Dos and Don'ts of Japanese Historic Dress

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.


Observe the following pictures:

Women in Pre-17th century Japanese Dress

Heian Nyobo (Imperial lady in waiting) circa 1000

Heian Lady in Ceremonial Dress

Heian Lady in a Casual Winter Ensemble

Kamakura Lady

Muromachi Lady wearing her kosode “katsugu” style

Momoyama Ladies wearing their kosode uchikake and koshimaki style

Momoyama Prostitute — Note the “up” hairstyle

Women in 19th century and Modern Japanese Dress

19th century Imperial courtier

Edo period Upper Class Woman (early to late Edo period)

Men in Pre-17th century Japanese Dress

Heian Gentleman of Rank in Ceremonial Costume

…in Military Regalia

…in Casual attire

…in Hunting Costume

A Guard

A Servant

A Commoner

A Buddhist Monk

A Monk from the “Pure Land” Sect

A Kamakura Bushi

A Muromachi Bushi

A Muromachi Foot Soldier

A Momyama Bushi

A Momoyama Era General

Men in 19th century and Modern Japanese Dress

An Edo Period Samurai in Casual Dress

An Edo Period Merchant

The Modern Version of “Heian Costume”

A Modern Tea Master

Notice particularly the difference in hairstyles and the use of hakama (pants).   These are two things that are often done incorrectly in the SCA.   Women wear their hair up in a bun with chopsticks in it and it was simply not done in period.   Men walk around without hakama and that is equally as strange to the Period Japanese eye.   Furthermore, men tend to wear kosode and hakama without any type of jacket.   Unless they are poor or lounging around their own home, every man would have worn some kind of overgarment.   In the earlier periods, it was a round-necked garment like the Heian hunting costume.   Later they wore hitatate, in which the jacket matching their hakama in style and colour.   Even at the end of the Momoyama period, men still wore a dobuku when doing outdoors.


Wear a wide obi

Put your hair up in the loopy updos seen in Shogun or in modern formal japanese costume and please don’t put your hair in a bun.

Wear chopsticks in your hair — fancy hair decorations were only for prostitutes until the past 100 years or so.

Wear modern martial arts clothes.   Even though hakama were worn by men and women throughout the period, they were different from modern martial arts hakama.

If you’re male, don’t wear a robe without hakama.

If you’re female and Heian or Kamakura, don’t wear a robe without hakama.


Wear many thin layers, different colors.

Wear your hair long or a long wig — it should be at least 4 feet long, and tied once in the middle of your back.

Wear the right makeup, which is white, with carefully applied eybrows and mini-lips

Wear the right colors for the season; a Heian lady would no more wear white and pink (cherry blossom combination) in the Autumn than you would wear a bikini to make a snowman. Here is a quick list of colors:

If you can’t afford several color combinations, ___ and ___ will do, because it’s not as tied to a season as the other combos.

© 2001 Kass McGann

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

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