When you see ninjas in popular media with distinct clothing, it’s easy to wonder whether that’s what they wore during the Sengoku period. Did they wear solid black jumpsuits with oversized headbands that had kanji decorations?
Ninjas didn’t typically wear headbands. Some missions may have required them to use headbands or tenugui to blend in, but ninjas didn’t use them often. Ninjas and headbands have become synonymous in popular culture because of several popular movies and shows that depict them.
Ninja clothing is a fascinating topic to explore, and there’s a lot to discuss. The rest of this post will cover everything you need to know, from the kind of clothing ninjas wore for different occasions to what their headbands looked like. Let’s dive right in.
What Kind of Clothes Did Ninjas Wear?
Ninjas had a widely varied wardrobe. They wore whatever clothes that would let them blend in or suited their mission’s needs, from royal finery to the most humble peasant clothing.
Ninjas were stealth infiltrators and spies. They were supposed to gather information, act quietly, and not be spotted. A known ninja was one who had failed their mission and could be killed or imprisoned.
As a result, they needed to fit very different aesthetics depending on their missions. Whether that was dressing in royal court finery or homespun farmer’s garb, the clothes had to blend in and make the ninjas seem like they belonged there.  People who blended in went unnoticed, especially if something happened, like a burning castle.
They even had specific disguises for different careers. For example, they owned distinctive clothing to make them look like a peddler. Hiding in plain sight was a wise talent to cultivate considering their job.
While some ninjas grew rich and ran schools, others weren’t wealthy.  This affected their ability to acquire costumes and disguises. This meant they had to go deeper undercover when targeting nobles and other wealthy individuals.
In those cases, ninjas would disguise themselves as servants and get hired by the household. They were given more freedom than most in these positions, but didn’t have the same kind of access that someone disguised as a fellow noble may have.
Why Did Ninjas Wear Headbands?
While ninjas didn’t typically wear headbands, they occasionally used a multi-use cloth called a tenugui, which was commonly used as head coverings and padding for transporting glassware. They’re incredibly versatile and are still used today.
These fabrics could be belts, headbands, gift wraps, towels, and slings. Typically made of thin cotton, they were designed for personal use and as every man’s clothing. The tenugui has been called the ‘cloth without limits’ because of its wide use. 
The association with ninjas and headbands may have started in kendo circles.
Ninjas wore headbands in kendo circles as head wraps to hold hair out of the face while fighting. Since tenugui were so thin, they could easily fit under kendo fighters’ helmets and give them relief. Headbands also helped ninjas blend during undercover missions.
During the Kamakura era, when tenugui became affordable for the average person, they were popular among all classes and took on new purposes. These towels were used when bathing, either at home or onsen.
These strips of fabric are also larger than you might expect. As a result, this cloth became popular among thieves to hide their identity. Since there’s overlap between thieves and ninjas, the two became associated, and the practice grew. You could quickly unfold part of the tenugui to act as a mask.
They may have also become associated with ninjas who took on disguises as members of the lower classes. Tenugui were popular household cleaners and headbands for physical laborers, so a ninja going undercover as a servant or employee would need to blend in by having one.
Tenugui looks very different from the popular portrayal of ninjas. In many ninja films and shows, they may have worn headbands with kanji writing or decorative metal pieces. In this context, these headbands are seemingly only used to hold back hair. This wouldn’t have been the case.
No ninja wanted to be noticed or remembered while on their mission. There was too much risk for the ninja if they were identified. They could go to jail, be exiled, or even executed if their mission targeted significant individuals.
However, by using plain or boring tenugui, ninjas could pass unnoticed in public spaces and blend in. They wouldn’t be identified and could continue their work. As explained above, these strips of fabric have practical uses, making them a great multipurpose tool.
What Did Ninja Headbands Look Like?
The closest thing to a ‘ninja headband’ is a large piece of fabric known as a tenugui. This multi-use fabric remains a popular choice for head-covering, towel, decoration, and padding.
They’re still prevalent in kendo circles as padding or sweatbands under the heavy helmets and in mainstream Japanese culture as towels and headbands. They come in many colors and designs, even featuring popular characters, such as anime heroes and Hello Kitty.
During the Sengoku period (when ninjas rose to prominence), ninja headbands (i.e., tenugui) were simple and only had patterns you would weave by hand or painted dye designs. The most distinctive feature of tenugui is that they’re not hemmed.
They can be found at all different price points and aesthetics in the modern world. They may start fraying and falling apart after long-term use. Unlike other modern cloth products, such as terry cloth towels, tenugui are unhemmed.
There are two reasons for this:
- Tenugui come in all different shapes and sizes. People may make their tenugui out of bolts of fabric from at home, or they may purchase one on the street. They may not have access to a sewing machine, and thus, the tenugui remained unhemmed.
- It’s easier to wring out an unhemmed piece of cloth than a hemmed one. The tight seams will trap water in the folds and thread. Since the tenugui is unhemmed, it’ll dry quickly after use.
While ninjas didn’t typically wear headbands, tenugui were likely used by ninjas to help blend in. Tenugui are still used across the world today.