Dressing up Heian style

When my friends and I were asked if we wanted to dress up in a kimono and take part in a local festival, we enthusiastically agreed. What we didn’t know, was that we would be part of an re-enactment parade wearing 11th century-style kimonos! It was a day of unknowns, but a great experience overall.


A week before the event, my friends and I were told strict instructions for the day. Wear white socks, bring a plastic straw to drink water from, a small lunch and most importantly, don’t be late! So on the day of the festival we turned up at 10am sharp, paid for our hair and make-up fees, and ticked our names off the list. Then the preparations began.

First, we were coated with a white-base foundation, put on roughly with a sponge big enough to wash a car. Then pinky-orange blusher was dabbed on our cheeks, making us look not unlike the Japanese character Anpanman. We looked almost comical compared to a Japanese girl next to us who had model-perfect skin, subtle pink blusher and small red lips. (It later turned out that they hadn’t finished our make-up and five minutes before we joined the parade we had to apply our own makeup!)


It was then time to get dressed in our ‘twelve-layered’ kimono. It is customary bright, with many layers of silk skirts, and beautifully embodied patterns on the outer robes. It also has an extended trail which needs to be held up when walking. It’s probably the most impractical dress I’ve ever seen, let alone worn, exemplified by having to have someone hold our trail!

Our kimono only consisted of about four layers, but with another few collars sewn into it, to make it look like we’re wearing twelve layers. Still, this is no ordinary dress and needs specialists to know how to put them on. We each had two Japanese women wrapping, tying and pinning us in to our kimonos. It starts with tying towels to your body, to cushion the kimono. This may be necessary for slim Japanese women, but my friends and I thought we could do without this first step!

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P1040694By the end of this process, I looked wider than I was tall, and with the weight of all the layers about 3 kilograms heavier. We found out that these kimono would be about £30,000 to buy, so we understood why we had to drink our water out of a straw, just in case we spilt it! And there was definitely not a chance of going to the toilet in such an expensive bundle of clothes!

As we were waiting for our hair to be made-up, we watched more and more people get changed into Heian era costumes. There were about 150 people taking part in the parade, mostly women but a fair few children and a handful of men, too. It was funny watching children play games, or roll about on the floor in their old-style clothes, their mother’s trying to stop them ruining their neatly tied hair and make-up. One girl has escaped her mother’s view and was navigating the play area outside in her trailing kimono!

We had our hair done in the hairstyle at the time, suberakashi, where the side parts of the hair are filled out with some fuzzy hair-like material, and for us an extension was put in to make our hair about a foot longer, and our head’s much heavier! Funny head pieces were pinned on top of our hair-do, and sprigs of fake wisteria hung awkwardly from our pony tails!


Near the end of our four-hour preparation time, we realised that our teacher had forgotten to mention two key things about the day. Firstly, that we would need to have our own zori (Japanese sandals). We were under the impression we would borrow them, but on the day there were no zori to borrow, so we had no choice but to wear our red sneakers! Thankfully, the spectators were so surprised to see foreigners in the parade, they weren’t looking at our shoes!

Secondly, the kimono has a long trail at the back, meaning that it would get ruined if it wasn’t held up by someone. It was my host mother, host sister and a friend who came to the rescue and paraded behind us wearing a servant’s dress. I hope I can repay the favour if they ever need their kimono trail held up!

Twelve-layered Kimono and Wisteria Festival


This festival is celebrating links with Murasaki Shikibu (978-1014), a writer who lived in Echizen in the Heian Period (794-1185), and is timed with the blossom of fuji (wisteria). The park is named after the female author who wrote the classic Japanese book ”The Tale of Genji”. In the book, she describes Heian court society, where high-class women had floor-length hair, whitened skin and blackened teeth, and were not allowed to speak directly to men so hid their faces behind fans when they spoke. The twelve-layered ceremonial robe (juni-hitoe) was worn by court ladies and daughters of the warrior-class families, and as well as showing off the families’ wealth and rank, the many layers kept the women warm in a time before paraffin heaters. I wonder how many layers they wore in the hot and humid summer! I also wonder how on earth they went to the toilet in these dresses!


Nowadays, this dress is only worn for weddings in the Imperial Family. The last time it was seen worn was in 1993 by Princess Masako, who looked very much like she couldn’t move in it. Crown Prince Naruhito And Crown Princess Masako

It is however seen during the Dolls’ festival Hinamatsuri  which occurs in March. Nearly every family has a handmade set of dolls which are set out on a platform in early February to the 3rd March, Girls’ Day. This festival which is an occasion to pray for young girls’ growth and happiness.  

Japanese ornamental "hina" dolls are pictured at a doll shop in Tokyo

The parade

We paraded under the trellises of full-bloom lilac and purple wisteria. Although it had just turned May, it was a hot day and standing in the sun for an hour made our dress, hair and make-up seem like the most uncomfortable thing in the world. The under-ties were squashing my rib cage, my hair was tightly pulled back and we had about five too many layers for the 25’C heat.

It was great to take part in such a unique festival, but we were all so glad to step out of the heavy robes and wipe the make-up off our faces. Next year, I’ll just be a spectator!

Every city has it's own cute character, Echizen's is Kikurin. If we were feeling the heat, imagine the person inside this custome!

Every city has its own cute character, Echizen’s is Kikurin. If we were feeling the heat, imagine the person inside this costume!