Beauty Standards in Heian Japan, 794–1185 CE

Japanese Court Ladies' Hair and Makeup

Plum Blossom Festival At Kitano Tenmangu
Buddhika Weerasinghe / Getty Images

Different cultures have varied standards of female beauty. Some societies prefer women with stretched lower lips, or facial tattoos, or brass rings around their elongated necks; some prefer stiletto-heeled shoes. In Heian-era Japan, an elite beautiful woman had to have incredibly long hair, layer after layer of silk robes, and an intriguing make-up routine.

Heian Era Hair

The women of the imperial court in Heian Japan (794–1185 CE) grew their hair as long as possible. They wore it straight down their backs, a shining sheet of black tresses (called kurokami). This fashion began as a reaction against imported Chinese Tang Dynasty fashions, which were much shorter and included ponytails or buns. Only aristocratic women wore such hairstyles: Common people cut their hair at the back and tied it once or twice: but the style among noble women persisted for nearly six centuries.

The record-holder among Heian hair-growers, according to tradition, was a woman with hair 23 feet (7 meters) long.

Beautiful Faces and Makeup

The typical Heian beauty was required to have a pouty mouth, narrow eyes, a thin nose, and round apple-cheeks. Women used a heavy rice powder to paint their faces and necks white. They also drew bright red rose-bud lips on over their natural lip-lines.

In a fashion that looks very odd to modern sensibilities, Japanese aristocratic women of this era shaved off their eyebrows. Then, they painted on misty new eyebrows high on their foreheads, almost at the hair-line. They achieved this effect by dipping their thumbs into black powder and then smudging them onto their foreheads. This is known as "butterfly" eyebrows.

Another feature that seems unattractive now was the fashion for blackened teeth. Because they used to whiten their skin, natural teeth ended up looking yellow in comparison. Therefore, Heian women painted their teeth black. Blackened teeth were supposed to be more attractive than yellow ones, and they also matched the women's black hair.

Piles of Silk

The final aspect of a Heian-era beauty's preparations consisted of piling on the silk robes. This style of dress is called ni-hito, or "twelve layers," but some upper-class women wore as many as forty layers of unlined silk.

The layer closest to the skin was usually white, sometimes red. This garment was an ankle-length robe called the kosode; it was only visible at the neckline. Next was the nagabakama, a split skirt that tied at the waist and resembled a pair of red pants. Formal nagabakama could include a train more than a foot long.

The first layer that was readily visible was the hitoe, a plain-colored robe. Over that, women layered between 10 and 40 beautifully patterned uchigi (robes), many of which were adorned with brocade or painted nature scenes.

The top layer was called the uwagi, and it was made of the smoothest, finest silk. It often had elaborate decorations woven or painted into it. One final piece of silk completed the outfit for the highest ranks or for the most formal occasions; a sort of apron worn at the rear called a mo.

It must have taken hours for these noble women to get ready to be seen in court each day. Pity their attendants, who did their own simplified version of the same routine first, and then helped their ladies with all of the necessary preparations of a Heian-era Japanese beauty.

Sources

  • Cho, Kyo. "The Search for the Beautiful Woman: A Cultural History of Japanese and Chinese Women." Trans., Selden, Kyoko. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012. 
  • Choi, Na-Young. "Symbolism of Hairstyles in Korea and Japan." Asian Folklore Studies 65.1 (2006): 69–86. Print.
  • Harvey, Sara M. The Juni-hitoe of Heian Japan. Clothesline Journal (archived April 2019).