Origins of the Gion Festival: What did We Wear?

The Heian Period (8C~!2C) stands to this day as the longest and most stable time in Japan’s history. The country’s identity was born during this 400-year dynasty, and many icons of today’s Japanese culture were starting to make its way into the world. Such is the case of the Gion Festival, let’s take a look at how fashion has evolved during the last 1100 years since the Festival was celebrated for the first time.

Fashion in Japan During the Origins of the Gion Festival

Japan’s culture pillars in the Heian Era were beauty and elegance, the society had a complex rank system, and people of higher levels were expected to tend to their looks with more finesse and dedication.

The most iconic clothing item of the Heian Era was The Junihitoe (“The Robe of Twelve Layers”) a garment consisting of twelve layers of plain silk, each of a different color. These colors were an important item to the Heian Japanese hierarchical system.

Only Imperial court women were allowed to wear red, and one could see the plethora of colors by watching a woman’s sleeve or neck. The color arrangement was an indication of a person’s rank, elegance, and taste.

The number of layers women wore could be as little as 2 and as many as 20, depending on the position of the woman in the society, and the weather. It was common that the robes weighed up to 20 kg.

(You can see the ancient dresses on Japanese dolls)

Commoners used a hitatare, which was later known as the Samurai’s attire. Men used to wear bright-colored clothes as well, which indicated their ranks.

Women’s beauty was praised beyond her dresses, they were expected to grow their hair longer than their height, paint their faces and necks white, their lips red, and their teeth black since white teeth were considered ugly.

Being festivals such as the Gion Festival a perfect occasion to demonstrate their rank to each other, the parades were accompanied with colored garments and people exhibited their best outfits!

How the Rest of the World Dressed 1100 Years Ago

While the Heian Period marked a time of peace in Japan, the rest of the world was suffering from the consequences of the war, people took shelter in protected cities, and established new commercial trades. Because of this, silk spread rapidly throughout Europe, and together with wool, they formed the path to the clothes we wear today.

Women used to wear a plain, tight robe which reached their ankles underneath a short, wide dress. The sleeves were exuberantly decorated, varying from their taste and lineage. This garment was a sign of post-war austerity.

Men used to dress in colors and symbols representing their knight-ship, it was a rudimentary origin of Medieval Knight Crests. Gentlemen of the high society used to wear long tunics, and it wasn’t unusual to see them with cloaks.

A Thousand Years Later: How we Dress Today

Most of the clothes we used to wear 1100 years ago are exhibited nowadays in museums. Imperial Japanese House still wears the Junihitoe during special events, and Festivals like the Saio Festival in Meiwa and the Aoi Festival in Kyoto showcase these millennium clothing items.

Modern dress has been a unification factor for Japan and America, women’s clothing mainly has evolved dramatically within the past century, and pants are daily items for both men and women.
However, during the Gion Festival, Japan’s traditional parades are met by people dressed in Yukata an equally traditional evolution of Japan’s robes.


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