March 10, 2023
Juni-hitoe-12 Layers of Flowing Robes
The excesses of fashion in the pursuit of beauty
The Heian era (794-1185) in Japan was its golden age of high culture. The imperial court turned away from emulating China and towards a native Japanese culture. The samurai class of warriors grew and became very influential. Japanese art flourished and was honored and important in social interactions. Two types of Japanese script developed, in lieu of the Chinese script. The quality of one’s handwriting was considered an outward expression of one’s character. Poetry was a highly respected form of expression. Men and women of the imperial court were expected to know a large body of poems and one was judged by one’s poetic creativity. Japanese vernacular literature developed and thrived to which the women of the imperial court were major contributors. The imperial court was a very refined and cultured society. The Heian era is invoked with nostalgia and pride, particularly when Japanese nationalism is high.
Empress Masako in junihitoe in 2019
Instead of dressing in Chinese robes, Japanese men and women dressed in wide sleeved, trailing robes, under robes called kosodes and baggy pants called hakama. Initially, the robes were relatively simple but over time, the number of robes exponentially grew until the women of the imperial court could barely move. The juni-hitoe from the Heian era remains a woman’s ceremonial outfit that is still worn during Japanese imperial coronations and other very important occasions. Juni-hitoe mean “12 layers”, a hitoe being an unlined robe. Over a relatively simple base layer of a kosode “small sleeve” robe and hakama pants (which combination would also be worn as pajamas), additional robes were added in a way that the edge of each robe could be seen at the sleeve openings and at the trailing hems. In order to accommodate these layers, the sleeves are only attached at the shoulder and there is an opening between the width of the sleeve and the body of the robe in make room for the many layers of sleeves. These openings and sleeve design is still present on modern kimono in order to accommodate one or two layers.
The colors of the robes and the order of arrangement communicated a lot of information about the season, the identity of the woman and her mood. The women were not allowed to be fully seen by the men of the court. They sat behind a screen so that only the hems and the sleeves of their juni-hitoe could been seen. The women’s faces were hidden by a large fan. It was considered to be very rude and offensive to speak someone’s name so one referred to another by their rank and by other attributes, including a color they favored. The women wore their hair long and flowing like a train. They painted their faces white in the Chinese fashion, plucked their eye brows and drew replacement eyebrows on their foreheads. Both men and women blackened their teeth. These YouTube links show the dressing of a woman in a juni-hitoe: Junihitoe IKIDANE NIPPON , Junihitoe Dressing show Narration[Network2010]
Just as fashion pushed western women to create smaller and smaller waist lines with constricting corsets that broke ribs and the Chinese bound feet to keep them small but impaired the women’s ability to walk , the Heian court women added more and more layers of robes until they might be carrying more than 45 pounds of clothing on their backs and were barely able to move. In order to walk in a juni-hitoe with its long trailing robes requires one to literally kick the fabric out of the way in order to take a step forward.
Sumptuary laws or regulations as to what one is allowed to wear or are prohibited from wearing have been customary for Japan throughout its history. Eventually, sumptuary laws saved the women from this fashion folly by limiting the number of layers that could be included in a juni-hitoe. One wonders why the Japanese women accepted the restrictions created by so many layers. Possibly, they were compelled by a desire to communicate more with the men and needed additional color combinations and layers for more nuanced expressions. Possibly, they added layers to compete with the other women. Or maybe, they were encouraged by the men who may have loved the appearance of these many layers. In all events, fashion can lead to excesses that extract a heavy cost when fashion moves away from function to ostentation.
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