The Floating World is that world of pleasure and leisure pursuits that is separate from the mundane world of the Japanese. It is in the Emperor’s Court and this world of the Geisha and Noh and Kabuki Theater that the height of textile arts flourished. The two items of Japanese costume that most lend themselves as the medium for dyeing, weaving, and embroidery are the robes collectively called KIMONO (which means "thing to wear" and individually they are named by the sleeve size kosode [small sleeve], osode [large sleeve], furisode [hanging sleeve]) and the sash or OBI.

Kimonos are cut from one bolt of cloth and assembled into a garment made up of rectangles. It is this simple unchanging design that is like a painter’s canvas and the creation of timeless beauty by textile artists can rival the works of many creators of fine art. Western costume design is more like sculpture in that it uses the body’s shape as an armature for applying diagonally shaped garment pieces in order to emphasize the three dimensional quality of the underlying body. In this style of design the difference in body types must be taken into account and as fashion and materials change so does the silhouette. In Japanese costume the unisex vertical/horizontal design, limited number of seams (since every garment had to be taken apart and re-assembled every time it was washed), and limited number basic fabrics create a canvas that lend itself to augmentation by dye, appliqué, and embroidery.

The early history of Japanese costume mirrors the history of China’s fashions. In the Asuka Period (552-710) clothing styles were brought to Japan by invaders from China and Korea. The influx of new settlers overwhelmed the native population and literally pushed them off their lands. In the past the clothes had been made of hemp or grass but now the cloth of choice was the silk of China. Men wore copies of the loose fitting Tang Dynasty robes with round necks, square sleeves and slit skirts. Women wore a loose under robe, an overskirt with a sash, and a long scarf over the arms.

As in China, the colors of clothing denoted rank. In the Nara Period (710-785), purple and red were the colors reserved for the highest officials and the lower ranked officials could wear blue and green. Yellow, brown, and black were for clerks and servants, which deviated from the Chinese in that yellow was reserved for the Emperor and the highest court officials. Men wore round necked, belted robes with long wide sleeves over baggy trousers. Women wore a wide sleeved robe belted under the breasts with a narrow sash and over that went a full skirt and a small sleeveless jacket.

The Heian-Fujiwara Period (785-1185) brought a waning of the Chinese influence, and a greater gulf between the Court and the rest of the people. Nobles were schooled in the fine arts, and beauty and the clever turn of a phrase were highly respected by the Emperor’s followers no matter the gender that produced it. The court isolated itself in a world of literature, painting, and pleasure and the mundane routine of politics and waging war was left to the Shogun and the provincials. The men’s robes of this period were an exaggeration of the robes worn earlier. Three and four times as much material was used to create the robes and the backs ended in a train that dragged on the floor. The sleeves were so long that they restricted movement, but they could be tightened up with cords in the case of an emergency. Under the robe men wore stiff, full trousers that added to the look of opulence. Women wore a white robe called a kosode ("small sleeve") as the undergarment. Over this they wore red pleated trousers that were so long they had to walk on them. The outerwear consisted of 12-20 robes similar in construction to the kosode in all but the size of the sleeve and the opulence of color and materials. The choice of pattern and color followed very elaborate aesthetic rules influenced by the seasons and symbolic dictates. This style of men’s and women’s robes are worn now by the royal family at the most solemn state functions, such as the recent marriage of the Crown Prince and Princess.

A time of opulence is usually followed by a reactionary period in both history and costume and such was the case of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). The court was too involved in the importance of epigram and fashion that it neglected the mundane problems of the rest of Japan. Into this vacuum stepped the warrior class, who concerned themselves with the consolidation of power and the running of their estates. Men were more often in armour and adapted their robes to be worn more efficiently. Robes were shorter, less full, and for the first time lapped over in the front. Women wore the white kosode, the divided skirt/trousers (these hakama were now of a reasonable length), and one over robe tied at the waist with a narrow sash (obi).

Civil wars continued into the Muromachi Period (1334-1573) and the accompanying hardships influenced clothing fashions. With less cloth available the kimonos were made smaller and of narrower panels. Men were now practically living in armour and the kimono and hakama had to fit under it comfortably. Women continued to wear the kosode, hakama, kimono, and obi but all of them were on a smaller scale. The upheaval also led to more imports from China and tea and much softer silk changed the drinking and fashion habits of the Japanese.

In the Momoyama Period (1573-1615) the civil wars ended and there was a vibrant reaction in fashion to the deprivations of the earlier periods. In this time of relief from the wars, the clothing colors were bright and designs were fantastic and there was much cross-dressing of many traditional colors and styles. Men were so amazed to be alive that they went to many extremes in fashion to attract the attention of acclaimed beauties. The Shogun (highest military leader) popularized a new item of clothing that was worn over the traditional kimono and hakama. The jinbaori was a heraldic vest worn over armour to signal the wearer’s allegiance to a particular leader but now following his leadership it became "at home" wear. Women continued to wear an inner and outer robe but the obi became wider and more elaborate.

The Tokugawa Period (1615-1688) saw an end to the era of peace with a change of the Shogun and a rise of the influence of the merchant and middle class. The Shogun’s court moved to Edo (Tokyo) and the Imperial court stayed in Kyoto. This meant two rival weaving fraternities with the resulting flowering of inspiration and innovation. In design, the use of Chinese symbols disappeared and the naturalistic themes of the flamboyant Momoyama Era altered to a more delicate, poetic image. These images are what come to mind when Westerners think of "Japanese design."

In 1651, 3,700 retainers of an ousted Shogun spread the design of court robes through out Japan and provincial weavers rushed to reproduce them in less luxurious and refined materials. There were two devastating fires in first Edo and four years later in Kyoto. Homes, palaces, and the weaving industry were destroyed and most designs and garments of the Momoyama Era and earlier were destroyed. The need for replacement clothes led to changes in the weaving industry and now designs were larger and less complex, there were large undecorated spaces, and appliqué was used in place of more time consuming embroidery. Also customers wanted input into the designs and block-print design books were created for customer’s perusal. The use of stiff brocades for kimono and obi declined and the silk was much softer. The obi continued to be a narrow sash but by the end of this Era it was tightly fastened and often used to support the outer robes that were slipped off the shoulders to reveal inner robes. The end of this Era saw the enactment of the first and harshest of the sumptuary laws that would plague the fashionable world and the weaving industry into the 19th Century.

The Genroku and Edo Periods (1688-1867) started in the gay abandon of a court reacting to the lifting of sumptuary laws but a new Shogun encouraged frugality and the return to Samurai ideals. Every period of overindulgence was followed by attempts to recover financially followed by extravagant reactionary periods. The inhabitants of the "Floating World" (geisha, courtesans, and actors) set the style for the fashionable world and image we have of the Edo Period come to us through the vibrant Ukiyo-e prints published in this era. If a famous actor started wearing a very wide obi and tying a very elaborate knot to hide his height in female roles then that style was copied. If courtesans started tying their obi in the front to indicate that they are "working girls", then that fashion filtered down to the suburbs. The rise of the prominence of the obi lead to a change in design of the kimono and decoration was now concentrated across the shoulders and on the hem. The Ukiyo-e prints portrayed a world of extravagance but the average robe was more modest and demure. As in earlier times there are designs and colors appropriate for particular stations and stages of life. On opposite ends of the age scale, girls wore pink flowered furisode and their grandmothers wore dark kosode with a little decoration at the hem and sleeve openings.

The centuries of isolation from outside influence ended in 1853 when Commodore Perry landed in Japan. The shogunate was abolished and political power returned to the Emperor in the start of the Meiji Period (1868-present). The introduction of Western fashion and goods first influenced male fashion and then slowly changed female attire. Kimonos were now more for home wear and the style that remained became very rigid. The loose, relaxed silhouette of the Edo Period was abandoned for the more heavily padded, tube shape of modern times. The fashion for kimonos waned except for the most formal occasions and it has only been through the efforts of a handful of collectors that the heritage of the textile arts was not lost. One of the most active was Nomura Shojiro (1879-1943) who started collecting at age thirteen and through years of careful collecting managed to save 156 complete robes from the 16th to 19th Century and enough fragments to decorate 100 double panels. Nomura also assisted Japanese and American collectors and museums in their collection efforts and saved his collection during war years by sending it to America.

A wide variety of textile arts were employed to create the Japanese works of arts called kimonos. The finest artists of the day labored to perfect techniques that would convey their vision of beauty. And then they had the joy of spreading this creation to the world on the backs of their clients.

The basis of all these arts was the cloth itself that was, at first, imported and then the weavers themselves can to Japan in the 4th and 5th Centuries. The plain-weave silk was woven with a simple over-under technique with each line reversing the pattern of the previous line. The earlier silk was created with raw silk (the glue from the cocoon was not removed) and thus was much heavier and crisper than later, softer glossed silk. In time the local weavers learned the Chinese techniques and created their own industry. The height of the weaver’s art was the Heian Period when it took over 440 yards of silk to create a set of woman’s formal court robes.

After the raw cloth was created it was first dyed by immersing it in a dye bath of vegetable dyes and chemical mordants (to make the color permanent). It might take several dippings to get the desired shade. The material was then washed in the river or stream. The water that flowed through Kyoto was reputed to have chemical properties that created the best dyed materials. Now the ‘canvas’ was ready for more sophisticated dyeing techniques.

Shibori (squeezed) technique was a method of dyeing used to create patterns in areas of the cloth. Parts of the material was folded, squeezed, and bound to protect it from contact with the dye. After a dye bath, the material was unfolded and the bound areas were undyed and had a characteristic blurred edge. A variation of this is Kanoko Shibori (Fawn dot) which was called this because the finished product, small circles of undyed material with a dyed spot in the center, resembled the dappled coat of a fawn. One way to create this effect was to tie a single grain of rice inside a pocket of material with unabsorbant thread. This technique was used to add interest to a large area of background. A short cut to this slow and exacting process was stenciled Kanoko, where resist-paste was applied through a stencil and after the dye bath the center dot was painted by hand. The results were created in much less time but lacked the random beauty of real Kanoko. Various techniques were used to protect cloth such as taking small stitches and shirring up the cloth for binding or encasing material in bamboo tubes or sealed tubs. The method of dyeing that was created only by the hands of an artist was Tsumami (pinch) dyeing. This method involved stitching and binding of material and then careful immersion of selected sections in a variety of dye baths. The results were hard to predict and only after years of practice could a master reproduce his artistic vision.

Another method of coloring material was painting and two methods were employed to create a design. The first method was to brush dye into a pattern area outlined in resist-paste. This technique was a fast way to fill large areas and did not leave the cloth stiff, as it would be from embroidery. Also freehand painting with a calligrapher’s brush was done with carbon inks and pigments. The usual colors were black and vermilion and the final product resembled the art created on scrolls.

After the material was dyed it passed on to the hands of the embroidery artists. Embroidery was done with silk yarns and was used to create small motifs since it was so time consuming. In some intricate designs the threads were so tightly packed the material seemed padded and in others a single thread was used to convey a vein in a leaf. Early embroidery was not done with metallic thread but a glittering effect was created by applying gold and silver leaf in an application similar to the one used on medieval manuscripts. Glue was applied through a stencil and leaf of finely beaten precious metal was applied. Any excess leaf was brushed off after the glue dried. The resulting pattern was so delicate that few examples still exist. Metal thread came into vogue in the early Edo Period and it was couched (laid down on the surface and tacked down at intervals with silk thread) because the metal wrapped yarn was too delicate to pass through the material. Because handwork was so time consuming a weaving technique was invented to give the appearance of embroidery. This type of tapestry weave created small elaborate motifs woven on the ‘front’ of the fabric and on the ‘back’ the threads ‘float’ from design to design. This technique was successfully used in the creation of the wide and lengthy obi of the Edo Period and is created by machine today for the same purpose. Also in more modern times appliqué was used as a substitute for embroidery because large sections of design could be filled in with less effort and time but just as artistically.

Dofuku Coat with Tsujigahana designs

The height of all these design techniques was reached in the Tsujigahana designs that flourished in Muromachi and Momoyama Periods. Immersion dyeing, Shibori, freehand painting, gold and silver leaf, and embroidery were used to create glorious results on plain-weave fabrics. All shades of green, purple and blue were used to create and highlight floral designs. The finest artists were called on to create unique fabric paintings. Their subtle brushwork conveyed a vivid impression of living plants and the vigorous energy of the artist’s vision. Unfortunately, the fires that destroyed the weaving districts and private homes of Edo and Kyoto also destroyed the finest products of these fabric artists.

Kosode with Shibori work across shoulders and Yuzen-dyed horse race scene

After the Momoyama Period, the type of dyeing that predominated was the Yuzen style which was a resist-paste dyeing technique similar to batik. It was given this name to honor Yuzen, an 18th Century fan painter, whose designs were so clever and artistic that generations of fabric artists tried to recreate his style on a larger scale. To achieve this result, fabric was stretched on a frame and the design was painted in a water-soluble blue paint. The under-drawing was traced in a resistant paste that protected the cloth from dye and created a sharp edged design when painted over with a vegetable dye and mordant. One advantage to painting dye instead of immersion was that the artist could create areas of subtle shades. The colors were then set with steam and the paste and under-drawing were washed out with cold water. The crisp outline and large color areas were very suited to the detailed pictorial themes that became popular and beautiful garments were produced in times when sumptuary laws forbade other techniques.

Benjamin, Betsy Sterling. The World of Rozome: Wax-Resist Textiles of Japan. New York : Kodansha America, 1996.

Dalby, Liza C. Kimono: Fashioning Culture. New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, 1993.

Harai, Noriko. Tsutsugaki Textiles of Japan: Traditional Freehand Paste Resist Indigo Dyeing Technique of Auspicious Motifs. Kyoto : Shikosha, 1987.

Ishimura, Hayao and Maruyama Nobuhiko. Robes of Elegance. Raleigh : North Carolina Museum of Art, c1988.

Ito, Motoko and Aiko Inoue. Kimono. Osaka, Japan : Hoikushsa Pub., 1979.

Kawakatsu, Ken-ichi. Kimono: Japanese Dress. Tokyo : Japan Travel Bureau, 1954.

Kennedy, Alan. Japanese Costume: History and Tradition. New York : Rizzoli Pub., 1990.

Koumis, Matthew. Art Textiles of the World: Japan. Winchester : Telos Art, c1997.

Liddell, Jill. The Story of the Kimono. New York : E. P. Dutton, 1989.

Marshall, John. Make Your Own Japanese Clothes: Patterns and Ideas for Modern Wear. Tokyo : Kodansha Inter., 1988.

Minnich, Helen Benton. Japanese Costume and Makers of Its Elegant Tradition. Rutland, Vt. : Charles Tuttle Co., 1963.

Nihon Seni Isho Senta. Textile designs of Japan. Osaka : Japan Textile Color Design Center, 1959-61.

Noma, Seiruku. Japanese Costume and Textile Arts. New York : Weatherhill, 1974.

Shaver, Ruth M. Kabuki Costume. Rutland, Vt. : Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1990.

Stinchecum, Amanda Mayer. Kosode, 16th –19th Century Textiles from the Nomura Collection. New York : Harper & Row, 1984.

Tadashi, Inumaru and Yoshida Mitsukuni (Japan Traditional Craft Center). Textiles: [dyeing]. Tokyo : Diamond, 1992.

Yamanaka, Norio. The Book of the Kimono. Tokyo, Kodansha Inter., 1982.

Yang, Sunny and Rochelle Narasin. Textile Art of Japan. Tokyo : Shufunttomo Co., 1989.

Yoshida, Eiko. Sashiko. Tokyo : Culture Publication Bureau, 1977.

Yoshimoto, Kamon. Traditional Stripes and Lattice Design Collection. Tokyo : Books Nippon, 1993.

All of the images are a combination of illustrations from the following reference materials and hours of my own work in MS Paint. Figure 1 is from a Kamakura Period painting. Figures 2,3, and 23-26, (the black and white outlines) are from Liza Dalby’s Kimono: Fashioning Culture. Figures 5-13, and 22, (the black and white portions) are the chapter headings from Helen Minnich’s Japanese Costume and Makers of Its Elegant Tradition. Figure 15-17 (the black and white portions with some additions) are from Moronobo’s "One Hundred Women of Japan" , also in Minnich’s book. Figures 18-19 are combinations of pictures from the Kyoto National Museum. The backgrounds for figure 1 and the section headings were created by the repetition of small squares of bitmap from figure 1 and a square of web page background.



Brandon, Reiko Mochinaga. Country Textiles of Japan: the Art of Tsutsugaki (Exhibition organized by the author under the sponsorship of the Honolulu Academy of Arts). New York : Weatherhill, 1986.

Cooler, Richard. Decadence?: Woodblock Prints and Textile Stencils from 19th Century Japan (Exhibit Catalog). DeKalb, Ill. : Northern Illinois University, 1981.

College Women's Association of Japan. Festival of Fibers: The Textile Heritage of Japan. Tokyo : The Association, 1988.

Deutsch, Sanna and Howard Link. The Feminine Image: Women of Japan (Exhibition held at the Honolulu Academy of Arts). Honolulu : Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1985.

The Great Japan Exhibition: Art of the Edo Period 1600-1868. Tokyo : Kodansha Inter., 1981.

Junkerman, John (production supervised by Japan Traditional Crafts and Kaneko Osamu). Dyeing : Kyoto Yuzen [videorecording]. Tokyo : Diamond Inc., 1992.

---. Weaving: Nishijin textiles [videorecording]. Tokyo : Diamond, 1992.

Milgram, Lynne, curator. Narratives in Cloth: Embroidered Textiles from Aomori, Japan (From the Collection of the Keiko Kan Museum Foundation). Toronto : Museum for Textiles, c1993.

Zaänartu, Cristo Textile Magicians: a Video with the Art of Hiroyuki Shindo, Masakazu Kobayashi, Chiyoko Tanaka, Naomi Kobayashi, Jun Tomita. Paris, France : Rohan Arts, c1996.


"Art Index-Asian"

"Asian Art Museum of San Francisco"

"History Japan"


"Kimono History"

"Kyoto National Museum" (which has a keyword and category search engine to view 2,000 of their total 5,000 items, of which 154 are textiles)

"Oh Noh Bibliography"

"What to wear?"


EBOSHI: Men’s upstanding silk hat, shaped like a tea cozy.

FURISODE: Woman’s robe with long hanging sleeves.

HAKAMA: Divided skirt or full pleated trousers.

HAORI: Short robe worn over a kosode like a jacket.

JINBAORI: Heraldic vest worn over armour to designate one’s allegiance.

KOBAKAMA (YOROI): Knee length pleated trousers worn under armour and by commoners.

KOSODE: Robe with a small sleeve opening.

MON: Family crest usually of circular design.

OBI: Long sash of varying widths worn to belt the robe.

OSODE: Robe with a large sleeve opening.

UCHITAKE: Formal outer robe worn unbelted over a kosode.


RED – Represents color itself and is associated with the sun, with life force, and with passion.

PURPLE – Associated with the highest rank of nobility, and it also connotes life love, longing and elegance.

BLUE – Appears to be universal in that it crosses all boundaries of time, place and social rank. It was a favorite color of the Samurai or warrior class.

GREEN AND YELLOW – Usually associated with springtime and nature. Yellow was usually used as an accent color.

BLACK – Associated with wisdom, mystery, and magic. Teachers and clerics wore this color.

BROWN AND GREY – Originally these were the ubiquitous colors worn by commoners but the with the heightened influence of the Teamasters in the Momoyama Period, their popularity increased.

WHITE – Associated with death and funerals. Brides who are ‘dead’ to their childhood and father’s household also wear it.

DESIGNS – Images of nature (animals, plants and flowers) were the most popular. Even these took on secondary, poetic meanings (a cat represented a man’s courtesan and a crow stood for his disagreeable wife). Other designs were the mundane items surrounding the wearer such as a fan, a mirror, or a ball but the image was lifted to new artistic heights by the addition of embroidery and dyeing.


Page was created by Jane Anne Carey in 11-98 and updated on 08-06-02

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