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The Poet Ono no Komachi by Nobukazu Watanabe (1891)

The famed poetess Ono no Komachi (c.825-c.900) is seen wearing the Heian Period junihitoe kimono. Poetic names were given to different combinations of twelve coloured layers, which were skillfully selected to indicate status or identity, or to match the season and occasion.

Since men and women of the aristocracy were not permitted to see one another’s faces, women were expected to conceal themselves behind reed blinds. These blinds, similar to the ones at the top of this print, would hide the face and upper body from view, but leave the lower body exposed. A woman’s outfit, therefore, was one of the greatest tools she could use to communicate with potential (or clandestine) lovers.

Today's kimono is a direct evolution of the twelve-layered junihitoe worn by Heian Period (794-1185) noblewomen. Close attention was paid to the colour of each layer; different hues arranged in specific orders could convey vastly different meanings and effects. Such combinations of colours were given poetic names, evocative of seasonal changes and occasions, and it was vital that women of the court be familiar with the subtleties of proper dressing.

The kimono of later periods were adapted from an ankle length red or white silk robe known as a kosode, which was worn underneath the junihitoe. Over the kosode, a pleated red skirt and an unlined silk robe provided a foundation for the layers of brightly coloured robes that made the style so distinctive. Completing the outfit, a layer of stiff scarlet silk and a patterned robe denoting the wearer’s rank were worn underneath a waist length Chinese-style jacket. A long train was often fastened at the waist, adding an extra air of imperious grace.

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