How clothing defined social status in 17th century Japan

A sketch of Lord Toranaga's costume with two tall spikes rising from his helmet.

Costume designer Carlos Rosario helped distinguish different armies through color. Lord Toranaga leads the brown army, but to add some luxury to the wealthy warlord, he added shades of shimmering copper, gold, chocolate and burgundy … and a towering helmet.


“Shōgun” was first a novel, then a hit 1980 miniseries, but the new series from FX Networks is an amplified historical fiction that offers viewers an entertaining education in medieval Japanese society and its elaborate attire.

The production also became a sort of cultural exchange for the crew, including costume designer Carlos Rosario.

“I had never done anything that required designing Japanese clothing of any period,” Rosario said on video conference from France.

The show spans 10 episodes, each an hour long, that gave Rosario plenty of opportunities to depict characters in the proper environment by matching their clothing to their rank, geography, clan loyalty and even their shifting psychological state.

Unlike the 1975 James Clavell novel or miniseries, this “Shōgun” relies less on the point of view of John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), the English navigator who is blown ashore in the foreign world of Japan. Instead, it brings the 17th century society vividly to life through a historically accurate spoken and visual language, which includes thousands of costumes for warlords, armies, peasants, courtesans and a bunch of shipwrecked European sailors.

The series and the era are so dense with history that the FX network created an online viewer’s guide and, in a first for any FX series, a podcast. Together they outline the history, chart the geography and describe and illustrate costumes, including how armor was made and changed along with warfare styles. A gift for costume geeks, the guide also includes an augmented reality “spatial experience” feature for Apple Vision Pro and mobile phones that can zoom in and rotate the exceptionally detailed armor of two warlords.

A man and woman, kneel on mats in a scene from "Shogun."

As John Blackthorne, Cosmo Jarvis wore simple peasant-style robes of raw silk and linen. Anna Sawai, as the high-born Lady Mariko, was dressed in a monochromatic, wintery palette. Her patterns evolve to show branches without leaves.

(Katie Yu / FX)

The nine-month shoot in Vancouver through 2022 required a costume department of 85 to 125 people who made about 2,300 costumes, rented 1,300 pieces and purchased many modern kimonos that could be altered.

Set in the year 1600, the story documents the end of the Sengoku period, a century of endless civil war before the prosperous Edo period, which has been more commonly represented in popular culture.

The production was an opportunity to present and sometimes correct depictions of the Sengoku era’s costumes, especially for a Western audience. For example, many of the characters wear the predecessor to the kimono, a kosode. Through the centuries, the unisex garment evolved from an underlayer for the upper class to become outerwear, sashed with an obi but featuring smaller sleeves that aided physical activity — helpful for the samurai warriors.

Rosario also learned that a woman’s status is reflected in the number of layers she wears; similarly, men’s full-cut trousers, called hakama, may have different proportions depending on the purpose or occasion.

“This job was particularly complicated in terms of research. It was always different locations, different characters in different ranks,” Rosario said. “ We had funerals. We had weddings. And we had so many characters of different social status.”

Two women in kimonos standing in a courtyard in "Shogun."

Costume designer Carlos Rosario learned that a woman’s status is reflected in the number of layers she wears, as Fumi Mikado as Ochiba no Kata, left, and Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko.

(Katie Yu / FX)

For three years, the production consulted with Frederik Cryns, a Belgian-born professor at the National Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. Cryns specializes in the Sengoku period and helped with the language, customs and the costumes.

“He was my person to go to from the beginning to the end,” Rosario said. “We studied the paintings of that period, the colors and the patterns. We needed his help to understand the language of the clothing of that period,” Rosario said.

Rosario also staffed his department with experts in Japanese textiles and kimono dressing. The many-layered costumes could take more than an hour to assemble and layer onto a body. Rosario had to learn new efficiencies to tell the story while accommodating filming.

“In the James Clavell novel, he took the liberty of describing the characters the way he envisioned them,” he said. “One of things that was not accurate in terms of period is that the samurai would never have had a color code. They wore their own armor and their own clothing. In the novel, he created clans and armies, which helps the audience know who is part of which army.” Rosario followed suit and used color to identify groups.

Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) leads the brown army, “so I thought about what colors are the next step, the ones more luxurious than brown,” Rosario said. Toranaga is swathed in shimmering copper, gold, chocolate and burgundy.

A man in 17th century Japanese dress sits on a mat in "Shogun."

Highly detailed silks were used for courtesans, high-ranking women and in men’s ceremonial dress, many with metallic threads that reflect the candlelit interiors as with Hiroyuki Sanada as Lord Toranaga.

(Katie Yu / FX)

“I also knew that Lord Toronaga was a very powerful, wealthy lord. So I found the most beautiful fabrics. I couldn’t find them in America or Europe. I hired a team in Japan to find Japanese fabric,” Rosario said.

Highly detailed silks also were used for courtesans, high-ranking women and in men’s ceremonial dress, many with metallic threads that reflect the candlelit interiors. For Blackthorne’s peasant-style robes, however, Rosario used humble raw silk and linen handwoven in Vancouver.

For the high-born Mariko (Anna Sawai), a translator in an unhappy marriage, a lack of color mirrors her mental state.

“She’s more psychological than everybody else I designed for the show,” Rosario said. “She was walking through life lifeless.” He introduces her in a monochromatic, wintery palette. Her patterns evolve to show branches without leaves “to represent that she is without purpose.” As she grows emotionally, “I started introducing camellias, which bloom in winter,” Rosario said.

The wealthy warlords and samurai show status with intricately feathered robes, embellished fabrics or towering helmets. Their complex armor is laden with fur, horsehair or leather, which was hand painted to look like scuffed metal, but weigh much less.

Adapting 400-year-old attire for modern filmmaking was full of technical challenges, but Rosario said the task “was so much more than just a job.

“It was very clear to me that the journey Blackthorne was going through on ‘Shōgun’ was the one that my entire crew and I were facing. We started the project as foreigners in a culture we didn’t know much about but slowly absorbed its richness and complexity, allowing us to create bridges with a Japanese team that was very different from us.

“From an emotional point of view, I put everything that I am and everything that I’d learned in the last 30 years into this project. And I left it with a strong sense of contentment, having achieved something incredibly challenging, but also with gratitude to our showrunners for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime.”

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