Tabi socks history

1- The History of Tabi

tabi socks history

The origin of tabi socks has several theories, one of which suggests that it developed from a type of footwear called "shitōzu" that was introduced from China to Japan around the 5th century. Shitōzu lacked the split-toe design and resembled current socks, being tied at the ankle with a string after wearing. Before the Heian period, nobles did not wear sandals but wore shallow shoes like modern slip-ons called "Asagutsu" or boot-like "Kanogutsu," with "Shitōzu" serving as socks worn underneath. Thus, "Shitōzu" is believed to have evolved from "Shitagutsu" (under-shoes). In the Heian period, specific garments were worn for different formal occasions, with nobility wearing brocade for ceremonial attire and white for court dress.

Different materials like silk and hemp were used depending on one's rank, and leather versions were worn for special occasions like kemari (a traditional ball game) and dance performances. Additionally, hunters known as "Yamaga" in the Heian period wore fur footwear called "ke-tabi," made from animal skins like monkeys, bears, and deer for protection in the mountains, which is considered a precursor to modern tabi.

2- Etymology of Tabi

While nobles wore shitōzu, warriors primarily wore "tanbi," as mentioned in the Heian period's "Wamyōshō" with the following description, "townspeople make half-shoes from deerskin, called tanbi."

Made from single-layer leather, this footwear's name evolved from tanbi to tabi (足袋) . The "Uji Shūi Monogatari" from the Kamakura period mentions "wearing monkey skin tabi," indicating the use of the term tabi by the 11th century, although these tabi did not yet have the split-toe design, which emerged in the Muromachi period. Other theories for the term's origin include "Tabi" from "Four noses" due to the appearance of two pairs of tabi resembling noses, and from "Tabi-kutsu" (travel shoes), abbreviated to tabi.


3- Development of Tabi

From the Muromachi period, as sandals became widespread, leather tabi gained popularity among samurai. By the Bunroku era (1592-1596), men started wearing white leather tabi or patterned tabi, while women wore purple-dyed tabi, although usage was regulated by season and required permissions from senior officials. Wearing tabi in public was considered impolite among samurai, who preferred bare feet in formal settings. During periods of war, leather tabi were also used as part of military attire.

4- Introduction of Cotton Tabi

In the Edo period, leather tabi were common, but after the Meireki fire of 1657, leather prices soared as it became sought after for fire protection clothing. Consequently, cotton tabi emerged as an affordable alternative, praised for comfort and quickly gaining popularity.

Various types of tabi appeared, including dyed and embroidered versions, with white, black, and navy becoming standard colors. White tabi became associated with formal attire among Edo samurai, while townspeople favored navy tabi. Today, white tabi remain standard for formal occasions, and summer tabi, made from lighter materials, have been used since the Hōreki era (1751).

5- Evolution of Fasteners

Around the Genroku era (1688-1704), tabi with "kohaze" (hooks) at the ankle, inspired by Chinese purse clasps, were developed, becoming the prototype of modern tabi. Buttoned tabi also emerged, although string-tied versions persisted, particularly in rural areas, until kohaze tabi became widespread in the Meiji period. Initially, two kohaze were standard, with modern versions featuring 3 to 6, typically 4, offering ease in sitting or standing.


6- Modernization and Decline of Tabi

With the Meiji period, tabi became widely adopted by the general populace for warmth, convenience, and fashion, leading to the creation of "jika-tabi" (outdoor tabi). However, post-war shifts towards Western clothing reduced daily use of tabi, now primarily seen in traditional arts like martial arts, ikebana, and tea ceremonies.

Recently, tabi's split-toe design, known for reducing foot fatigue, has gained renewed attention for its health benefits and its style. Casual designs compatible with Western clothing have also emerged, making Japanese socks a fashionable choice among trend-conscious youth.