Prior to the 1500’s only the upper class in Japan wore socks. In ancient times the upper class wore what is called shitauzu. These were fashioned from soft leather or silk and weren’t divided. The warrior class wore shitauzu of dyed leather with designs.
Above is a pair of leather shitauzu from the mid-Momoyama period (1573-1600) (image courtesy The Tokugawa Art Museum, Aichi)
Japanese commoners dressed in humble clothing made from homespun coarse hemp fabrics and silk was reserved for the nobility. Likewise, socks were restricted to the upper class. Commoners wore only straw sandals.
When the Japanese began importing raw cotton from China in the 15th century, the ready availability of this material enabled all classes to wear socks. These are the socks we recognise today as tabi. Tabi reached their peak of development in the Edo period (1600-1868). Being a hierarchal society, Japan soon introduced regulations for the colour of tabi to indicate a wearer’s rank and status in society. Colourful and flashy designs were not permitted to be worn by commoners.
Coloured or patterned tabi were to be worn by performers and entertainers. Samurai were permitted to wear any colour except gold thread or purple. Commoners were permitted to wear the traditional indigo blue colour.
These days while both men and women can wear white tabi only men are supposed to wear black or navy blue tabi. Black is the chosen colour for travelling as it doesn’t show dust and dirt so easily. Today anybody may wear tabi with printed designs and these are in fashion with women who wear traditional clothes often.
Tabi are ankle high divided socks worn with traditional thonged footwear such as geta (wooden raised clogs), waraji (straw sandals) or zori (more modern style sandals).
The photo above shows three pairs of tabi fashioned from white leather and dating from the late Momoyama period (1573-1600) (image courtesy The Tokugawa Art Museum, Aichi)
Traditionally made from cotton, tabi today can also be fashioned from silk, calico, synthetic materials and even wool.
Unlike common socks, tabi consist of three pieces of fabric. Two cloth patterns cut and sewn down the centre for either side of the foot and a sole. This means that tabi are quite tight around the foot. Originally, the front top half was left open to slip the foot in and then tied closed with fabric ties. Modern tabi have the back left open so that they can be slipped over the foot with a series of fasteners called kohaze on the outer side that close around the back of the foot and fasten to loops of fabric hidden on the inner side of the ankle.
The sole of tabi is a separate pice of material that is usually the same colour as the top but can be different. The sole is often quilted or padded or made from a stronger material. Tabi worn by those on pilgrimage sometimes had reinforced toes and soles.
Above images of early 1900’s indigo dyed tabi from http://www.kimonoboy.com/
Samurai on horseback sometimes even wore armoured tabi that consisted of metal toes and chain mail reinforcing worn over the tabi. These armoured tabi would often have long leather thongs to tie them on.
Iron tabi cover dating from the mid-Momoyama period (1573-1600) (image from Chukokatchu seisakuben)
These days few people wear tabi and usually only with traditional clothing such as kimono and hakama. People practicing the traditional arts of tea ceremony or ikebana, or performers of Kabuki or Noh would more often wear tabi, as well as Buddhist and Shintõ priests.
The photo above shows a pair of smoked leather tabi with a yellow dot design dating from the Edo period (1600-1868) (image courtesy The Tokugawa Art Museum, Aichi)
Black and white pairs of common modern cotton tabi.