Make-Up of Geisha and Maiko
The History of Geisha Make-Up in Japan
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.
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.
The Art of Geisha Make-Up
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.
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 Hormozi
Date: October 2001