Women's writing produced most of the great literature of Heian Japan, with the obvious examples of authors Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon. These writers, free from the restraints of classical literature, dwelled at length on the things that were important to court life. Clothing was one of these, so we are fortunate to have extensive descriptions, making research into this subject relatively easy.

The famous multi-layered robes worn by Heian women are called ju-ni hitoe. Courtiers' full dresses would usually have 20 to 40 individual layers of robes, individually called uchiki (until limited by law to 5 in 1074). Altogether, the outfit was exceptionally heavy. Beneath all this they wore hakama. The practice probably started from practicality, lending warmth during cold Kyoto winters, but grew into a greatly exaggerated refinement.

Men at court also wore layered clothing, but not so extreme. Instead of flowing like the women's, their clothing was often stiffened or starched. They also wore extra layers designed to broaden shoulders and chest. Very awkward to move in, but unlike courtiers of the Shogun era, these men did not consider themselves warriors, and were content to be carried about on palanquins like the women.

It is uncertain which came first: the Heian propensity for moving around on one's knees and lying about a lot in the palace, or the voluminous and restrictive clothing. Generally the latter has been thought, but other theories suggest that the great number of child emperors in the Heian period, and the law that one's head must not be higher than the emperor's, may have contributed. At any rate, the two things certainly seemed to feed on each other, as clothing got more and more aesthetic and more and more ludicrous. The beautiful garments weighed so much that they damaged the spine*, and courtiers died in fires because they were physically unable to rise up and flee.

Although, for obvious reasons, Heian clothing generally died out, it remains the official clothing of the Imperial Family. The wedding photos from the 1990s show the heir and his new wife wearing the Heian robes. From an aesthetic point of view it was an unimaginably refined time. The rules about (and staggering creativity of) kimono colors, fabrics and patterns are the lasting legacy of the Heian era of fashion.

You may read much more detail at http://www.reconstructinghistory.com/japanese/HeianDress.htm

* Think about high heels before you gasp in horror.

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