December 27, 2013 @ MoC
Onnagata (女方 or 女形), a commonly encountered term in discussions of kabuki and ukiyo-e prints, means “woman’s manner” (onna + kata).
Onnagata were male kabuki actors who performed the roles of women. Some actors specialized exclusively in women’s roles, while others played both men’s and women’s parts. The onnagata wears a cloth called a murasaki-bôshi (“purple cap”), a silk headcloth used to cover the shaved forelock. It was used both during performances in female roles and off-stage on formal occasions (the color of the cloth was not, however, always purple). The forelocks were shaved because apparently, in early kabuki, the shogunate required onnagata to shave their heads in an effort to make them less attractive and thus less prone to illicit sexual commerce. Regardless of the shogunate’s intentions, wearing the murasaki-bôshi soon became a conventionalized part of the onnagata’s persona and had no diminishing effect on his attractiveness.
In 1642, onnagata roles were forbidden, resulting in plays that featured only male characters. These plays continued to have erotic content and generally featured many wakashū roles, often dealing in themes of nanshoku (male homosexuality); officials responded by banning wakashū roles as well. The ban on onnagata was lifted in 1644, and on wakashū in 1652, on the condition that all actors, regardless of role, adopted the adult male hairstyle with shaved pate. Onnagata and wakashū actors soon began wearing a small purple headscarf (murasaki bōshi or katsura) to cover the shaved portion, which became iconic signifiers of their roles and eventually became invested with erotic significance as a result. After authorities rescinded a ban on wig-wearing by onnagata and wakashū actors, the murasaki bōshi was replaced by a wig and now survives in a few older plays and as a ceremonial accessory.