The Costume of Traditional No Theatre

Life and death, past and present--
Marionettes on a toy stage.
When the strings are broken,
Behold the broken pieces.

Such is No theatre. Through its traditionalism it exists simultaneously in the past and the present. Its actors acknowledge their insignificance in relation to the art that they convey--they are but tools, marionettes. In keeping with the heavy influence of Zen on No theatre, the "strings" of a No actor are located in his mind--his personal, deep understanding of and identification with the piece. Other things such as sets and costumes are mere constructs to aid the audience in appreciating the art of No, and as such they are superfluous. It is the strings that carry the power of the play--when they are broken, the play falls in broken pieces. If all other properties besides the actor's mind are inconsequential, why does the history of No include huge collections of lavish and colorful costumes developed expressly for use in the theatre? What influences, native or foreign, prompted the development of the traditional No costume? The answers lie with early No costumes, which came from the closets of samurai patrons who wished to show their appreciation for the refined art of No. Thus an examination of the origins of No costume must delve into the origins of samurai clothing, especially that of the latter fourteenth century, an era that saw the first flowering of No under the auspices of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.

Several influences combined to give No robes their characteristic grandeur. The samurai of the time took pride in the opulence of their robes, a measure of their power and prosperity. They also wished to imitate the power and prosperity of the T'ang Dynasty of China, which they did in part by imitating the Chinese manner of dress. "Under the T'ang, China enjoyed its greatest national flourishing in history. Its borders were extended to their farthest limits, and Chinese culture radiated outward to neighboring lands." "Court costume had for a long time followed Chinese models, and continued to do so" past the sixteenth century. A comparison of the styles of Chinese clothing during this and previous eras betrays their influence on the samurai. The wide sleeves and narrow, slanting lapels of the long wrap-style robe of the Six Dynasties, look suspiciously similar to the kosode of the samurai.

The main influence of the Chinese, however, took the form of fabrics and embroidery that were imported into Japan and later copied by Japanese weavers. The most popular fabric was silk brocade, which was in some later forms known as karaori, which literally translates as "Chinese weaving." An earlier brocade, nishiki, may have been the first of its kind to reach Japan. "According to tradition, the first examples of this weave came to Japan in 238 A.D. as a gift to the Empress Jingo from the Chinese Emperor Ming Ti." Heavy importation of these fabrics and others such as silk satins and silk gauzes guaranteed a saturation of Chinese fabrics in the wardrobes of the very rich, and consequently on the stages of the No theatre as well.

The embroidery commonly found on No fabrics has its origins in China as well, though Korea also had a decided influence through the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century. The Buddhists brought with them art of all kinds, and their importance in the art of embroidery can still be observed in the popular motifs of the lotus, the wheel of law (rimbo), and the cloud-shaped Buddhist gong (umban).

The preponderance of Chinese influence might suggest that samurai dress, and therefore No costume, looked exactly like contemporary Chinese clothing. In fact, though the Japanese borrowed heavily, they also added Japanese innovation to everything that arrived via the Sea of Japan. With the early seventeenth century advent of sakoku, or isolation from outside influences, "came the opportunity to assimilate fully centuries of past borrowings in an environment that was relatively free of outside input." Just at this time, the Nishijin weavers' district began to match and exceed the Chinese textiles that had hitherto flooded the market. Chinese techniques "were copied by the Japanese and applied in creative ways, resulting in unique textiles."

The fact that the sumptuary edicts did not apply to No costumes did not go unheeded. Prior to this expansion in Japanese textile production, No theatre had received a new lease on life through the enthusiastic patronage of the Tokugawa regime. "The new official status of No required a more formal system of costuming to replace the donated samurai dress that was previously used." With the newest Japanese brocades, good backing from those in power, and an exemption from the strict sumptuary laws, No costuming reached new heights of grandeur while retaining its traditional kosode shape.

The Japanese kosode, despite bearing some resemblance to earlier Chinese models, is indeed a style all its own. The superficial differences between the two, such as the shape of the sleeve, indicate only part of the fundamental change in the concept of design that occurred once the Chinese prototypes reached Japan. Whereas the Chinese garment, in some periods quite fitted and with tight sleeves, is based on the shape of the body, the Japanese kosode takes its shape from a certain aesthetic concept having little to do with the human form, and successfully ignores the differences between males and females. This aesthetic is that of beauty of form and design, carried out through the simplicity of the kosode and the contrasting opulence of its decoration. A kosode can be laid out flat because it is constructed of several rectangles cut end to end from a length of fabric and sewn together to form sleeves and a long robe. The relative unimportance of the human shape is particularly relevant in No theatre, where the actor is but a tool, a marionette, and the costumes bear at least some of the symbolism of the character. To this end, No costumes employ "heavy, thick, stiff materials" which it is the actor's job to animate with slow, expressive movements.

This aesthetic concept also influenced the types of designs used. A kosode, when laid out flat, forms a t-shaped plane perfect for large, continuous designs. "The majority of motifs in Japanese art were Chinese in origin, but they were altered in scale, color, and/or composition and Japanicized in the process." The cloth would be "decorated according to a pre-determined layout that resulted in a completed, fully realized design when cut into component panels, juxtaposed, and sewn." Within the framework of the kosode, Japanese ingenuity was realized in designs very different from the traditional Chinese repeated patterns of flowers and borders of stripes or stylized motifs. Kosode were often arranged in large, alternating blocks of different colors, and the designs within might include "asymmetry, discontinuity, inverse proportion and bold coloration, which acted upon a range of motifs taken from geometry, nature, everyday life and the legendary past."

After the transformations that produced the kosode of the samurai, the patronage of the Tokugawas allowed No costumes to evolve as a genre produced specifically for use on stage. "The styles, patterns, and actual usages of these [samurai] garments exerted a long-lasting influence on the types and designs of No costumes after they came to be made especially for the stage." However, No costumes could only develop within certain limits. The traditionalism of the theatre demanded a strict adherence to the kosode style, even after it evolved in popular culture into the more modern kimono. Within the framework of the standard kosode, No costumes became clever and colorful due to the competition between daimyos. Other factors contributing to the boldness of the costumes were "the need to project visually from a stage, often under dim lighting" and the absence of any set besides a painting of bamboo and a pine tree, which transferred most of the burden of decoration to the costumes. After a certain point in the evolution of No, some time in the seventeenth century, even fabrics and decorations became relatively set, so that "both the masks and costumes and the performance of No itself have preserved their Edo period form with remarkable purity." As a consequence, "the masks and costumes developed toward ever greater refinement within an increasingly archaic and remote world." Even in this atmosphere of seeming stagnation, each No robe is quite original. In fact, "it is unusual to find two that are identical." The art of the No kosode is like the art of the sonnet--the form is very strict, but the skill required to excel within such restrictions guarantees that each piece will be uniquely beautiful.

A synthesis of Chinese influence and Japanese innovation forms the basis of the No costume. The styles of No theatre itself also play an important role, as do the tenets of Zen. In a country that values tradition, No costumes are more traditional than most other cultural standbys. They preserve the past and its alliances as well as the present and its innovations. They acknowledge through a contrast between their own busyness of decoration and the actor's deliberateness of motion the separate status of each: the actor as marionette, using understatement to create emotion, and the costume as adornment, a tangible beauty that carries with it implied symbolism about the character through the color and style of the garment. Though the actor must rely on his own mind to be his puppet strings, his costume is his link to the past and the present, to the tradition of his art and its relevance to the future.


de Bary, Wm. Theodore, ed. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Garrett, Valery M. Traditional Chinese Clothing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Kawakatsu, Ken-Ichi. Kimono. Tokyo: Kyodo Printing Co., 1936.

Kennedy, Alan. Japanese Costume. Paris: Editions Adam Biro, 1990.

Priest, Alan. Japanese Costume. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1935.

Valery, H. Paul. Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Honolulu Press, 1984.

Xun, Zhou and Gao Chunming. 5000 Years of Chinese Costumes. San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals, Inc., 1988.

Yoshinobu, Tokugawa and Okochi Sadao. The Tokugawa Collection: No Robes and Masks. trans. Louise Allison Cort and Monica Bethe. New York: Japan House Gallery, 1977.