An outfit from the Nara Period

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The following is a rush job - both the project and my documentation of it at the time. There will be gaps and holes and missing bits, but it deserves to be here, even after all this time.
A mere three weeks after my Laurel elevation, I got a phone call from Li Guang Ming of the Outlands, asking if I would be attending Estrella War and if so, would I speak at his elevation to the Order of Chivalry. Li and his lady, Wu Xi Lian, had come out to attend my elevation, decked out in their best Chinese finery. "Are you sure?" I remember asking. "I've been a Laurel for what, three weeks?" He was sure - because I knew what can be like to portray a persona from a non-Western culture in the SCA.
What follows is what I've cobbled together from posts I made to the Tousando forum at the time. 

In February 2012, , I was asked by Li Hsiao Lung of the Outlands to speak at his knighting ceremony at Estrella as a member of the Order of the Laurel. To that end, I began working on clothing for the occasion. Due to shortish notice and budgetary constraints in the wake of my own recent Laurel hijinks, I determined to do as much as possible with materials already in my possession.

Japan’s Nara Period refers to the years 710 to 794 CE, during which the Empress Gemmei established the capital of Heijō-kyō (modern Nara), a city modeled heavily on Chang’ An, the capital of Tang China. In the 6th century, Prince Shotoku had promoted the spread of Buddhism and Chinese culture, both originally introduced through contact with the Baekje people of the southern Korean peninsula. By the time Gemmei established the new capital, China had opened diplomatic channels with Japan as an “equal” empire and the Japanese court was remade in the image of Tang Dynasty China, right down to their shoes. 

In 756, Dowager Empress Komyo donated possessions of her late husband Emperor Shomu to the Todaiji temple for prayers for his soul. She continued to make donations to the temple throughout her lifetime. The Shoso-in Repository still contains this trove of nearly 9,000* artifacts from the Nara period, including textiles and even shoes in various states of preservation. (*Efforts to catalogue the collection are ongoing.)

Jidai Isshou no Nuikata (時代衣裳の縫い方―復元品を中心とした日本伝統衣服の構成技法)  contains reconstructions of several Nara period women’s garments. The ensemble consists of a mo (tiered skirt tied at the waist), a double breasted (left-over-right) “blouse” with flowing sleeves known as an uwaginu, a sleeveless brocade haishi (vest) with contrasting brocade collar and waist.  

The reconstruction by the Kyoto Costume Museum, shown at the head of this article, includes a pleated over-skirt and a hanging, necktie-like band of brocade at the front of the haishi. I have seen other reconstructions without the band and Nuikata did not include it.   

Today's project, stencil a mandarin-duck motif on the panels for my mo(skirt). The design was taken from a floor covering in the Tokyo National Museum collection that appears in my copy of Jodai Gire: 7th and 8th Century Textiles in Japan from the Shoso-in and Horyu-ji by Kaneo Matsumoto. Similar rokechi-dyed designs appear on a skirt from the Turfan tomb finds in China which dates to about the same time. 

This haishi in the Shosoin collection is made of nishiki (patterned brocade weave silk on a red ground) lined with plain weave green silk. The bottom edge was hemmed with a nishiki band on a purple ground.  

I used some silk/rayon blend “Asian brocade” I had in my possession to create the haishi, using the Nuikata reconstruction.  


This skirt, from Tomb 230, Astana, Turfan, in the Xingjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum Collection, closely resembles a textile fragment in the Tokyo National Museum. A dyeing technique known as rokechi, in which patterns are printed, was used on both pieces. 


I created a stencil based on the TNM fragment’s mandarin duck motif. I had a yellow linen in a fine weave with which to build the mo, decorating it with Neopaque white fabric paint. The tomb skirt is pieced from vertical sections. The Nuikata reconstruction of a Nara period skirt uses two long narrow widths of fabric (likely woven on a backstrap loom) pleated into one another in horizontal tiers. 

The Shoso-in Repository contains four surviving pairs of similar sengai from the 8th century. This image is of the pair in the best state of preservation.  [In the years since I did this project, the Imperial Household Agency has not only added a full English language portal to the Shosoin website, but added detail images that were not available to me in 2012!]

The originals are constructed entirely of fabric (ramie and silk brocade) and the padded decoration on the toes stuffed with grass. They were women's slippers, intended for wear inside the palace.

Mine, however, have to stand up to outdoor wear, so my treatment is definitely more costume than historical reconstruction. A pair of rubber soled flats from Target gave of themselves unstintingly.


First shoe with fabric glued into place, waiting to be trimmed


Template for toe ornament. Believe it or not, I traced a wooden kitchen spoon to create the lobes. (Hey, you knew my mind was a strange place. 


Attachment of stuffed toe ornaments in progress. I used a combination of hot glue and stitching to attach them. You can see the first one is standing at attention at the moment. 


The finished shoes. 

Author's note: The green is actually the back side of one of those slick silk-rayon blend Chinese brocades, but I liked the more subtle greens for the shoes. Besides, the red would get used elsewhere.)


April 1, 2012 - Very, VERY quick post before I collapse for the night. The lovely in red and white (with painted blossoms on her dress!) is the talented Furen Wu Xi Lian, wife of the Outlands' newest knight, Wuxia Li Hsiao Lung (and I probably have mangled the appropriate titles).

Of course, I managed to get something in my eye earlier that day and was tearing and irritated so I decided not to make things worse with cosmetics. 

Author's note: I never did write notes about the other garments or accessories at the time, but as I say, it was a rush project.

The haishi is more of that Chinese Brocade,* but it was what I could get at the time. The under robe is some leftover silk from Thailand, stencilled with Laurel wreaths. 

The obi was one I already had. The scarf started as two white scarves from Dharma Trading, that were sewn together, folded and then dip dyed in a bucket. 

The silk paddle fan started life with a picture of Chinese beauties on it. I repainted it with acrylics, based on a Tang Dynasty example. 

*Chinese brocade is shiny. It's usually a blend of silk and rayon, it's slippery and it likes to fray along any cut edge, and snags if you look at it cross-eyed. It's also generally too Chinese looking for most of the kinds of things I usually do, but it gave the right look for this project. 


April 10, 2012 - Photo courtesy of Sedania de Corwyn (Ronda Miyake), taken this weekend at Mists Coronet. The shoes need a re-think: I have to keep re-gluing them along the edge of the sole. However, I'm liking the rest of the ensemble for wearable shininess. (Oh, and the big, chunky, wabi-sabi tea bowl is better suited to eight centuries later....)


Kawamura, Machiko and Kurihara, Hiro. Jidai Ishô no Nuikata. (時代衣裳の縫い方―復元品を中心とした日本伝統衣服の構成技法.) Tokyo Genryu-sha Joint Stock Company (1984). ISBN 4773984058 

Mair, Victor. Secrets of the Silk Road. Santa Ana: Bowers Museum, 2010.

Matsumoto, Kaneo. Jodai Gire: 7th and 8th century Textiles in Japan from the Shoso-in and Horyu-ji. Shikosha Publishing (1984). 

The Shosoin Repository.

The Costume Museum.

Copyright 2019 Lisa A. Joseph

No HOBBY LOBBY products were used in these projects.