An Informal Court Costume 

of Medieval Japan

free website design templates

Newly updated January 2006 - Better techniques at faking the look of medieval Japanese brocades and an invitation to attend the Kingdom of the Outlands' Japanese themed Twelfth Night gave me an excuse to reconstruct the uchigi originally made in the fall of 2002.


Photo from the Costume Museum, Kyoto Japan.


Photo by G. Richard Auklandus.


Photo by Karen Kestrel. 

Makiwara first appeared in this re-creation of a 10th century Japanese outfit at West Kingdom Twelfth Night (center photo above), January 4, 2003. A version of this article was presented as part of the West Kingdom Clothier’s Guild display and contained an invitation for readers to accost Makiwara with questions. Right, the windblown author at Outlands' Twelfth Night, January 7, 2006. Yes, that's my real hair.

In the tenth century, the Imperial Court of Heian-kyo (now the city of Kyoto) was the center of a flowering of aesthetic sensibility in poetry, music, calligraphy, decorative arts and clothing. Through a number of extant diaries by ladies in the Empress’ service and the world’s first novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, we are afforded an unusually intimate view of life at court in a Japan that pre-dates so much of what Westerners recognize as elements of traditional Japanese culture.

Court rank dictated what colors a person could wear. This system, like so many other elements of Heian culture, was borrowed from the much admired Chinese Imperial court and adapted into a uniquely Japanese version. A man’s court rank was indicated by the color of his robes. In her Pillow Book, court lady Sei Shonagon says, "Despite his low station a Chamberlain of the Sixth Rank is a splendid thing. To think that he is allowed yellowish-green robes of figured material and cloth that even young noblemen of the finest families are forbidden to wear!"1   She frequently writes of ladies dressed in “forbidden colors,” a mark of imperial favor. Certain shades of red and purple (achieved, not surprisingly, with costly and highly fugitive dyes), as well as certain weaves and patterned silks were reserved for the Empress and her favorites.

Within the strictures of rank, however, fashion sense was expressed by the layering of colored robes. Heian court ladies spent their “public” time hidden from mixed company, with only their hems and sleeves visible as they sat upon the floor behind blinds and screens. The painstaking arrangement of colored sleeves and hems was often all that might be seen of them. It's not surprising that The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book describe the efforts - and successes - of court gentlemen at sneaking a better look at certain ladies.2

The color combinations worn by court ladies were codified to reflect images from nature and the seasons. Just as it was important to be cultured enough to quote and write poetry for every occasion, a lady of quality should be able to express her taste by wearing the right colors in the right season. Sei Shonagon numbers among her list of depressing things a "red plum blossom dress in the Third or Fourth months,"3  a gaffe on the order of wearing white shoes before Easter. 

“Colors for a Court Lady’s Dress” was written in the twelfth century by Minamoto Masasuke as sort of a Cliff’s Notes to assist the young Empress Fujiwara Tashi in choosing what to wear at given seasons and events. Liza Dalby’s Kimono: Fashioning Culture devotes an extensive chapter to Masasuke’s text and Tashi's margin notes.4  Nature inspires the names and arrangement of each ensemble: many have floral associations, while the evocative description “Beneath the snow” (yuki no shita) refers to a dark green hitoe worn beneath several robes in gradations of lighter to darker pinks, with the outermost robes in white. 

This writer has attempted to re-create an outfit displayed at Kyoto’s Costume Museum as an example of informal court attire appropriate to the winter season.

As is evident from the images above, this is not the narrow kimono and wide obi that one has come to associate with traditional national costume of Japan. From the skin out, we see the overlapped collar of a white kosode. This “small sleeved” precursor to the modern kimono and scarlet nagabakama (trousers) constituted a Heian lady’s foundation garments. True nagabakama are longer than floor length, with the wearer actually treading upon her own trouser legs, which trailed behind her.

My kosode and nagabakama are in cotton* due to budgetary constraints. (*Silk and hemp were common in medieval Japan. Cotton did not become widely available until much later and to my knowledge was never used in court clothing.) 

Over the kosode I wore a moegi or “sprout green” hitoe, an unlined silk robe with wide sleeves. On top is an outer robe or uchigi of silk dyed the color of old leaves (kuchiba). While the color combination depicted in the museum's reconstruction is not mentioned in Masasuke's manual of more formal ensembles, the symbolism of new green peeping through dead leaves is a typically Heian allusion to the anticipated coming of spring. As I was unable to find silk in quite the colors I wanted, I used undyed silk and treated them with Acid Dyes #636 Gold Ochre and # 628 Chartreuse. (A discussion of Japanese dyestuffs may be found here.)

Embroidery and brocaded roundels were a common element of formal court attire. Reproduction textiles are still made in Japan, however, they are prohibitively costly. Instead I tried to mimic the look by block printing a ginko leaf design using Createx #7002 white fabric paint, diluted with water. I took the photo at right during the printing process. The print block sits upended in the upper middle of the picture among the printed roundels.


2005 was a year for revisiting old projects. The paint job on the uchigi I made in the winter of 2002-2003 had faded badly. I had had some good results with stenciling and I was abetted by Hiraizumi Tôrokurô Tadanobu (AKA Baron Master Edward of Effingham) who furnished me with some Heian brocade designs in the correct scale. This time I used a silk jacquard with a simple diamond pattern and Neopaque white acrylic fabric paint, undiluted. The new uchigi was also lined with white cotton as can be seen in the somewhat windblown photo at the head of this page.


For more formal occasions, a courtier might wear five or more aesthetically coordinated color layers which peek out at collar, sleeve and hem, plus a short brocade jacket called a karaginu and a trailing backward “ apron” called a mo. Then Crown Prince Naruhito and his bride Masako Owada (Japan‘s new Emperor and Empress) wore ceremonial clothing derived from the traditions of the Heian court for their 1993 wedding. 


Japanese garments are surprisingly simple to construct. Japanese silks are woven on a narrow loom. (Modern kimono are narrower than Heian garments. Each part of each garment is a rectangle based on this loom width (or a division thereof), which means that selvages meet at nearly every seam. Even today, kimono are routinely taken apart for cleaning or refitting because of this type of construction. As I purchased silk off a 45” wide bolt and cut it into 18” widths, it was necessary to fold the seam allowance in against itself and secured it with an overcast stitch to prevent fraying.

Garment construction links:

I used Kass McGann's instructions for kosode and nagabakama construction "The 1-2-3s of Japanese" at (Archived.)

My own kosode construction page may be found here. All the robes, from kosode outward, are composed of the same pieces which are assembled in the same way. The only exception is that kosode sleeves are cut with a curve in the lower front edge and the front is sewn closed except for a small opening at the wrist. For cutting dimensions on Heian robes, click here.  


Split toed tabi socks did not appear until the 16th century. Heian women in nagabakama didn't need them. For the occasional foray off polished wood and tatami matted floors, nagabakama might be hiked up and tied at the ankle and thonged clogs called geta could be worn. (Like pattens worn in Western Europe, geta are extremely practical for muddy conditions. Like pattens, they require a little practice to walk in!)

The sensu or folding fan, in its earliest form, was simply an assembly of split bamboo vanes. By the Heian period, finely crafted rice paper was glued to bamboo ribs to create the fan we are familiar with. The paper might be painted decoratively with scenes from nature or one might write a poem or note upon it and exchange the fan with someone as a token. Fans were a necessity in the humidity of summer. They also aided a courtier in shielding her face from the eyes of strangers as she went about her palace duties. 


Heian concepts of beauty are different than ours. Both sexes whitened their skin with rice powder. Long, glossy black hair was highly prized, worn loose or perhaps gathered in a loose ponytail and tied with paper. Two customs in particular seem rather alien to us. Heian ladies plucked out their natural eyebrows, then painted new ones higher on their foreheads. They also stained their teeth black using a solution of iron filings and gallnut steeped in rice vinegar or tea. This custom lasted well into the 19th century. It was not until 1876 when the Empress appeared publicly with unblackened teeth that the practice fell by the wayside.5

I use Celebre white water based foundation with a white setting powder and Tooth FX (both available from theatrical make up suppliers on the internet), ordinary eye liner pencil, mascara and lip color.

The Makiwara Project.  When I still lived in the East Kingdom, my lord’s squire decided to adopt a Japanese persona, eventually taking the name Fujimaki Tosaburo Hidetora. At the time, Kass McGann was actively portraying a Heian lady, Fujiwara no Aoi. I introduced them as soon as all three of us happened to be at the same event.

The West Kingdom is blessed with temperate weather and a long tourney season. Twelfth Night, held indoors, is an opportunity to wear one's finest court attire, instead of “field garb.” Since it was to be my first West Kingdom Twelfth Night, I knew I wanted to do something special.

I chose the name Makiwara because the Japanese are fond of puns. Incorporating syllables from the names of the people who inspired me to attempt portraying a Japanese, Fujimaki and Fujiwara, it is the word for the rolled bales of straw used as archery targets. I expected to be the target of curious eyes if I showed up at Twelfth Night in wig, powder and silks. 


Makiwara acquired an e-mail account of her own and sent the occasional mysterious message to the Kingdom Arts and Sciences officers or the West Kingdom’s mailing list, often incorporating waka. Dating to the 8th century AD, composition of these five-line, 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic verses was a popular pastime in the Heian court. The Tale of Genji contains hundreds of these ancestors of haiku. (I include in my references a work of fiction, Liza Dalby's The Tale of Murasaki, as it includes many of Murasaki Shikibu's waka in English, accompanied by phonetic renderings in Japanese, allowing me to get the flavor of the syllabic structure of waka in a way that literal translations into English did not.)

 On the day of the event, an earlier version of this article was made part of the Clothiers’ Guild display and included the following:  

"You may already know me in another aspect. In the interest of fun, I challenge you to seek me out today and guess.

Like pine branches seen
Through robes of new fallen snow
You see my true guise. 
Keep my secret safe, O Friend, 
That others might be surprised."  

To those who guessed correctly, I presented copies of the poem on colored paper, folded and knotted. 

Interestingly, people either didn’t recognize me at all, or did so immediately, frequently after a startled double-take. I accosted one lady and revealed my identity. She immediately began telling me that there was somebody visiting from Japan who had e-mailed her with questions about the event and asked if I had seen her yet. “Um, Hobbit, I’m Makiwara.”

Walking the walk.   Japanese women in modern kimono tend to take small steps because of the narrowness of their ankle-length robes. A Heian courtier in nagabakama walks on the trailing legs of her trousers. It's not as difficult as I expected. Not being Japanese and accustomed to kneeling on the floor for long periods of time, I found that Heian clothing is so voluminous that I could get away with sitting in "half lotus." In fact, depictions of seated females in medieval picture scrolls make it pretty difficult to tell much about their positions, so I really didn't have to worry about sitting "properly."

I did find that the clothing (and the first time around a five-foot-long wig) required a consciousness of posture and slow, deliberate movements. The fan kept me cool under the silk, diverted any unconscious impulses to fidget, and reminded me to cover my mouth when smiling, a very Japanese habit that I usually have to remember to do. 


Bryant, Anthony J. 'Sengoku Daimyo. [Online] Available 

Costume Museum (1998). ‘The Rebirth of The Tale of Genji: The Costume Museum.’ [Online] Available 

Dalby, Liza Crihfield. Kimono: Fashioning Culture. (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2001.) 

Dalby, Liza Crihfield. The Tale of Murasaki. (London, Vintage, 2000). 

McGann, Kass (2001) ‘Reconstructing History: Re-enactor's Guide to Pre-Tokugawa Japan.’ [Online] Archived  

Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life In Ancient Japan. (New York, Peregrine Books, 1985)  

Morris, Ivan, ed. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (Translation of Sei Shonagon’s Makura-no-soshi. New York, Columbia University Press, 1991.) 

Seidensticker, Edward G. The Tale of Genji (Translated and abridged edition of Murasaki Shikibu's Genji Monogatari. Vintage, New York, 1990.) 

Smith, Bradley. Japan: A History In Art. (Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1964) 


Morris, Ivan, ed. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, p. 109.

2  Dalby, Liza Crihfield. Kimono: Fashioning Culture, pp. 221-222. 

3  Morris, Ivan, ed. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, p. 40. 

4  Dalby, Liza Crihfield. Kimono: Fashioning Culture, pp. 217-269. 

5  Dalby, Kimono: Fashioning Culture, p. 76-77 and Morris, Ivan, The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life In Ancient Japan. (New York, Peregrine Books, 1985) , pp. 215-216. Morris’ chapter on beauty in the Heian period describes the ingredients. Tea, from China was introduced to Japan in the early 9th century, but appears to have only been used medicinally until a couple of centuries later. Kass McGann and I discussed this custom at one point. A reference to a New Year’s custom of presenting “tooth hardening” foods to the Emperor to wish him continued good health, and a comment by Sei Shonagon about a child with beautiful dark teeth led us to believe that ohaguro might have its origins in disguising the effects of tooth decay. Whatever its origin, I am reliably informed by friends who have studied in Japan that many young women still cover their mouths with their hands when they laugh, more than a century after ohaguro fell out of fashion. 

Copyright 2003, 2019 Lisa A. Joseph

No HOBBY LOBBY products were used in these projects.