The Costume of Edo-Period Japanese Women

Kyoto Prefectural Library and Archives

Class Differences in Edo Period Fashions 
During the Edo period (1603–1868), the way people dressed differed greatly depending on their class. The three general class categories we will discuss here are aristocrats (imperial family and courtiers), warriors (daimyo lords and samurai), and townspeople (merchants, artisans, women of the pleasure quarters, etc.) Let us examine some of these differences through an Edo-period illustrated book, Hyakunin jorō shina sadame, published in 1723. Hyakunin jorō shina sadame was the work of prominent Kyoto ukiyo-e artist Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671–1751). It includes illustrations of the costumes of one hundred categories of women, from empresses and imperial princesses down to prostitutes. It attempts to exhaustively document the costumes and ancient customs pertaining to dress for every social class of Japanese society.
The aristocrats (imperial family and courtiers)

Regnant Empress, Empress, Imperial Princess
Hyakunin Jorō Shina sadame, 1723, Vol. I

The model for the regnant empress shown here is thought to be Regnant Empress Jitō (645–703), who is one of the poets included in the Hyakunin isshu (One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets). Because there was no gender difference between the costumes of male and female rulers at the time, she wears the same Chinese-style formal clothing (kon’e) and headress (benkan) that would have been worn by a male emperor.


The non-ruling empress is shown in formal costume known today as the twelve-layer robes (jūnihitoe), which includes a belted train (mo), outer jacket (karaginu), five-layer robes (itsutsuginu), and other components.

Imperial princess

The imperial princess is shown as a child, dressed in a formal costume for princesses (hosonaga).

Daimyo Wife
Hyakunin jorō shina sadame, 1723, Vol. I

Holding up the hem of her robe with one hand, this wife of a feudal provincial lord (daimyo) stands in the garden looking up at a blossoming cherry tree. (We don’t know why she is barefooted.) She wears one kosode as an under robe (aigi) belted with a sash (obi). Over that she wears another robe (uchikake kosode) loose and unbelted.

Ladies in waiting

Her ladies-in-waiting have on belted kosode with sleeves of different length (long sleeves, or furisode, were usually worn by unmarried women). Almost all of their robes are decorated with lively designs, including irises and cherry blossoms.

Merchant Wife, Lady-in-Waiting, and Maid Servant
Hyakunin jorō shina sadame, 1723, Vol. I

Wealthy merchants admired the aristocracy and often engaged in such aristocratic pastimes as the kick ball game of kemari, as shown here. Over her belted under kosode, the merchant wife (shitsu) here wears a lavish unbelted kosode (uchikake) with a design of chrysanthemums and bamboo blinds (misu). She has presumably kicked the airborne ball to her lady-in-waiting (koshimoto), who is dressed in a kosode with a design of large myōga ginger shoots. Another maid (nakai) looking on is dressed in a kosode with pine needles and ginko leaf crests over mist and rolling clouds.

The wife’s sash (obi) is belted in the front instead of the back. This would have made doing any housework very difficult, and that is just the point: she had plenty of servants to take care of such tasks.

Artisan Women: Fan Maker and Cord Braider
Hyakunin jorō shina sadame, 1723, Vol. I

Fans were in wide demand in Japanese society, for everything from ceremony to performance to daily life, and many fan makers were women. These artisans preparing fan papers and other elements in a fan emporium (ōgiya) are wearing kosode with checks or small-patterns, possibly made of silk pongee (tsumugi).

In the left illustration are cord braiders, whose kumihimo (braided silk cord) wares would be used for Buddhist implements and various personal ornaments. Women artisans contributed to the development of color schemes and patterns. The woman seated at a special braiding stand on a special stand is wearing a kosode with a single repeating pattern.

Shimabara Tayū Women of the Shimabara Pleasure Quarters in Kyoto: Tayū, Shinzō, Hikifune, Yarite, Kamuro, Tsubone Jorō
Hyakunin jorō shina sadame, 1723, Vol. II

The Shimabara was one of the pleasure quarters in Kyoto; it also served as sort of a cultural salon in its day. Among the various categories of women who lived and worked in the Shimabara, the highest ranked and most exclusive type of courtesan was the tayū (shown at the far right here). To become a tayū, a woman needed a combination of beauty, intellect, extensive knowledge, and artistic prowess. An apprentice training under a tayū was known as a geigi shinzō (second from the right). Here, both the tayū and shinzō are shown wearing lavish outfits with numerous layers of robes including a long, loose unbelted outer robe (uchikake).

Other attendants of the tayū shown here are the hikifune (third from right), who mediates with clients, and the young girl apprentice, or kamuro, who was is just learning the dance, music performance, and other customs needed for life in the pleasure quarters. In this scene, the kamuro wears fashionable Rinpa-style patterns of autumn leaves on flowing water. The woman carrying the umbrella is the yarite, and wears a simple kosode with a repeated overall pattern. The seated woman smoking a pipe on the veranda is a prostitute of the lowest rank, known as a tsubone jorō. She seems to be dressed in a woven, ikat-patterned kimono. The depictions of clothing and other elements cleverly reveal the differences in rank and age among these various categories.

Costumes of Commoners in Edo-Period Japan
Amidst the events and happenings of their daily life, many Edo-period Japanese women had just as much interest in fashion as some women do today. One resource for understanding such matters is the illustrated educational book Onna fūzoku tama kagami, which depicts in text and illustrations the vibrant daily lives of women of the day. The text was written by Ejima Kiseki (1667–1736) with illustrations by prominent ukiyo-e artist Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671–1751). The book was first published with Sukenobu’s illustrations in 1732, however, there also exists an edition published fifty years later, attesting to its popularity.Here we introduce Onna fūzoku tama kagami, Vol. I, together with another book in Kyoto Institute, Library and Archives called Jochū fūzoku tsuya kagami  Vol. II, which is undated but appears from its contents to have been published around 1782. Though these books were produced separately, we consider them here together, carefully examining their depiction of costumes.

Battledore and Doll Display
Onna fūzoku tama kagami, 18th century

The right page shows three girls playing battledore and shuttlecock, a game commonly played in the New Year. The small girl in the center wears a kimono whose sleeves have been stitched up at the shoulders. It is probably a yotsumi, a short kimono worn by young girls until about the age of ten. The left page shows as scene of the seasonal festival on the third day of the third month (Girls Day), in which children cavort around in front of the display of dolls put up especially for the occasion.

Airing Clothes
Onna fūzoku tama kagami, 18th century

The right page seems to show the airing of clothes in mid-summer, following the humid rainy season. Women wearing lightweight unlined garments are hanging up articles of clothing or washing them. The practice of hanging clothing out to air is necessitated by Japan’s hot and humid climate.

The left page shows a kimono-length bolt of cloth stretched out to dry. Kosode were typically were not washed in their tailored forms. When they needed cleaning, they were unstitched and re-sewn back into their original shapes as long bolts of cloth. They could then be washed and starched and stretched to dry using bamboo stretching rods (shinshi) with pins on either end. These flexible rods would be arched and inserted one-by-one into the selvedges on either side of cloth to pull the width taut along the length of the bolt.

Onna fūzoku tama kagami, 18th century

In the center of the wedding room is a lobed table called a shimadai (representing an island of immortality) decorated with auspicious imagery including pine, bamboo, and plum, as well as figures of an aged couple (symbolizing longevity), and a crane and a tortoise. In front of this display, the wedding couple is about to share ritual cups of sake to tie the knot. The bride dressed in pure, sacred white, with a white unbelted uchikake kosode on top. In the right scene, she is shown later in the day, changing into a lavish colorful costume.

Incense Game
Jochū fūzoku tsuya kagami, 18th century

The right page shows upper-class merchants playing the incense game. This game was considered essential part of a proper upbringing and was a popular pastime for the wealthy. The women gathered together here are dressed in a dazzling array of kosode designs. Many of the young ladies wear long sleeved furisode, suggesting that they are unmarried.

The left page shows two women playing instruments together. Everything about the scene suggests their wealth and high class. The koto (zither) player is wearing an uchikake kosode with the pattern on the lower half of the body (koshidaka monyō) bearing family crests with small vignettes on the back and sleeves.

Viewing Autumn Foliage (Momiji gari)
Jochū fūzoku tsuya kagami, 18th century

This scene shows an autumn excursion to view autumn foliage. Two of the women here have covered their heads with a kimono-shaped veil known as a kazuki. Not only did such a garment shield their faces from the sun and dust, but it also served as a fashion statement for upper-crust women. For better mobility, the women have hiked up their kimono hems using cords tied around their hips.

Credits: Story

Translated by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum
Text and images courtesy of Kyoto Institute, Library and Archives formerly known as Kyoto Prefectural Library and Archives
Hangi-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto

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