J is for Junithitoe

Junihitoe (also juunihitoe), 十二単, “twelve layers”, traditional layered robes

When you think of “historical” Japanese clothing, what comes to mind? Odds are, at least one thing is the gorgeous, elaborate, cumbersome junihitoe worn by high-ranking women of the Heian era court. Like many things that we now consider intrinsically Japanese, the junihitoe was inspired by contemporary Chinese fashion. The elegant drape and sumptuous layers evoked the sophisticated hanfu, with a distinctly Japanese flair.

The name junihitoe literally means “twelve layers”, but is a bit of a misnomer. It included the kimono-like layers but also under-layers and over-layers. They were known to have anywhere from four to twenty layers (can you imagine the bulk?!) but were eventually fixed at a specific arrangement. The entire structure was composed of the following:

  • Kosode - Narrow sleeved under-robe
  • Nagabakama - Long, formal hakama
  • Hitoe - Single unlined silk layer
  • Itsutsuginu - Five or six colour-coordinated layers forming the bulk of the ensemble
  • Uchiginu - Stiff silk robe to provide shape and support
  • Uwagi - Smaller, narrower decorative silk layer often denoting rank
  • Kawaginu - Short jacket-type layer
  • Mo - Decorative apron-like skirt worn trailing in the back

The colours of the itsutsuginu have specific meanings and representations. The combinations would change depending on the season or specific celebratory event. For a very thorough and easy-to-read list of these combinations, please check out this Guide to Kasane no Irome on Sengoku Daimyo.

Since women of the court often devoted themselves to intellectual and aesthetic pursuits such as writing, painting, and poetry, the weight and bulk of the junihitoe was not a significant impediment to daily life. They had attendants to assist them with nearly everything from the dressing process to fetching food and items.

However, they’re obviously utterly impractical for the modern woman. Nowadays, there are very few places you’ll see someone in one of these ensembles. Typically, when a new emperor is enthroned in Japan, both he and his wife will wear traditional court robes; for the empress this means junihitoe.

Aside from traditional ceremonies such as these, people can choose to be professionally dressed in junihitoe at henshin (dressing) studios and then pose for photographs. There are also wedding uchikake made to recall their multi-layered feel, such as those made by designers Mai-Curren, but the layers in these are faked, using extra fabric around the collar, sleeves, and hem as well as a trailing hem reminiscent of the mo (apron). They have a very distinctive look to them.

If you had the opportunity, would you choose to try a junithitoe on? It seems very overwhelming, but I would still love to wear such an ensemble, if only for photographs.

Book Review – When Art Became Fashion: Kosode in Edo-Period Japan

When Art Became Fashion: Kosode in Edo-Period Japan
by Dale Carolyn Gluckman & Sharon Sadako Takeda
Language: English
ISBN-10: 083480266X
Amazon.com listing
(nb: This volume may be found on eBay for significantly lower price)

I found this book while browsing the “ending soon” section on eBay. I’d never heard of it before, and wasn’t sure if it would be worth the $25 it was being sold for, so I looked it up quickly on Amazon. There was a glowing review by KimonoMomo, whose opinion I greatly respect when it comes to Japanese textiles, and the least expensive used copy available was priced at roughly $65. Based on those factors, I figured it would definitely be worth the investment. Unfortunately, I did not think to ask the seller – shopenjapan – about shipping costs from LA to Montreal, and had a bit of a case of sticker-shock when they sent me the invoice. They did everything in their power to get me the lowest price, were very patient while I tried to find an alternate shipping solution, and when the final shipping to me cost less than anticipated they refunded me the difference. In the end it was still less expensive than buying a used copy on Amazon, and the service was great. I’ll definitely buy from them again if they list similar books!

So, was it worth it? Absolutely! It is actually an illustrated museum catalogue for an exhibit of the same name, much like Kazari: Decoration and Display in Japan 15th-19th Centuries, which I reviewed earlier. It is divided into essays about many topics, from the evolution of the kosode to calligraphy as a motif to the cultural and social impact and relevance of red “beni” dye. Each essay is complemented by many lush full colour photographs and multiple page spreads, as well as smaller inserted black and white and detail shots. When I first got it, I spent several nights simply ogling the photos.

The essays themselves are written in a fairly dry academic style, but they are not difficult to read or alienating to people unfamiliar with the terminology. Any Japanese terms are italicized and explained in clear plain English the first time they make an appearance. There is a very useful glossary of terms in the background that is a huge asset to anyone interested in kimono either as wearable clothing or as historical costume, as well as many fascinating and well-organized charts and graphs documenting the flow of Japanese historical eras, common kosode pattern layouts, and garment dimensions. It is not something I’d suggest for light bedtime reading, but it makes an excellent addition to any kimono-specific or Japanese cultural reference library. Several of the kimono in the book are also in the Kyoto Shoin, Yuzen edition book, but I found this to be a good thing – it was very interesting to see that some of these garments are so historically famous and relevant that they appear in multiple texts.

The layout of the book is also very lovely, the text is clear and the images are crisp and beautiful, with vivid colours and plenty of detail shots. Captions are always large enough to be legible but small enough not to be obtrusive. There are also some very charming touches, such as the text on the first page of each section being in the shape of a kimono. This may not seem like such a big thing, but it really adds to the cohesive feel of the whole book, and as someone who studied document layout in college it really tickled me.

I would recommend this book for:

-People interested in the history of Japanese textiles.
-People studying historical fashion or evolution of fashion and trends.
-People interested in Edo-era Japan.
-People looking for beautiful photos of kimono.

I would not recommend this book for:

-People looking for how-to-wear guides.
-People looking for coordination ideas.

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