BEHIND THE SCENES: Kabuki Costumes

KABUKI COSTUME by Ruth M. Shaver

In discovering the world of Kabuki I felt like an Alice in Wonderland falling into a intriguing world inhabited by fascinating actors wearing spectacular Kabuki costumes with hidden messages only true enthusiasts can decipher.

It was a surprise for me to discover that a copy of the book Kabuki Costume by Ruth M. Shaver deserved a place in Yves Saint Laurent’s rich studio library[1].  I can just imagine Yves Saint Laurent studying the stunning plates that depicted all aspects of Kabuki,  and using them as a source of inspiration for the the kimonos in his Fall-Winter 1994 haute Couture collection.

The term Kabuki originally defined an ostentatious, suggestive behavior, or something off the beaten path, carrying with it some such ideas as unusual, humorous or passionate. The modern definition is translated to mean “sing/dance/act. Dramatized dance, eloquent music and skillful acting characterize the quality of this typically Japanese drama. Initially the plays depicted courtesans and dandies engaged sensual and provocative dances but after women were banished from the stage in 1629, the first of a long line of restrictions by the Tokugawa government, Kabuki plays evolved in new scripts based on the depiction of Japan’s feudal past and contemporary dramas depicting everyday life and events.

“Drama which appeals to the common people has thereby proved its right to survive.“2 Romain Roland


The Noh and Kabuki are truly one of the few true native artistic expressions that did not develop from Chinese or any foreign forms.  Kabuki emerged as popular forms of entertainment for the townspeople while the Noh theatre developed among the noble or samurai classes. The Noh actors were honored, whilst the kabuki actors were despised by the upper classes.

Kabuki is defined by Japanese and foreign enthusiasts, as “a diversion not for the intellect but for the senses”. The Kabuki essentially remained the artistic expression belonging to the world of the urban commoner with a decently developed artistic sensibility to enjoy its suggestions of obscenity. It took two centuries and the 1868 revolution to introduce the changes that followed the early years of the Meiji era when customs relaxed and restrictions and class prejudices softened up.  


Okuni of Izumo performing “eccentric dances” at the Kitano Shrine in Kyoto . Six panel folding screen attributed to the Hasegawa school . 1603 – Kyoto National Museum

A legend states that the origin of Kabuki is to be attributed to a beautiful, clever and skilled female dancer. Okuni was a miko (shrine virgin) who served the gods, danced before them, and a priestess of the great Izumo no Oyashiro Shrine. While travelling to Kyoto to raise funds for the maintenance of the shrine, she performed prayer-dances -“dance of prayer to Buddha”. Upon her arrival in Kyoto around 1600, she erected a stage on the bed of the Kamo river where low class entertainers could perform without being taxed. Her charms and her daring exhibitionism attracted the attention of Nagoya  “Sanza” Sanzaburo, the seventh child of a samurai destined to priesthood, excellent in social arts, proficient with the flute and hand-drum. He became his mentor and probably also her lover for a few years. They performed together the sensual acting inverting their roles. Okuni dressed like a man, and Sanza as an Onna, the female character.


Kabuki actors became nationally revered celebrities, to the chagrin of conservative nobles and samurai. Their images, engraved forever in woodblock prints, spread widely all over the country and were collected by the rising bourgeoisie of the Edo period.

The dressing styles of the leading kabuki actors were mimicked by their audiences: prints, crests, colors, influenced everyday clothing. Women replicated hairstyles, accessories, and the way they tied the Obi sash. The modern kimono sash can be related to Ogino Sawanojo I, a late 17th century actor who introduced for the first time on stage a wide Obi, which became fashionable off stage. Prior to his performance, it was accepted fashion to wear a narrow obi of only 4/5 inches.



Okuni’s performances developed in what will be known as Onna Kabuki – women’s kabuki – staged by troupes of actresses. The Onna Kabuki, aiming to enlarge its audience invaded the realm of the courtesans introducing a new repertoire, the Yujo – pleasure women’s – Kabuki. This new form was developed to charm and attract new customers. Among these was an increasing number of samurai who were seduced – and distracted –  by the lascivious performances. An enraged Shogun would begin to systematically enforce restrictions on performances, clothes, themes. The future of female actresses was doomed.


Plates representing Onnagata costumes from the book Kabuki Costumes bye Ruth M. Shaver

Social and political reasons explain the Shogun’s decision to prohibit any female performance: avoiding corruption of public morals deriving from the joint appearance of the two sexes on stage in provocative dances and preventing samurai from mixing with the commoners and loose their “full substance” when associating with expensive courtesans that would put at risk the security of the daimyos and Shogun.  From then on, all roles were played exclusively by male actors.

The most important and fascinating figure in the Kabuki drama is the Onnagata, the female impersonator.  Segawa Kikunjō I (1691-1749), a celebrated Onnagata of the Edo period, wrote many detailed notes on the components of the onnagata costume and the  histrionics of the character.3

“An Onnagata should note be liked by women in the audience. Let it not be said ‘I wish I were his wife’. Rather, an Onnagata should evoke from men the words ‘I wish I were her lover’.  On the stage, you must make the women of the audience think you are of the same sex as they. If you can make them copy your kimono, your obi, your katsura, or any article of apparel you wear, you will be successful.”

The uniqueness of Onnagata actor is that he is expected, to maintain the illusion of femmininity and to be accepted by the public and the critics who periodically produced ranking lists of actors, to live as women outside the theatre. The Onnagata in many ways parodied the actions of women and began to set standards for women’s dress and hair styles.


Kabuki Costumes is a thorough research on the complexity of the components of the costumes that are so remarkable in Kabuki theatre and are central to the overall success of the performance. They assume such importance that expert enthusiasts are able to identify the type of play (historical, social or dance ) and the roles of the actors by decrypting the codes of the fascinating visual vocabulary constituted by (shapes, patterns, colors, family crests, make-up, headgear, accessories etc). Actors – who often payed for their stage outfits-, stage hands and costumers worked together to create extraordinary costumes to communicated strong messages to the public.


A source from 1763, Hara Budayū, author of the Hokuri Gijō Tonari no Senki,  provides a description of the transformation in kabuki costumes throughout time and encouraged by the Bafuku’s repeated restrictions.

“Long ago, costumes with gold-patterned Nishiki weave, saya silk, crepe, satin and damask silk were used. Off stage, these costumes doubled as undergarments, nightwear, or even as bed quilts for the wives and children of the actors. Since the government’s ban on luxury has been enforced, pongee and cotton are used in their place which are embroidered and appliquè to resemble the more elaborate woven atsuita (high-quality fabrics imported from China) silk or unusual wool fabrics.” 4

Before and during the Genroku era (1688-1703) – what is defined as the Japanese Renaissance – the military government extended limitations on all classes of people. A series of restrictions were imposed (but often ignored) on the wearing of extravagance clothing , on the display of wealth and on free indulgence of luxury, on and off the stage.

The decorative techniques used on Kabuki costumes, embroidery and appliquè are a result of these overly strict government ban on luxurious materials. No gold or silver coverings on stage properties was permitted. The use of colors was also limited. Red linings and purple dyed hoods or stage curtains were forbidden.  (Purple dye was produced with a very rare weed therefore extremely expensive and the color was reserved exclusively for the upper classes).


Following the general disregard for all restrictions, a more serious ban was issued in 1703 that axed any play depicting current events or any activity of the daimyo, civil officials or the shogun or that shamed the samurai, criticized the regime or were too blatantly lascivious. This forced playwriters and costumers (Ishō-ya)  to devise new and creative ways to depict upper class figures without encurrying in the shogun’s fury. By exploiting the townsfolks’ ignorance about the noble class attire,  they created costumes more and more extravagant, diversified and detailed.


Costumes followed different codes according to the characters and the classification of the kabuki plays:  Jidaimomo – historical dramas related to episodes in court nobles and samurai lives during the Heian period, are often fantastic and unconventional, enriched with magical, legendary or grotesque elements; Sewamono, social dramasthat depict the contemporary lives of the townspeople in urban Edo, costumes are realistic and immediately identifiable by the audience, and provide valuable information on the clothing of Edo townsfolk; and Shosagoto , dance dramas  based on historical incidents or the everyday life of townsfolk. Bright colors and elaborate designs were ignored in daily dress but actors chose to challenge the conformity of the times and selected designs and variegated colors that harmonized with, and at the same time emerged from, the simplicity of the first period kabuki stage scenery.


Regardless of the genre of the drama, the color contour, and patterns have definite significance. The designs were developed to designate class, notable traits, or the age of the depicted character. The history and diversity of kabuki costume patterns and colors is  fascinating and overwhelming if you are a textile addict like I am.

“Traditions in design and color were established when an actor made a role famous by wearing a specific costume”.

Such is the case of  the suō  ( man’s ceremonial costume with wide sleeved-top garment and short pleated trousers pants) in the Shibaraku (Wait a Moment) drama, written by the legendary Ichikawa Danjūro I, founder of the ranking dynasty of Kabuki actors in the Edo period. The suō costume is still used today for the role of the hero, Kamakura Gongorō Kagemasa. The costume, now of exaggerated proportions that only an exceptional actor with the “physique-du-role” can wear with ease, is a reddish-brown color which was espescially created for this costume. It was inspired by the brown shade of the juice extracted from the Japanese persimmon.  The color and the impressive volume express conveys “colossal strength” and the superhuman power of the hero. The Ichikawa family crest, the large-scale printed mimasu, is composed of three concentric squares symbolizing three measures of rice. (Rice was the measure of a family wealth).

Another example, is the mizugoromo ( a Noh-type unlined topcoat worn by priests) with a gold based Sanscrit character on a dark background and the checkered Kitzuke ( top Kimono under the topcoat)  used in the Kanjinchō drama for the role of Benkei, warrior priest and the legendary military commander Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s loyal servant .  The rimbō pattern on the ōguchi trousers is inspired by the buddhist symbolic weapon used in rites to ward off evil spirits.

Suō costume for the Shibaraku (Wait a Moment) drama; Benkei warrior priest costume


It is a very difficult task for a westerner amateur to identify and name the variety of forms of traditional kimonos. We usually have and idea of what a kimono is but we really can’t distinguish the function of one type from another.

In the kimono language, differences in the length of a sleeve or a hemline, in a decoration, in a pattern or in a color,  reveal the different functions of a kimono. They can indicate the social status of a person,  the season that wants to e represented, or, in the case of Kabuki and Noh,  the role played by the actor.

Decoding the secret language of theatre costumes is a challenging and fascinating task. The variations are endless.

Certain colors are exclusively reserved for the nobility and high rank officials, long sleeves are exclusively reserved for young unmarried girls while shorter sleeves are used by married woman. Stripes are typical design for the costumes worn by actors playing the parts for commoners in social dramas, and represent the social contrast between townfolks and the upper class costumes with their sophisticated, colorful and decorative designs. Villains are unmistakably identified by their guise of clear, bold patterns on dark colored materials, often black, pine-needle green or dark brown.

Large scale designs are exaggerated and enlarged so that they can be discerned even by those seated far from the stage, just like over dimensioned jewelry worn in western opera. The size is also exploited to convey sternness and magnanimity or in creating a surreal atmosphere typical of the historical dramas.


The impressive use of primary and contrasting colors is the characteristic of Japanese traditional color schemes. Different shades of the same color are rarely combined in favor of bold and opposing tones. In case of theatre costumes, the choice enables them to be appreciated from the upper floors of the theatre

Colors and patterns are indicative of rank, age, personality, a state of mind.

Purple was the color reserved for nobility and high rank officials. In Kabuki, when allowed, it was used for the chaste woman but it also represents the color of romance and sometimes by used by clever con-men. Yellow identified the daimyo of a powerful clan, pale blue a young daimyo, red again the aristocracy, while gray and brown represent the elderly.

Plain black with small family crests was used by young dandies who dallied in the red district. When black is mixed with large and colorful patterns or decorations, it indicates power or evil, but always the elegant man. Just like an art expert would identify the religious character of a portrait by identifying its symbols, patterns and decorations are the keys to identify the different roles, feelings and seasons represented in the play.


Kabuki costume design is not just about clothes. Stylized make-up, weird wigs and iconic headgear as well as other accessories also contributed to the overall outcome of visual picture of the actor.

Everything is exaggerated in kabuki. Costumes, manners, wigs and make-up. The combination of wig (Katsura) and make-up can transform actors into alluring personalities or disreputable rogues.

Kumadori is the non-realistic,symbolic, stylized and multiform make-up that vividly expresses the temperament and the varied emotional countenances belongong to the various roles. It is applied to differntiate between female and male, young and old, lowborn or highborn, beauty and ugliness. Lines (kuma) and colors are used to express emotions.

Red represents anger, indignation; Pink represents youthfulness and gaiety;

Light blue suggests calmness, coolness and composure; Indigo expresses melancholy while purple nobility and sublimity, Brown indicates selfishness and black fear, terror and gloom.

“The fan was an emblem of life. The rivet-end was regarded as the starting point, and as the rays of the fan expanded so the road of life widened out toward a prosperous future” Charlotte Salwey, 1894

The traditional and characteristic japanese fan in Kabuki helps define an actor’s role as to social position, class, and sometimes profession or work. Lenght and number of ribs define a type of Ōg. For example a chūkei used by actors impersonating a Daimyō or a court noble, has 14 ribs and is 13 and 3/4 inches long, while the akome ōgi, with its 40 ribs are used by Onnagata impersonating ladies of the imperial court. The book dedicates an antire chapter to the fascinating history of Ogi production and use in Kabuki theatre.

Kabuki reached its peak during the Edo Period ( 1603 -1868), therefore the costumes that are still in use today are inspired to the styes of the that period. Regrettably no original kabuki costumes from the Edo period have been preserved so the only references can be found in sketches in old books, ukyo-e or woodblock prints, from costumes created after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and from the oral tales passed on, generation to generation,  within families involved in kabuki costume production.

Kabuki has been ranked among the masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage Humanity by Unesco.

I could go on to write about Kabuki Costume but then it would turn this blog article into a book. Why do it when Ruth Shaver’s book is so outstanding? I hope you have enjoyed this small piece of history on this extraordinary japanese traditional theatre. For any inquiries please contact me!


Ruth Shaver published her book in 1966. It includes 252 fascinating colored (110) and black and white plates by Soma Akira, painter, scholar and, authority on Kabuki costumes, and Ota Gako,  artist and adviser to the Miji-za in Tokyo, illustrating costumes, headgear, make-up, costume patterns,  accessories ( fans, wigs, swords,).

Ruth Shaver spent 14 years in Japan studying Kabuki and the book is the result of such thorough research. It is an extremely fascinating read and the illustrations are enchanting, so much that they inspired a collection of one of the most celebrated 21st century fashion designers. The silk cover of the book represents the typical colors of the curtain that reveal the characters who enter the stage.

  1. The fact is mentioned in Yves Saint Laurent – Dreams of the Orient , Thames and Hudson, 2018. A plate from Kabuki Costume appears in pg.63
  2. Japanese Drama, Tourist Library, Board of the Tourist Industry, 1935, pg. 31
  3. Kabuki Costume, Ruth M. Shaver, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1966
  4. KABUKI COSTUMES, Ken Kirihata, Kyoto Shoin’s Art Library of Japanese Textiles, Vol. 10, 1994

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