In this blog post we'll explore the history of Kimono colours and meanings. There’s no doubt that it's easy to appreciate Japanese Kimono simply on account of their exceptional beauty. While we may gaze upon the extravagant colour combinations and opulent embroideries decorating the outer fabrics in admiration there is actually quite a lot more to these ‘decorations’ than first meets the eye. Just as the shape of a Kimono provides certain clues about its wearer, for example whether someone is married and to which family he or she belongs, so to does the colour of the robe communicate certain information about the wearer. (For a more detailed explanation about the meaning of embroidery designs on Kimono please read our blog article here. For the purpose of clarity, this article will focus solely on the significance of color). For example, did you know that if you spot someone wearing a white Kimono in Japan its more likely that they have just attended a funeral rather than a wedding?
White Ceremonial Kimono Robes
Or that it was strictly forbidden for common folk to wear purple Kimono until the end of the Edo era (1603 and 1868). And whilst westerns might view a women wearing red as desirous of attention, a Japanese women clothed in a brilliantly coloured red robe would be better understood as communicating a message of prosperity, knowledge and protection. Consider the bright red of an Uchikake wedding Kimono, the red Hakama trousers worn by Shinto shrine maidens or the flaming red sheaths of Samurai swords. It’s easy to see that the symbolic meaning associated with the colour Red is quite different in Japan to other parts of the world.
Red Uchikake Kimono Robes
To understand the import role colour plays within Japanese culture it should be noted that Japan has 220 traditional colours. These colours were all made using natural materials, with some colours being so labour intensive to produce that fabric dyed in these in shades was extremely exclusive and worn only by members of the aristocracy. Each of the 220 traditional Japanese colours has its own unique name, with the names ranging from (kuchiba-iro) yellow-brown to (sekinetsu) red hot all the way to (yakenonokarasu) blacker than black. Some of these names can be traced back 1500 years. To illustrate the complexity of the colour system within Japan consider the colour black. In English we use the word black as an umbrella term to include most shades of black, sometimes we might say ‘pitch black’, or ‘light black’ but most often, black describes the entire spectrum of related shades. Contrasting this with Japanese, where black might be called ‘ink colour’, ‘the colour of rats’, ‘glossy black’ or ‘blacker than black’ and we begin to understand how closely colour is intertwined with culture in Japan.
An example of different Japanese names for shades of black and white
The Cap and Rank System
So now that we understand the importance of color within Japanese culture let's discuss a little how this relates specifically to Kimono. In order to do this we need to go back to around 600AD as it was during this time that Japan adopted a system of coloured clothing from neighbouring China. This system was called the ‘cap and rank’ system and consisted of 12 vertical levels, with each level being assigned a unique colour. These colours were used to show which rank the wearer had attained. For example, if someone had attained the highest rank they would be clothed in purple robes. Alternatively, if someone was dressed in black or gray this showed that they belonged to the lower ranks. During this time it was forbidden for anyone to wear colours that did not match their rank and although the system changed and evolved throughout the ages, some of the colours retained their cultural meaning. For example, purple remained the colour of nobility and it was forbidden for common folk to wear the colour purple until after the Edo period.
An Illustration Showing the Robe Colours of the 'Cap and Rank System'
The Twelve Levels of the 'Cap and Rank' System
During the later Edo period (1603–1868) it became fashionable for young women to dress according to the seasons and each month of the year was assigned a carefully considered set of three complementary colours. For example Kimono worn during the month of April would have been coloured cherry red, white and burgundy whilst kimono worn during the month of December would have been coloured in shades of chrysanthemum, lavender and deep blue.
The following list illustrates which colours were associated with each month.
- January - Pine, sprout green and deep purple.
- February- Red blossom plum, crimson and purple.
- March - Peach, peach and khaki
- April - Cherry, white and burgundy
- May - Orange Flower, dead leaf yellow and purple
- June - Artemesia, sprout green and yellow
- July - Lily, red and dead leaf yellow
- August - Cicada wing, cedar bark and sky blue
- September - Aster, lavender and burgundy
- October - Bush Clover, rose and slate blue
- November - Maple, vermilion and grey-green
- December - Chrysanthemum, lavender and deep blue
Now let's take a look at some of the most popular traditional colours of Japan
RED - Aka (赤)
Considered an auspicious colour in Japan- It symbolises wealth and authority. Red is thought to represent a state of heightened emotions with terms such as ‘growing red with anger’ denoting the colour red. Traditionally Samurai would colour the sheaths of their swords with red lacquer as this was thought to bring them good fortune. The maidens of Shinto shrines traditionally also wear red Hakama pants and red paper lamps and wall coverings are often used to decorate temple spaces. Wedding robes or Uchikake are often coloured using bold red dyes. This is thought to invite prosperity and abundance into the lives of the newly married couple. Traditionally red dye was made from the akane plant, an expensive and labour intensive process by which the color was extracted from the roots.
A Young Japanese Girl Wearing a Red Kimono
WHITE shiro (白)
Considered a sacred colour in Japan, white symbolises purity and the divine. Japanese priests wear white robes during religious ceremonies and white is considered an appropriate colour for funeral attire. White also symbolises new beginnings with phrases such as ‘like a blanket of fresh white snow’ alluding to whites ability to render the past forgotten, thereby providing a clean ‘white’ slate for new beginnings.
A Woman Wearing a White Kimono
BLACK kuro (黒)
Associated with dignity and formality, black is considered an appropriate colour for formal Kimono bearing the family crest. Historically black has symbolised doom, fear and sorrow and it was also the colour associated with the lowest rank during the ‘cap and rank’ system. Modern interpretations of black align it more closely with the Western idea of formality such as the ‘black tie’ event. Because black is considered to be a sober and mature colour it is deemed suitable for the robes of married women. Black is also considered a suitable colour for funeral attire.
Formal Black Kimono Robes
INDIGO BLUE ai (藍)
As blue mirrors the colour of the life giving oceans surrounding Japan it is thought to symbolise peace, stability and security. Deep blue indigo has long been the colour of Japanese workwear as all lower classes were restricted to wearing blue tones during the Edo period. Two indigo dye procedures were traditionally used in Japan, dyeing with the fresh leaves of the Tadeai plant or a vat dye using fermented dried plant material. Indigo is one of the most non-fading and colourfast natural dyes.
Japanese Indigo Workwear
PINK pinku (ピンク)
Pink is considered a youthful and fresh colour. It symbolises good health, vitality and femininity. Pink is the colour linked to spring and because of this it is a popular choice for Kimono and clothing worn during the springtime or cherry blossom season.
A Young Girl Wearing a Pink Kimono
PURPLE murasakiso (紫の)
Purple has historically been reserved for the robes of highest ranking officials and members of the Aristocracy. Traditionally dye for the colour purple was extracted from the plant leptospermum erythrorhizon. The Japanese word for the plant is ‘murasakiso’, literally, purple herbage. Because purple was exceedingly expensive and labor intensive to make, only the wealthiest people occupying the highest ranks could afford to wear purple robes. Common people were forbidden to wear purple until after the Edo period. In order to circumnavigate the ban, wealthy merchants began to secretly line their brown Kimono with purple coloured silks. Purple is associated with the Wisteria and the Mallow flower and both of which have been used as emblems for the ruling classes.
YELLOW ki (黄)
Unlike western cultures where yellow is linked to cowardice and treachery, Japanese culture associates yellow with bravery, wealth and refinement. During the War of the Dynasties in 1357 warriors wore yellow chrysanthemums as a way of representing the Japanese emperor and the royal family.Yellow dye was traditionally made by extracting the dye particles from kariyasu grass. Kariyasu grass grows in mountain regions and protects itself from ultraviolet rays by producing a clear bright yellow colour.
Yellow Flower Display
Japanese Colours and their Meanings
Hopefully this blog post has helped to somewhat describe the complex and culturally significant relationship Japan has with colour. The long history of fabric dying and symbolism associated with specific colours adds to Japan's rich cultural legacy and provides fascinating insights for Kimono lovers. Would you feel differently wearing a purple Kimono now, knowing that historically this would have been a punishable offence? What about trying out one of the seasonal colour combinations or wearing red for prosperity? Do you have any questions or anything to add? Do you just wanna say hi? We love hearing from you, send us a message on Instagram!
Modern Archive xx
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