History of Kimono: Classical Japan (Nara and Heian Periods)

Updated on June 14, 2016

What periods of Japanese history are we looking at today?

Paleolithic (pre–14,000 BCE)
Jōmon (14,000–300 BCE)
Yayoi (300 BCE–250 CE)
Kofun (250–538)
Asuka (538–710)
Nara (710–794)
Heian (794–1185)
Kamakura (1185–1333)
Muromachi (1336–1573)
Azuchi–Momoyama (1568–1603)
Edo (1603–1868)
Meiji (1868–1912)
Taishō (1912–1926)
Showa (1926-1989)
Heisei (1989-Present)
"Hey, there are gaps and overlaps in this timeline!" Yup--Japanese history has been tumultuous, and transfers of power didn't always occur right away, or last long enough to have a significant impact on clothing, e.g. the Kemmu Restoration.

The Classical Period

With the establishment of a permanent capital in Nara, the Imperial Court was free to spend time and money on pursuits other than constantly moving, building, and moving and re-building the capital city every 20 years or so (a practice rooted in Shinto beliefs regarding ritual purity of the land and the wood used to build structures).

Nara became a very powerful center of Buddhist influence, exercising greater and greater influence over the Imperial family, much to the chagrin of the Fujiwara clan, the traditional center of power over the emperor. Possibly in response to the growing influence of the monks (though the official reason was 'better water access'), the capital was moved away to Nagaoka-kyo in 784, then moved even farther once again, to Heian-kyo in 794.

The Heian Period was the longest, most stable period of Japanese history, lasting nearly 400 years and promoting the development of a uniquely Japanese culture. No longer was Japan taking its cues for high culture from China--all which is quintessentially Japanese can trace its origins back to the Heian Period.

Tang Dynasty women showing the high fashion of the day, then copied by Nara ladies.
Tang Dynasty women showing the high fashion of the day, then copied by Nara ladies. | Source
A modern reproduction of Nara Period clothing. Many articles of clothing from this period remain in the Shōsōin, and exact replicas are made with silk farmed by the Empress herself.
A modern reproduction of Nara Period clothing. Many articles of clothing from this period remain in the Shōsōin, and exact replicas are made with silk farmed by the Empress herself. | Source

Nara Period: The Proto-Kimono Appears

In the Asuka Period, Japanese clothing closely mimicked Tang Chinese fashion, and Chinese fashions continued to influence Japanese dress into the Nara Period. Only a few years before moving the capital permanently to Nara, the government passed a law dictating what dress suited high ceremony, uniforms and mourning wear (the Taihou Code of 701), and only a few years after establishing the new capital, the Yourou Clothing Code of 718 was passed, declaring that collars must be crossed left over right, in accordance with the Chinese way of dressing. It was also around this time that courtly women began wearing highly fashionable crossed collar tarikubi robes from China, while men of the court continued to wear scholarly round-necked agekubi robes, like what Prince Shotoku wore in his painting. For centuries, this gender distinction in the neckline of clothing would hold.

In these Tang-inspired Nara Period high fashion ensembles, we can see the basis for the kimono--a 'proto-kimono', if you will--beginning to emerge. We also see an interesting development in the world of pants and skirts. Fashionable Tang Dynasty ladies wore their skirts tied over their robes (unlike when China first contacted the Japanese, when fashion dictated that jackets and shirts should drape over the top of skirts), and so Japanese women began to follow this trend. Even into modern day, men and women alike wear their hakama pants over their kimono.

Astute readers may wonder what became of the skirts I only just mentioned. For whatever reason, skirts reached a dead-end in Japanese fashion during the Nara Period. In the Heian Period, they would be all but abandoned in favor of hakama for both men and women. Skirts remained in courtly fashion only as a vestigial, ceremonial apron-like garment (called a mo), worn in the back of a woman's ensemble.

Heian ladies wearing juunihitoe, painted on a handscroll for the Tale of Genji.
Heian ladies wearing juunihitoe, painted on a handscroll for the Tale of Genji. | Source

Color and Beauty in the Heian Period

A new permanent capital was established at Heian-kyo, and thus the the aptly named Heian Period began. Due to the decline of the Tang Dynasty, Japan stopped sending envoys and instead focused inward. As a result, there was an explosion of fine architecture, poetry, novel-writing, painting and development of women's clothing.

The most well-known clothing of the Heian period is the juunihitoe, or 'twelve layered robe', worn by the highest-ranked ladies of the Imperial Court. The name is something of a misnomer--ladies could wear as few as two layers up to twenty or more, depending on season, occasion, rank, etc. This was the highest formalwear for a woman, and could easily weigh more than thirty or forty pounds in the wintertime.

Color has always been a very important indicator of rank throughout the world, but it's hard to imagine a place with greater nuance than Japan. There could be a dozen shades of red available to a dyer, but one specific dye (aka, the common term for 'red' in modern Japanese) would be reserved only for men of a specific court rank. Any other shade could be worn by the ladies of the court--except, of course, for another specific shade (kurenai, a shade of crimson obtained from safflower) which was reserved for the ladies of the Imperial family...or for those whom the Empress favored. A woman's outfit and color selection could thus indicate all kinds of information besides rank, such as a her age, marital status, location, ceremonial occasion, courtly favor, etc. This incredible range of meaning is still found in kimono today.

The robes themselves were usually plain, flat silk, as brocades and other kinds of figured silk could only be worn if one had imperial permission. Thus, the sophisticated layering of various robes was the primary form of decoration for a Heian lady's wardrobe, with each layer carefully arranged to show all of the layers underneath at the sleeves and hems of her ensemble. Surprisingly, each layer of a juunihitoe is the same size; one might think that each robe would be slightly smaller than the layer under it in order to produce the visual effect of a dozen colors fanning out at the sleeve, but such construction would be extremely inefficient. After all, in some ensembles, a yellow layer might be the outermost color, while in another, it could be a color closer to the inside--if the layers were all slightly different sizes, one's wardrobe would not be able to accommodate different ensembles to reflect the changing seasons, which would have been disastrous to a lady's reputation.

As it was improper for men to look at a woman's face, men and women were separated from view by bamboo curtains hung from the ceiling, or by large painted fans made of wood--the only part of the woman that men could see was the edges of their sleeves. Thus, a woman's ability to put together a well-coordinated ensemble, sensitive to the passing seasons and elegantly displaying forbidden colors or specially granted brocades was far more important than her physical beauty, and the sight of sleeves became a popular romantic motif in poetry, novels, and art from the Heian Period.

The last remnants of Heian dress, on display for the Emperor's wedding to Empress Michiko in 1959. Imperial wedding portraits and coronations are performed in Heian high ceremonial dress. Notice the cross-collared robes under the round-necked robe.
The last remnants of Heian dress, on display for the Emperor's wedding to Empress Michiko in 1959. Imperial wedding portraits and coronations are performed in Heian high ceremonial dress. Notice the cross-collared robes under the round-necked robe. | Source
The dress of a Heian Period commoner. His practical workman's 'hitatare' will become the standard of dress when the samurai come to power.
The dress of a Heian Period commoner. His practical workman's 'hitatare' will become the standard of dress when the samurai come to power. | Source
The dress of a Heian Period commoner. Little does she know, her mode of dress is 400 years ahead of its time...
The dress of a Heian Period commoner. Little does she know, her mode of dress is 400 years ahead of its time... | Source

What About Men's Clothing? And Commoners?

As was mentioned earlier, men's clothing continued in the Nara mode for a long stretch of the Heian Period. Men's ensembles varied mostly in color and design between court ranks, according to the ranking system in use in the Heian Period, the Court Rank System of 701 introduced by Emperor Tenno.

Bright colors were the dominant tones in men's clothing in Japan. Purple, red, green and blue indicated certain ranks (in order from highest to lowest, with higher ranking men within a certain level wearing darker versions of that color). When paired with lacquered silk hats, a man's rank in the court could be understood at a mere glance...at least, for someone who was familiar with the highly complicated system of court rank!

In the 11th century, however, the agekubi men's robes seen in the Nara Period fell out of fashion--instead, they were elevated to the highest level of ceremonial dress for the Imperial family. Now, the only people wearing the round-necked robes of the early Heian Period (aside from historical re-enactors) are members of the Imperial family during their marriages, or during the investiture of a new Emperor.

After the agekubi robes left the world of everyday dress for men of the court, they were left with the crossed-collar mode worn by women and lower-class Japanese.

Commoners were wearing something most aristocrats were familiar with. Underneath the many layers of the juunihitoe and their courtly colors, upper class men and women wore an underrobe called a kosode, meaning 'small sleeve', referring not to the overall size of the sleeve, but the opening of the sleeve at the wrist. The common people, who weren't permitted to wear the extravagant dress of the aristocrats, wore simple kosode-style garments which allowed them to do manual labor--a need the upper crust never had, but a mode which would soon take over the ruling class when the aristocrats lost political power to the samurai class. But that is a story for another day.

Further Reading

Paul Varley's Japanese Culture is an excellent overview of Japanese history, with specific attention paid to the influence of Buddhism on Japanese culture.

Liza Dalby's Kimono: Fashioning Culture is an excellent resources on clothing and history (specifically Heian and Meiji culture), and is very readable. Geisha is one of the leading English-language resources on the Karyukai, though it is somewhat drier than her other books (though considering it is a Ph.D thesis, it's highly informative!).

Helen Craig McCullough's Classical Japanese Prose contains many excerpts of Heian era writings, mostly by female authors, as well as several early Kamakura era writings (mostly by authors who had witnessed the end of the Heian Period), including the Gossamer Journal by Michitsuna's Mother, Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book, and a selection of short stories from the middle to late Heian Period. McCullough also translated such landmark works of Japanese literature as the Tale of the Heike, which are also highly recommended.

Steven D. Carter's Traditional Japanese Poetry is an excellent volume to accompany McCullough's anthology of prose. Carter's translations are careful to preserve the syllable counts and feel of the original poems, which are included below the translations.

Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji, while quite an undertaking for modern readers, is a landmark piece of fiction in world history, widely regarded as the world's first novel, and depicts the intricate workings of the imperial court as written by someone who was fluent in its workings for people who were just as deeply involved. The Royall Tyler translation is the most recent, features extensive footnotes, and helps make this massive story more accessible to modern English readers.


  • Nara laws dictated that all robes must be crossed left over right, in accordance with Chinese custom. Tang Dynasty fashion also influenced the Japanese to begin wearing skirts and pants over their robes, a style which persists to modern day.
  • Heian women's fashion flourished, generating an aesthetic culture with great sensitivity to color and season. These developments continue to influence Japanese color theory into modern times.
  • Heian men continued to wear the round-necked Chinese robes of court rank until the 1100's, at which point the Chinese-style robes were elevated to the highest ceremonial wear for the Imperial court. At this time, men adopted the crossed-collar style worn by women and lower classes.
  • The peasants and lower classes of the Heian era wore simple clothing, similar to the 'kosode' undergarments worn by the aristocrats.


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    • Katie Armstrong profile imageAUTHOR

      Katie Armstrong 

      2 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      Trousers have been independently invented by cultures all around the world, including Japan! Haniwa statues dating from the Kofun Period show people wearing trousers. As for hakama themselves (being a specific kind of trousers), the design seems to be unique to Japan--though it was inspired by Sui and later Tang dynasty court wear.

      Sanskrit came to Japan along with Buddhist teachings. Monks like Kuukai and Saigyou, educated in Chinese while in Japan, traveled to China in the 8th century to receive the Dharma from Chinese Buddhist masters and bring the knowledge back to Japan. Kuukai in particular is credited with bringing the Siddham script to Japan, as his handwriting has been particularly venerated throughout Japanese history (all of the other monks on the same mission surely also learned and practiced Siddham, after all!). Sanskrit proper, however, has not been used as a liturgical language in Japan--the Sanskrit and Pali that is used in Buddhism in Japan is taken from Chinese, leading to pronunciations of words like Prajñāpāramitā as 'Han Nya Ha Ra Mi Ta' in modern Japanese. The two languages have massive differences in phoneme inventory (Sanskrit has 13 vowels, Japanese has 5, to start), so things like the nature of the vowels and many consonants have been changed to adapt to the languages of the region, and many technical terms which were originally in Sanskrit or Pali were translated directly into Chinese (and then into Japanese)--for example, the word 'dharma' is '法' (hou, 'law') in Japanese, not 'daruma' (which is something very different).

      As for whether the people of Classical China ever traveled to the moon...no. Many things in mythology are only myths (Zeus turning into a swan and sleeping with Leda, Tornado being sent up to retrieve the animals from the still-wet earth when they tried to venture out of the underworld too soon after the Great Spirit created the Earth from clay, a worldwide flood which, while widely attested in the Middle East, never affected China or Japan, etc.).

    • jasuriaila profile image

      David Lundman 

      2 years ago from Eden Prairie, MN

      What exactly s the origin of Hakama? Do hakama come from the Tang Dynasty of China, and if so when did hakama develop in China and who wore hakama originally?

      When and how did Sanskrit come to Japan, and was Sanskrit used in China? Did people in ancient China travel to the Moon as Chinese mythology indicates?

    • Katie Armstrong profile imageAUTHOR

      Katie Armstrong 

      6 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      I'll likely go more in-depth about color in another Hub--many of these color traditions still hold (i.e. bright colors in winter, pale pastels in spring, light, cool colors in summer, dark, warm tones in fall), but some have changed (i.e. in the Heian period, bright red hakama indicated a married woman, while a darker maroon indicated an unmarried girl; in modern kimono 'grammar', bright red is a child's color while dark colors indicate a grown woman of refined taste). There's a lot there!

    • Jo_Goldsmith11 profile image


      6 years ago

      I would really like to learn more about what each color robe means "age, marital status, location, ceremonial occasion, courtly favor" for the females.

      This was interesting and it speaks of the struggles of Japan to find their place where to feel safe and take root. so interesting!

      Well written. :-)

      Up ++++ shared and tweeted. :-)


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