Colors of Our Sleeves


Posted on January 31, 2013 by

Women in illustrated scroll of Tale of the Genji

While the Heian times of Japan were glamorous, they maintained strict rules of dressing.  Your rank and status determined each garment’s fabric. In the winter garments were quilted, and in the summer, stiffened silk kept the clothing away from the body.

So much  importance was given to the way people dressed, it could make or break your career and/or your reputation. Color combinations, set by the season or festivals, held a particularly important aspect of dressing. Colors were also restricted by rank.  For example only the Imperial family (the immediate emperor’s family) was allowed the forbidden color, murasaki (violet) and to a lesser extent, kurenai (scarlet-pink). [More about ranks on another post.]

Murasaki Shikit

One of the reasons colors were so important is that “the world” saw little of a woman’s clothing,     What part was shown? The sleeve. The sleeve with the hem of each robe (uchigi, [ōō-chee-gee]) carefully displayed usually hung outside a cart or palanquin. Blinds and/or fans kept women’s faces hidden. A person’s sensibility, their artistic and spiritual life were often judged just by the color combinations. Wow. Talk about pressure.

A woman’s sleeve:sleves

(from the right:)

KARAGINU* dark purple

UWAGI         green

UCHIGINU     crimson


the first  dark red

the second light red

the third  light green

the fourth green

the fifth  dark green

HITOE    crimson

(* See post on Golden Age (Heian) of Clothing for more information)

Often the sleeve was all a man saw of a woman before they entered an … intimate relationship. So the colors were a big deal.

To see a woman being dressed by two dressers in full Heian costume:

JWSF Costume Multi Layer Kimono Requires Dressers


For more detailed information on these marvelous colors and color combinations:

Liza Dalby – Kimono, fashioning culture [book]

The Costume Museum, Kyoto The Takata Institute of Japanese Imperial Classical Costume

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