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Kasane: Looking at Colour Layering

Murasaki Shikibu

Murasaki Shikibu wearing juunihitoe.

Lady butterfly

perfumes her wings by floating

over the orchid


I have long been fascinated by the robes of the court ladies in Japan's Heian era (794-1185) which are breath-taking in their colourful butterfly-like beauty.

Within the small social world of the Kyoto imperial court, clothing was of immense interest and importance and consequently, when reading the literature of the time, there are many long descriptions of the varying shades of jacket, robes, and train that the courtiers wore. Indeed, the very first entry in The Confessions of Lady Nijou (Book 1 from 1271) opens with:

As the mist rose among the spring bamboo heralding the dawn of the new year, the ladies of Go-Fukakusa's court, who had eagerly awaited this morning, made their appearances in gorgeous costumes, each trying to surpass the others in beauty. I too took my place among them. I recall wearing a layered gown shaded from light pink to dark red, with outer gowns of deep purple and light green and a red formal jacket. My undergown was a two-layered small-sleeved brocade patterned with plum blossoms and vines, and embroidered with bamboo fences and plum trees.

Dressed in these many-layered robes, the ladies of the court looked like moving works of art. Lady Nijou describes how robes were placed around the walls of her room 'for decorative effect'.

The robes have come to be known as juunihitoe (literally: 'twelve layers'), even though the individual may wear more layers or less.

Multiple layers of enveloping fabric, while extremely costly at the time, had the practical benefit of helping a lady to be warm. Ivan Morris (The World of the Shining Prince) writes:

The open construction of the shinden house and its intimate connexion with the garden were attractive features. Yet, so far as bodily comfort was concerned, the Heian dwellings, even those of the richest aristocrats, could hardly have been less inviting. They were particularly ill-equipped to meet the city's bitter winter months. The round wooden braziers that provided the main form of heating could have little effect on the temperature of the large open rooms and the long draughty corridors. This had an important effect on fashions. Women had to be protected by numerous layers of clothes; since this was an age of taste, they made a virtue of necessity, and the subtle matching of the colours of the different layers became one of the great arts of everyday life.

On the way to the Aoi Matsuri in Murasaki Shikibu's novel The Tale of Genji, ladies screened from the male gaze in ox carriages drape their beautiful, multi-coloured sleeves beneath the blinds to the awe of onlookers:

Her imposing train of carriages halted, since by now every place was taken and it had nowhere to go. Her grooms fixed on a spot occupied by many fine ladies' carriages but free of any press of attendants, and they began having them cleared away. Among them were two basketwork carriages, a little worn but with elegant blinds through which spilled a hint of sleeves, trains, and jackets in the loveliest colours worn by those seated within.

The ability to correctly colour match the seasonal combinations of colour expressed a strong individual sense of taste and judgement. Within the imperial court, ladies were judged as much for the colour-layering of their robes as they were for their skills at calligraphy, and poetry.

In the literature of this time there are also withering accounts of the ladies who got it wrong. Murasaki Shikibu, who is mostly admiring and generous to the ladies around her, does concede in her Diary:

That day all the women had done their utmost to dress well, but, as luck would have it, two of them showed a want of taste when it came to the colour combinations in their sleeves...

And Lady Nijou writes three centuries later:

Lady Onkata appeared wearing a white formal train over a two-layered gown of Chinese brocade, which had a large scarlet maple tree woven on a light green background. She was a tall woman, imposing in both appearance and manner, and I thought her very impressive. Then Yoritsuna, dressed in a small-sleeved white informal robe, entered from the far side of the room and joined her without ceremony. His appearance was disappointing.

They brought out the costume the empress had sent, and I recognised a five-layered gown that was supposed to be worn with successively darker shades of scarlet toward the inner gown, which in this case was of unlined green material. there was also a pale pink outer gown that should have had purple and green designs on opposite sides, but it had been sewn together wrong. The layered gowns had been assembled with the lightest layer properly on the outside, but immediately under it was the darkest one, so that the layers became successively lighter rather than darker toward the inside. It was quite incongruous.

Haruo Shirane, in his book Japan and the Culture of Four Seasons, describes how the kasane colour layering of the Kyoto imperial court was directly linked to the culture of waka verse writing. It was owing to the culture of poetic writing that the reverence for flowers such as plum and cherry blossoms became so embedded in the heart of Japanese culture.

Certain flowers became, over time, emblematic, and traced the subtle adjustments of the seasons as the year turned.

The beauty of the Heian poetry inspired the many different colour combinations of the juunihitoe, as they too were closely connected to the seasonal changes in the flowers and plants. The fabric itself was dyed using natural dyes from plants and flowers

Haruo Shirane writes:

With only a few exceptions (such as ‘grape’ which could be worn all year round), each Kasane colour combination represented a specific season and sometimes a specific month. In this fashion, Heian aristocrats brought waka-related ‘nature’ into their everyday lives. At the beginning of spring, when the crimson plum tree blossomed, it was customary for an aristocratic woman to wear a ‘crimson plum’ kasane robe, with bright red on the outside and dark reddish-purple on the inside, and to write letters on paper decorated with the ‘crimson plum’ colour combination….

For aristocratic ladies of the court, sleep and romance happened beneath the voluminous spread-out

robes too, and there is a beautiful account by Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book:

In the seventh month, when the heat is dreadful, everything in the building is kept open all through the night, and it's delightful to wake on moonlit nights and lie there looking out. Dark nights too are delightful, and as for the sight of the moon at dawn, words cannot describe the loveliness.

Picture her lying there, on a fresh new mat placed near the outer edge of the gleaming wooden aisle-room floor...

Her lover must have already left. She is lying asleep, a robe drawn up over her head - it is pale greyish-violet with deep inner lining, the outer surface a little faded...

Irome no Kasane

Irome no Kasane is the term used for the many set colour robe combinations in the Heian era. These sets had names which referenced flowers and plants associated with the seasons in waka poetry.

Kasane, the art of colour layering, is a fascinating art, which doesn't allow for the individuality of the wearer. Rather it is necessary to follow seasonal rules and templates, layering one gauzy colour on top of another to transform two textile layers into one particular shade of cherry blossom, for example.

I was lucky enough to discover the Kasane exhibition called Living Colours at Japan House in London in 2019, and I was thrilled to see the subtle varying shades of colour first hand.

Liz Dalby (Kimono) writes:

From about mid-Heian, represented by the world of Prince Genji, fewer than twenty colour combinations are mentioned, with just five or six appearing most frequently. These Heian kasanes were all overlays. Sakura was the most common, a 'cherry blossom' muted pink arising from the layering of white over red.

I wonder if the reddish irome no kasane in the middle rear of the above photo is Bright Foliage (momiji): a reddish-brown surface with a brown interior. Momiji was a tremendously popular motif in Heian era poetry.

Summer set combination of a white surface and green interior representing Deutzia Flower (unohana).

Sakura cherry set combination.

I'll dye my summer

garments deeply with cherry

blossom's fresh colour

and be cloaked in memories

of flower clusters when they're gone

sakura iro ni

koromo wa fukaku

somete kin

hana no chirinan

nochi no katami ni

Ki no Aritomo Kokinshuu poem no. 66

These beautiful many-layered robes were gradually replaced by the kosode or kimono that we know today. Certainly, these precious aristocratic robes are the antecedents to the

beautiful textiles that we still see in Kyoto.

The kimono originated as a plain white layer worn beneath the layers of flowering silk.

Many of the idealised flower motifs such as plum and cherry blossoms, that began so long ago, have come through the ages to decorate our modern furoshiki and tenugui textiles.

I hope you've enjoyed reading about the art of seasonal colour layering.

Thank you for reading, and see you next time!



You can find beautiful original artworks from the classic print series of The Tale of Genji

by master artist Masao Ebina in our online Zusetsu Art store!

Murasaki Shikibu heian lady


Karen Brazell (trans.), The Confessions of Lady Nijou, (Stanford University Press, 1976), p.1 and p.4. pp.193-194

Liz Dalby, Kimono, (Vintage 2001), pp.243-283.

Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince, (Kodansha, 1994).

Murasaki Shikibu, Richard Bowring (trans.), The Diary of Lady Murasaki, (Penguin Classics, 2005), p.65.

Murasaki Shikibu, Royall Tyler (trans.), The Tale of Genji, (Penguin Classics, ), p.167.

Haruo Shirane, Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts, (Columbia University Press, 2012), p.58.

Sei Shonagon, Meredith McKinney (trans.), The Pillow Book, (Penguin Classics, 2006), p.38.

Laurel Rasplica Rodd with Mary Catherine Henkenius, Kokinshuu: A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern, (Princeton University Press), poem 66.

Masao Ebina, The Picture Contest

Masao Ebina, Suzumushi


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