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Tradition That Lasted 1000 Years – Twelve Layers of Colours


Hina Ningyo dolls feature as a centrepiece for celebrating girls’ health.  The dolls wear a special Kimono called Jyuni Hitoe.  This means one robe with twelve layers, and it looks gorgeous to anyone’s eyes.

So, who wore them?  Was it reserved only for the princesses?  Was it really practical?

Were There Really Twelve Layers?

Jyuni Hitoe, “Twelve Layers One Robe” was worn by ladies in the 11th-century court, during the Heian Era (794 to 1185 AC).  It did not consist of twelve layers in fact, and it was never called so at the time.

The name appeared in 13th Century historical literature, and by then, nobody was wearing the kimono in this manner, except for formal royal rituals.  The author simply used the word “Jyuni Hitoe” to explain that a character slipped out of a thickly layered Kimono to escape from her captor.  “Twelve” was enough to maximise the literary effect.

In reality, this style was called “Itsutsuginu Karaginumo”, Five Layers and a Decorative Robe.  Any of the numbers mentioned were never an accurate explanation of the style.  People added layers when cold and reduced when warm.  There is a record that someone tried 16 layers but could not move because of the weight, apparently 60 kg.

Imported Style to Original Style

Until the end of the 9th century, the influence of the neighbouring Tang Dynasty was very strong, through official missions.  Everything, from political systems to the officials’ clothing, was the carbon copy of Tang Dynasty.  After the mission ended after 894 AC, the influence quickly wore off.  In the following 100 years, the court developed its systems and styles.  It has flourished as the first wave of Japonesque culture.  Jyuni-Hitoe, the layered robes, became the court ladies’ attire during this period of change.  It was their workwear, so they made some practical changes to the original Tang Dynasty style.

The sleeve openings and the body width were made wider to cope with the higher humidity in Japan than on the continent.  More layers were added as the architecture was typically open plan therefore cool in the summer, freezing in the winter.  The fitting was made looser as official meetings were conducted sitting down on the tatami floor rather than standing or using chairs. It required robes to have some room for comfort and yet to look majestic.  These changes applied to both Men’s and Ladieswear.

Colours, Colours, Colours

Along with these practical changes, the people in the court got creative and started to experiment with colour schemes, taking advantage of the layers.  Depending on the seasons and the occasions, there were sixty different combinations of the colour layers.

Layering the robes of different shades or patterns and showing the gradations at the collars and sleeves brought complex and pleasantly seasonal colours to the court.

Men and ladies were judged for their fashion taste by the use of colour combinations.  Sei Shonagon, who wrote the collection of essays about her life in the Heian era, the Pillow Book, gave a damning verdict to a thoughtless colleague in the court wearing the Scarlet Plum in March and April.  Scarlet Plum should only be worn in the early Spring while snowflakes were still flying, not before, not later.

Naming the ever-growing variety of colour combinations shows the obvious connection between nature and people.  Textile artists of the time named them after the source of the colouring, mostly flowers and plants, and the combination after the natural seasonal phenomenon.  Examples are:

All these are only theories from studies of many historians that followed.  There is no reliable record of how they looked in reality.  After all, there were no cameras in the 11th Century, even in Japan.

Tradition that Lasted 1000 years

But the Japanese fashion still regards layers as important.  It is this slight layer within a piece of dress that shows true fashion sense.  The choice of lining colours and materials is a significant part, even though they are hardly seen.

Nowadays, numerous web designers take great interest in recreating a very Japanese atmosphere by using the historical colour schemes.  Despite all these modern technologies, designers acknowledge that they cannot completely replicate colours in their past glory.  The individual’s taste and good relationship with the surroundings are the best tools to bring out the atmosphere that continues since the distant days of the Heian Era.


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