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The Kimono

As may be expected, the basic clothing item in a samurai's 'everyday' wardrobe was the kimono, which for men normally consisted of an outer and inner layer. Heavier kimono were worn in the winter, while lighter examples (those made of finer silk, for instance) were worn in the summer. In fact, there was a ceremonial day where winter kimono were exchanged for their summer counterparts, traditionally on the 1st day of the Fourth Month. A samurai's kimono would normally be made of silk, a material considered superior to cotton and hemp not only for its feel and appearance but for its relative coolness in the hot Japanese summer. Naturally, the quality of a kimono a given samurai might wear largely depended on his personal station and income, though, at least prior to the Edo period, there were no hard and fast rules in this regard. Hôjô Sôun, for instance, touches on the matter of clothing in his 21 Articles, writing "Don't think your swords and clothing should be as good as those of other people. Be content as long as they don't look awful. Once you start acquiring what you don't have and become even poorer, you'll become a laughingstock."[1]

Kimono fashion took off in the Edo period, as townspeople and villagers increasingly began to be able to afford nicer clothing, and as pattern books (hinagatabon), ukiyo-e prints, and fabric and clothing themselves began to circulate more widely. Particular fashion trends appeared, and changed dramatically over the years in their particulars. However, a general trend known as iki in Edo, and sui in Kamigata (Kansai) emerged over the course of the period, valuing simpler, more subdued fashions as reflecting a more refined taste. Exceptionally bright colors and outlandish patterns, though popular in the 16th to early 17th centuries as part of an aesthetic known as basara, came to be avoided and sneered upon as a show of immodesty or conceit. By the same token, women of samurai families tended to wear kimono layers and colors dependent upon the station and/or power of their husband. Samurai children, however, were dressed rather flamboyantly, and a more subdued appearance was one of the results of the coming-of-age ceremony. Older samurai tended towards shades of gray or brown, in keeping with their dignified age.

Kimono developed into what is today considered their "traditional" form over the course of the Edo period, and would have taken rather different forms and styles in earlier periods. It was only in the 16th to 17th centuries that kimono first became longer and more narrowly cut, coming to be made typically from one roll of silk measuring about two feet by 20 yards per garment. In conjunction with this shift, kimono first began to be cinched up at the waist (rather than simply worn at their full length), and the obi (sash) became more standard; prior to that time, garments were very often worn without any sash. Once the obi became standard, the mode or style of having decorations only on the lower half of one's kimono also became more common, as patterns or decorations closer to the middle of the garment would be covered by the obi.[2]

For rainy days, samurai, like everyone else, wore straw raincoats known as kappa, and availed themselves of folding umbrellas made from oiled paper.

The hitatare was a style of dress often worn by elites, in certain contexts, from the 12th century up through the Edo period. Unlike the common kimono, hitatare was a two-piece costume, though comparably flowing and ample (a snugger version for use under armor was also worn, and was known as yoroi hitatare). This costume is one of the most common to be worn by samurai figures in Japanese movies set prior to the Edo Period (including e.g. Kagemusha, Ran, Throne of Blood, and Ten to chi). Generally worn in official contexts, such as when appearing before the shogun, hitatare were often adorned with the crest (kamon) of the wearer's family, or that of their lord. Decorative bows or ties were often used to tie hitatare together in front.

Young, unmarried women often wore furisode, a style of kimono with long, flowing sleeves, and stopped wearing these once they married. Young men (wakashû) sometimes wore furisode as well.[3]


Beneath the kimono, a loincloth (fundoshi) was worn, of which there were two varieties. One was essentially a wrap that, for lack of a better description, resembled a diaper (familiar to anyone who has witnessed or seen footage of some of modern Japan's more esoteric festivals); the other type (more often worn under armor) was a long piece of material worn down the front of the body. A loop slung around the neck fastened the top of the loincloth while the other end was pulled up around the other side of the abdomen and tied around the front of the lower waist with cords. Samurai had the option of wearing socks, called tabi, which included a space to separate the big toe from the other toes (to facilitate the wearing of sandals). Tabi worn in an everyday capacity were normally white and were tailored to the season.


Footwear generally consisted of sandals (waraji) and wooden clogs (geta). Sandals were made from various sorts of material, including straw, hemp, and cotton thread. Clogs were generally associated with the lower classes (geisha, for instance, and kabuki actors are often depicted wearing geta) though samurai wore them from time to time. The Tale of the Heike, for instance, mentions that the powerful Taira Kiyomori wore clogs, though it was considered sufficiently unusual to find its way into puns composed by his rivals. Bearskin boots were at one time popular, especially with armor, but by the 16th Century had come to be considered archaic.


As with the standard kimono, the samurai's swords were normally thrust through a belt (obi) worn wrapped around the waist and tied in front. Alternatively (and again in 'official' circumstances) the main sword could be slung by cords from the obi (in a fashion more akin to a western dress uniform convention) while the short sword (Wakizashi) or knife (tanto) was worn through the Obi. Regardless, the sword was ALWAYS worn on the left side, probably a case of a practical consideration (ease of drawing) that became more fashion oriented (after all, there were certainly some left-handed samurai…).

Indoors, the samurai might dispense with his long sword, but always kept some form of weaponry on his person, even if the simple dagger. A daimyô could expect a page to carry his sword for him, though typically only in the most formal of circumstances. (Traditionally, pages or trusted or honored men would carry a lord's sword and bow for him, especially in ceremonial circumstances. By the 16th Century, few daimyô bothered with keeping bows around their person, even for formalities.). In addition, a simple folding fan might be tucked in the obi, as well, perhaps, as a few tissues.

The hitatare could be worn 'half-off', that is, the upper half was allowed to hang about the waist, and this would be done when engaging in impromptu wresting matches or, occasionally, shows of swordsmanship or archery (in other words, for martial purposes).


By the Edo Period, the hitatare gave way to the kamishimo. The kamishimo consisted of a two-piece costume worn over a kimono. This is probably the most well known samurai dress. The upper piece was called the kataginu, and was essentially a sleeveless jacket or vest with exaggerated shoulders. Alternatively, a long sleeved coat, the haori , could be worn, especially when traveling or in bad weather. The lower piece was the hakama: wide, flowing trousers somewhat like those found in the older hitatare. The kamishimo would normally be composed of the same material, and was more likely to reflect the status of its wearer than not. The Edo Period was an extremely status-conscious time in Japanese history and this was nowhere more the case then among the samurai. Style was, as always, important, but subject to much greater regulation.

The kamishimo was normally worn outside of the house, or when expecting visitors. Otherwise, the trusty kimono would do.


For headgear out of armor, powerful samurai (daimyô/shugo or their important retainers) would wear eboshi, a cap of black silk gauze stiffened with a black lacquered paper lining. The cap was held in place either by a white cord, or was pinned to the samurai's topknot. The size and shape of the cap was largely dependant on the samurai's rank, though the use of eboshi was reserved for only the most formal of events by the 16th Century.


Traditionally, married women often blackened their teeth, and after having their first child shaved their eyebrows and drew them back in higher up on the forehead.[3] This was originally a practice of Heian period court ladies, but eventually spread to the lower classes.


  1. Sato, Hiroaki. Legends of the Samurai Overlook pg. 251
  2. Bingata! Only in Okinawa, Washington DC: George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum (2016), 119.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Joshua Mostow, "Wakashu as a Third Gender and Gender Ambiguity through the Edo Period," in Mostow and Asato Ikeda (eds.), A Third Gender, Royal Ontario Museum (2016), 20.


  • Dunn, Charles J. Everyday Life in Traditional Japan Tuttle 1969
  • McCullough, Helen C. The Tale of the Heike Standford 1988
  • Morris, Ivan The World of the Shining Prince Peregrine 1985
  • Sadler, A. L. (trans.) The Code of the Samurai Tuttle 1993
  • Turnbull, Stephen Samurai Armies 1550-1615 Osprey Military 1979
  • Yamamoto Tsunetomo Hagakure Kodansha 1983
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