The studied makeup look that we attribute to geishas actually began with Japanese courtiers during Heian Era, from approximately 795 to 1185 CE. In this period, court ladies perfected a style of ethereal beauty that included layers of sweeping silk kimono, inky black hair so long it nearly touched the ground, and pale faces with high, thick eyebrows. This was the period in which Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, and illustrations from this classic show the ritualized beauty expected of high born women of the time.
The very white face, neck and décolleté were the hallmark of the Heian Era style, and this was achieved by carefully painting these areas with a lead based paint. Similar to the ceruse that would be used in
Europe for the same purpose by the 16th century, the paint was made of finely ground white lead powder mixed with a moistening agent, often vinegar. This type of makeup gives a perfectly smooth surface to the skin, hiding every flaw from pimples to scars and wrinkles. Eyebrows were plucked out all together and drawn in much higher on the forehead with charcoal. Small, bright red lips were achieved by painting the natural lips with the white makeup, and then creating the desired shape with juice from the sallflower or beni. Women also blackened their teeth with oxidized iron filings.
The result was a perfect mask, intended to draw the attention of the viewer through striking contrast. Artfully applied, the made-up face reflected the refined elegance of the woman wearing it.
Similar makeup styles have been popular throughout Japanese history, but where and by whom they are worn has changed over the centuries. By the 20th century, use of the lead base was in decline and eventually was discontinued. The very white mask is now a hallmark of the young geisha, known as a maiko, who will wear this recognizable style for the first three to five years of her career. She will graduate to a much less heavy style of makeup when she achieves full geisha status.
The makeup is still applied in virtually the same way it was in the Heian Era. A heavy, white base is painted with a brush onto the face, neck and décolleté after they are rubbed with a warmed wax. Small patches of skin are left unpainted around the hairline and at the nape of the neck. In this latter area, a highly attractive part of the female body in many cultures, a careful V or W of skin is left bare. This can be glimpsed between the dipping collars of the kimono and the high, black wig.
A sponge is used to even out the base and soak up any excess moisture before a hint of pink powder is applied around the eyes. Eyes and eyebrows are defined in black and accented in brilliant red. The lips, which have been concealed with the white base, are redefined in red. In some traditions, young maiko only paint their lower lip. Crystallized sugar, in the form of a gloss, is then swept over the lip paint to give it an attractive, lacquer-like finish.
This entire process, which can take over an hour to complete, is only a geisha’s first step in her traditional preparation. Her kimono and wig await, as makeup must be applied first to avoid soiling her expensive accoutrement. Though young maiko will receive help with their makeup, they are expected to learn quickly and handle all the details themselves for most of their careers.
If you’re interested in geisha history, makeup and/or traditional Japanese beauty products, I highly recommend both Immortal Geisha and Hannari-Ya cosmetics. You’ll find a wealth of information at the former, and be tempted to try some of the geisha’s famous secrets of timeless beauty at the latter. A votre santé ~
Header: Woman Applying Makeup by Hashiguchi Goyo via Old Paint