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The Book of Kimono
by Norio Yamanaka


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Make-Up of Geisha and Maiko

IMPORTANT NOTE: This article is currently undergoing extensive reviewing and writing. It will be replaced with a new and more informative article soon!

The History of Geisha Make-Up in Japan
Their face snow white, eyes and eyebrows lined in crimson and black, bee stung lips - painted crimson. This is the face and make-up we have come to associate with maiko and geisha. Although their make-up is surely one of the most recognizable elements about them, it is interesting to note, that this has not always been the case.

The origins of white face make-up in Japanese culture is largely disputed. It has been said that in the middle ages, the white make-up originated when a Japanese traveler returned from Europe with stories of "pale faced" beauties. Whilst this sounds plausable, it is also been said that it originated from China and was adopted by the ladies of the Japanese court. Considering that the use of white make-up in Japanese history can be dated back as early as the Heian Era (794-1185 AD), a time when Japan was largely influence by the Chinese culture, this seems more likely the case.

The women of the Heian era (and up to more modern times) used either a rice-flour powder or a lead-based powder mixed with water into a thin paste and applied to their face as a foundation. They then would remove their eyebrows with tweezers and paint in thick, straight, false eyebrows high on their forehead.

The juice from benibana or sallflower (beni) was used to redden their lips. To finish off this dramatic look, they would then blacken their teeth. This was achieved by staining the teeth with a mixture of oxidized iron filings steeped in an acidic solution. Application of this mixture would need to be repeated every couple of days or the teeth would return to white. The custom of teeth blackening ended in the Meiji era and is now only used by kabuki actors and by maiko-san for the week before they become geiko. The look of the Heian era was considered to be quite elegant and beautiful and appears to have been adopted by the courtesans of the pleasure quarters in their efforts to recapture the romance and elegance of the long gone "Golden" era.

When geisha first started to emerge within the pleasure quarters, their style was quite low key compared to the courtesans. This was largely due to the strict governmental regulations of the time which were enforced in an attempt to stop geisha from competing with the courtesans. The kimono that geisha wore were of more somber colours and plain patterns and their hairstyles were less elaborate with the use of hair accessories limited. Last but not least, unlike the courtesans, they wore simple light make-up.

Rather than these regulations restricting geisha, it seems to have worked more in their favour leading for geisha to become the very embodiment of iki - “cool" "chic”. By this time, the courtesans, with their thick heavy make-up and overtly gaudy appearances were starting to be seen as old fashion.

Over the years times and fashion have change and geisha appear to have adopted the make-up look that the courtesans were once looked down upon. Today it is one of their most noticeable and enduring features along with their kimono and hairstyles.

The Art of Geisha Make-Up
The art of geisha make-up is quite intriguing in itself and has definitely spawned many different variations of "copycat" make-up in the western fashion culture of today. Shortly after "Memoirs of a Geisha" became a best selling novel, it seemed that everyone wanted to jump in on the band wagon. Who can forget Madonna performing in her "geisha" garb with her faux kimono and heavily influenced make-up? Even make-up companies jumped in on the wave. In Australia, there is a brand of make-up called "Poppy" who created a line of make-up called "geisha".

This line, containing lip pencil, eye kohl and white face powder was for those who where wanting the look of a “modern” geisha (which of course was much easier to apply than the real thing!). Even though the modern rendition of the geisha style and make-up looked cool, so to say, it really was just an imitation of an age old art and lacked the very embodiment of iki that geisha had perfected.

At the start of their career, Maiko find themselves wearing the heavy white make-up all the time. When she is first initiated as a maiko, she is helped with her make-up by either her older sister or okasan, but after then, she has to quickly learn how to apply it herself. Once she becomes a geisha, she continues to wear the heavy make-up until she has been in service as a geisha for three years. Once she has been in service for three years, she then switches to wearing less elaborate kimonos and simple make-up and starts to wear her hair pulled back in a simple bun. The reason being is that her “beauty” is now in her maturity and "gei" (art) rather than her appearance. For formal occasions and dances though, she will wear a katsura (wig) and the make-up. Geisha over 30 normally only wearthe heavier make-up when they are wearing katsura for a dance requiring this attire.

The application of the make-up is a time consuming process and must appear quite daunting for the new maiko to try and perfect. The make-up is applied prior to dressing to avoid the risk of getting make-up on their kimono. Firstly, they apply a wax/oil substance (which is melted in their hand) called bintsuke-abura to their skin. This is applied to the face, neck, chest and nape area and helps for the white paste (foundation) to adhere. Next, white powder is mixed together with water into a paste and applied with a brush to the face, neck, chest and nape. Originally, the use of white lead for the face was quite common, but, as it is known today, it is highly toxic and must have lead to illnesses and un untimely death for some of the ladies who used it. Today, rather than the lead counterpart, modern cosmetics are now used for this purpose. When applying the foundation, they leave a line of bare skin around their hairline - this gives the illusion of wearing a mask. On the nape of the neck they leave two “V” shape lines unpainted. For special occasions, (when a maiko debuts, when maiko becomes a geisha and when formal kimono is worn) they leave three lines unpainted.

After the foundation has been applied, a large sponge is used and patted all over the face, throat, chest and nape of neck. This serves to soak up the excess moisture from the water - and blend the entire foundation into a flawless mask.

The next step is painting in their eyes and eyebrows. When applying the eye make-up, they have to be very careful and have a steady hand. One mistake in the application and they might very well have to restart the whole make-up process right from the beginning as unlike western make-up, small (or large for that matter) alterations are almost impossible. The eyebrows are drawn in black with a touch of red. Traditionally they would have used charcoal to darken them, but today, it is more than likely modern cosmetics are used in their place. She will then outline the edges of her eyes with red and black as well. The amount of red in the eye make-up starts to decrease with time from when a maiko becomes a geisha. Eventually the red eye colour will be minimal or may even be excluded all together.

Last but not least are her lips. The lips are filled in using a small brush. The colour comes in a small stick (traditionally sallflower), which is melted in water. Crystallized sugar is then added to give it's luster. For their first year, Maiko paint only a little bit of colour on her center lower lip. This appears to originally originate from the fact that in Japanese history very small lips where once considered sensual and attractive.

Today, in this modern age though, it appears to be more of a tradition than anything else. After their first year, Maiko start to colour their top lip, but never filling in the entire lip. When they become geisha, they continue to paint their lips smaller but eventually over time as her make-up becomes more clear and distinct, she starts to paint in her full lips.

Author: Naomi Graham-Diaz
Date: October 2001
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Further Resources:

Hannari-ya.com sells the full line of authentic geisha make-up and accessories. Visit their website for more information.

ImmortalGeisha FAQ on how to apply make-up

ImmortalGeisha FAQ on alternative make-up for geisha look.