level.   Women stopped wearing these pants in the 14th century.

Also take note of the difference in the hang and decoration of the garments.   See the almost Westernized embroidery on the collar of the modern version?   Notice how the 11th century version seems more mobile, more livable.   The modern version is more stylized, more rigid.   The modern version hangs like it is held up by hoops and wires.   The mannequin doesn’t even look comfortable.   It is also apparent that the modern version is worn by people who stand and walk and the Heian version is worn by people who kneel and crawl on the floor.   Heian period ladies lived in this clothing every day.   Modern Imperial ladies only wear it to Coronations and Imperial Weddings, which do not occur often.

An 11th century Imperial Lady
A 20th century Imperial Lady

Then

Then

Now

Hair in low ponytail.   Obi hidden.   Robes dragging on ground.
Hair in low ponytail.   Narrow obi.   Robes dragging on ground.
Hair up in elbaorate style.   Decorative obi.   Robes clear ground.
A 12th century woman
A 16th century woman
A 19th century woman

Then

Then

Now

Elaborate overgarment.   Wearing pants.   Wearing hat.
Overgarment matches hakama.   Wearing pants.
No pants.   Still, he’s wearing a jacket. Unless they are poor or lounging around their own home, every Japanese man would have worn some kind of overgarment.
A 10th century nobleman
A 14th century warrior
A 19th century merchant

Pictures used by gracious permission of Mr. Izutsu at the Kyoto Costume Museum.


© 2001, 2003 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.