by Zoria Petkoska
Of all Japanese traditional clothing, samue are the most comfortable, deliberately created with freedom of movement in mind. They are also easy-to-wear and free of styling rules, so unlike kimono there’s nothing difficult to learn. That explains why samue are so widely used today, whether as work-wear, leisure-wear, casual-wear, or even pyjamas. So, what are samue exactly? Here is everything you need to know!
1. What are Samue?
SHOP THE LOOK | Imperial Purple Samue
Japanese samue are comfortable jacket and pant suits that originated with Zen monks, but today are worn in the home, in workshops, in temples, hotels and stores by women and men all over Japan. The word samue (作務衣) in Japanese means work clothes, but these days they’re just as likely to be leisurewear. You may also hear the word samugi, which means the same thing.
2. What Do Samue Look Like?
The samue jacket is about thigh-length, crossing over the chest like a yukata, and tied with a simple tie (no difficult obi belt knots to learn!). Samue pants are either calf- or ankle-length with a flexible string-tied waist, which is often elasticated these days.
Keeping in mind that samue are all about comfort, they are usually made of cotton or linen. They’re simple in style, usually in one solid colour from top to bottom. Where there is a woven or embroidered pattern it would be a simple one.
Samue can be any color you can imagine! One popular colour is Japan Blue: the iconic natural indigo dye. When worn at work, samue tend to be in this navy hue, or other dark colors such as brown or black.
3. Where Do Samue Come From?
Actor Nakamura Nakazo by Katsukawa Shunsho, 1779
Samue originated as Zen monks' non-spiritual work clothing, and continue to be worn in Zen Buddhist monasteries and nunneries to this day. All the chores around the temple like chopping wood or sweeping that are part of a monk or nun’s practice are called samu, so samue were created to be worn while doing samu. That is precisely why these traditional Japanese work clothes were designed to be effortlessly comfortable, no long sleeves to get in the way, with drawstrings to secure everything in place. In its early days samue was just the top part, but longer than today, resembling a knee-length tunic. The pants entered the picture a bit later on.
Samue are not the only garments worn by Buddhist clergy though, so they’re not be confused with long flowing robes worn for more spiritual occasions.
4. Who Wears Samue Today?
© このはな綺譚 Kono Hana Kitan
As samue were originally designed as Japanese traditional work clothing, they have been adopted for practical use in many fields, especially by craftspeople and artists. It’s not uncommon to see Japanese people wearing samue in studios, workshops, or even offices.
Of course, Zen Buddhist monks still wear samue. If you stay at a temple and do zazen, you'll find that samue is preferred for zazen mediation practice. Other practices having deep connections to Zen Buddhism have adopted samue too, so it's often worn during tea ceremonies, or by calligraphers, and traditional musicians like shakuhachi players. In a similar vein, samue are a great choice for activities like yoga.
If you stay in a traditional Japanese hotel, you may well be offered a samue instead of, or in addition to, a yukata robe (find out more in Japanese Robes). They’re smart enough to wear around the hotel, and cozy enough to wear in your room as pajamas. For this reason, many people wear samue around their own homes, whether entertaining guests or lying in bed. The bottom line is, anyone who wants can and should wear samue today.
5. How Do I Wear Samue?
SHOP THE LOOK | Matcha Green Samue
Samue are the easiest thing in the world to put on! They’re loose-fitting so just slip on the pants, and tie them at the waist, then tie the jacket closed with a knot on the side. The only thing to remember when tying the jacket, as with all Japanese traditional clothes, is to bring the left side over the right, so you will tie the know on the right. The sleeves and pant legs sometimes have a drawstring to adjust tightness. More often than samue will have pockets in the pants or jacket or both.
Some people wear a samue undergarment, usually white and mirroring the shape of the samue, slightly peeking out around the neck. There are undergarments that have a dyed collar to match the samue so that they are mostly invisible under it, but the easiest thing to use is a simple T-shirt, with V-neck or not depending on what suits you! In summer, a sweat-absorbent light undergarment is a good idea to keep your samue clean, and in winter a thicker undergarment will help keep you warm.
6. What Can I Wear With Samue?
If there’s a chill in the there, a warm coat might be in order. You could try a thickly padded Japanese hanten jacket, which goes well with samue.
Samue are generally a simple style, so they don’t need a lot of ornamentation, but you could try a kanzashi hairpin for a little extra brightening color!
What you wear on your feet will depend where you are, but if you’re out and about samue look great with sandals. Check out our article All About Japanese Sandals!
7. What to Look For When Buying Samue?
SHOP THE LOOK | Ivory Samue Pajama
With a garment this free and comfortable it's hard to go wrong. Samue are sold as a set, so bear in mind that it's hard to buy the top and bottom separately.
Samue come in a variety of sizes, but just like pyjamas, you need to make sure it's a loose fit. Another thing to look out for is whether it's dyed with chemical dyes, or natural dyes like Japanese indigo. The natural ones are more labour-intensive and hence more expensive, and they need to be washed and stored carefully to preserve as much of the colour as possible.
For the best quality samue, you obviously want to look for Made in Japan clothes!
Other than that, it's up to you to decide which colour and fabric you'd like, whether you'd go for a unisex work outfit, or a more casual colored style. But above all, choose comfort.
8. Where to Buy Samue?
We’ve got you covered here! In Japan Objects Store you will find samue ideal forwork- or leisure-wear, as well as softer, looser samue that are perfect as homewear or pajamas (the same as can be found in Japanese luxury health clubs), in a variety of colors and sizes. Let us know if you can’t find what you’re looking for!
9. What are the Differences Between Men’s and Women’s Samue?
Samue are not necessarily gendered, so men and women can wear the basic traditional samue.
As with all traditional Japanese clothes, the most obvious difference is in the colour and style. While unisex samue are usually plain indigo, black or brown, modern versions offer a great variety of colors to choose from. These colors aren’t only for women, but reflect that fact that samue are no longer just work clothes but are now also leisurewear. There is no need to stick to conservative colors when choosing pajamas for example, so traditional Japanese sleepwear comes in all colors.
10. What’s the Difference Between Samue and Jinbei?
Jinbei are another traditional Japanese garment that are popular for women and men in Japan to this day. Jinbei and samue have a lot in common, but what sets them apart? The biggest difference is seasonality – samue can be worn year-round, whereas jinbei are an exclusively summer garment. This is why jinbei always have short sleeves and short pants, while samue has long sleeves and pants. For additional air-flow during hot and humid Japanese summers, jinbei often have see-through yarn knit patches on the shoulder hems.
Check out 20 Traditional Japanese Clothing to find out more!