Geisha costume ? Kimono, make-up, Japanese accessories

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The Geisha are an integral part of traditional Japanese culture. They are artistic icons in entertainment such as music, dance and the art of conversation.

But can we talk about a geisha without talking about her illustrious kimono and the various accessories that characterize her?

A Geisha's outfit consists of a traditional kimono, a belt (Obi), white socks (Tabi) and wooden sandals (Geta). The geisha style is complemented by accessories such as Kanzashi (hair jewelry) or the Senzu (Japanese folding fan).

This traditional Japanese tunic is seen as a true work of art around the world. It is even used by internationally renowned designers in fashion shows...

You will discover in this article all the secrets to adopt a true Japanese geisha style. In particular, we will see:

  • What is a Geisha ?
  • The Geisha costume
  • Their unique makeup and their refined and sophisticated bun
  • The Japanese Geta shoes and their luxurious appearance

So if you want to blend in with a real 18th century Geisha, the following will be of great interest to you:

What is a Geisha?

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To better understand what a Geisha is, we will analyze its etymology. Consisting of kanjis {Gei} for "art" and {Sha} for "person", this word refers to a person practicing the arts. 

Officially appearing in the eighteenth century, the profession of Geisha is more a way of life than a profession given that they must devote their entire lives to it. Trained from childhood in Japanese discipline, Maiko and Geisha must live within Okiya (Geisha house). It is in this house that they live and complete their training.

Her major role as a hostess is to provide entertainment for her distinguished guests. For centuries, these delightful performers have skillfully regaled and captivated their guests. On the other hand, originally, Geisha were not necessarily synonymous with femininity given that it was a profession practiced by men.

The profession of geisha should not be equated with the profession of concubine, as they do not sell their bodies. They are artists in their own right known and recognized for their many talents. They may decide to have intimate relationships but it is only on a personal basis. 

Geisha do not only entertain men. Women also enjoy their services as hostesses in order to admire that feminine elegance they display.

The different statuses of a Geisha

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Here, the different ranks a geisha obtains as her career and apprenticeship progresses. The rank of Geisha differs based on their level of training, seniority and experience. Achieving the status of a Geisha means the completion and mastery of traditional Japanese arts upon completion of training.

This training begins with the status of "Shikomi," which is a young girl doing the housework of a Geisha. Then she becomes a "Minarai" when she shows artistic predisposition. The Minarai obtains the status of "Maiko" after diligent training in Japanese arts. She thus becomes the apprentice of a Geisha who will pass on all her knowledge in order to perfect herself.

At the end of her training, which will last nearly 5 or 6 years, the Maiko will have to prove herself, demonstrating that she has mastered the disciplines she has learned, through an exam. As a result the Geisha apprentice, expressing herself much less and shaking her head or smiling at every conversation, will give way to the Geisha. The very one who masters the art of conversation in order to keep her guests relaxed.

The Geisha costume: how to wear it ?

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The kimono of these Japanese hostesses differs from the popular Japanese kimono we know. This one turns out to be much longer, embellished with a train and mainly highlights the nape of the neck. The emphasis is placed on this part because it is considered seductive or even attractive for Japanese men.

It is not recommended however for these hostesses to wear underwear under the Kimono. Because it would add wrinkles to the dress. Instead, they wear a "Koshimaki", a kind of cloth wrapping the hips. Then they cover it with an ensemble that must match the Kimono.

Given the complexity of kimono dresses and the weight of the fabric, the help of a specialist is required in order to put on this outfit. It is usually a man, he is the only one allowed to enter the home of a Geisha. This garment has differences depending on their rank.

The Kimono for all occasions

This traditional Japanese dress is one of the icons of these talented hostesses. But what is the Kimono? This Japanese word comes from the etymology {Ki} for "wear" and {Mono} for "thing". This Japanese tunic made of silk, cotton, or polyester comes in the shape of a T.

This long Japanese dress possessing long, loose sleeves and reaching to the heels is worn in a body-wrapping manner. The uniqueness of this garment, however, lies not in its cut but rather in its patterns. The patterns, colors and models of Kimono identify the social rank or the particularity of the wearer.

The Kimono is worn by overlapping the left flap over the right side and keeping it secured with a wide belt-called "Obi". This dress is equally popular among women and men. It is usually worn in the same way for both sexes.

If you wish to know the authentic kimono rules, please have a look to our blog article to understand how to wear a kimono. The fourth rules is outstanding...

The Kimono variations of Geisha

The Geisha apprentice or Maiko will wear a Kimono with bright, shimmering colors and longer, more elaborate sleeves. The tunics of the Geisha and the Maiko are ordinarily all the same size. Except that the apprentice's is composed of a longer train, adding elegance to it.

As for the more experienced hostess, she will have a coat with shorter sleeves and understated, muted colors. The goal is to make the young apprentice look much more attractive. The Geisha will instead have a more elegant and mature appearance due to its simplicity. In summary, the Kimono determines the rank of a Geisha by its structure, the Japanese symbols, the ornaments and the colors.

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An Obi is a long belt in a wide shape. Its function is to hold the Kimono or Yukata by tying it in the back. Women tie it above the abdomen while men tie it at the waist. The designs of an Obi may differ depending on the types of ceremonies or occasions.

The variations of the Geisha Obi belt

The main function of the Obi belt is to hold the Kimono closed. However, it also adds refinement to the curves of a Geisha. Not to mention, it also provides back support for these hostesses. Knowing that sitting on the floor and maintaining a straight posture at all times is not so obvious.

The Obi belt is equally important and necessary to accurately identify the status of a Geisha. The Maiko exhibits an Obi tied in a wide Nippon knot, carefully adorned and loosened into a long train. The confirmed Geisha, on the other hand, will have an Obi of subtle colors tied in a less wide knot and no train.

The Obi of these artists is made of silk and is worn lower than those of typical Japanese women. They are always tied in the back, as tying them in the front is more of a sign of prostitution.

The unique and distinctive makeup of Geisha and its realization

The white-dyed face is the common feature that is generally found among all Geisha, regardless of the status they possess. The powder used unfortunately contained lead which very often caused health problems to these art guards. It was therefore substituted with a mixture made of rice powder.

The hostess's face is first covered with an oily carrier before application. Next, water is added to the powder so that a paste-like mixture is obtained. It is then spread on the face evenly. This tint should also spread over the face, the entire neck, the back of the neck and the exposed part of the back.

On the other hand, the part located at the hairline, at the nape, should not be touched. It is intentionally left without makeup to add a touch of sensuality. The eyebrows and eye area should be accentuated with charcoal. Lip makeup, on the other hand, depends on the status.

Variations in makeup among Geisha

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The most famous type makeup is maikos. The face is made up with white, the eyebrows and eye area are darkened with charcoal, light pink tints on the cheeks and corners of the eyes. These colors are used to emphasize the youth and innocence of Maiko.

With age and experience, Geisha wear less makeup in an effort to showcase their natural Nipponese beauty. As a result, these women only wear makeup for special events or occasions. This marks the passage to adulthood, wisdom and maturity.

The major difference in the Maiko and a confirmed Geisha make up is in the lips. Indeed, a Maiko has only the lower lip painted with red, while a Geisha will completely color her lips. On the other hand, the latter will not wear pink shades on her cheeks.

The refined and sophisticated Geisha bun

As you've probably noticed, geisha have elaborate buns held together by decorative Japanese accessories called "Kanzashi." Maiko wear their own hair styled in a bun set with sophisticated and richly colored ornaments (Kanokodome). Unlike Geisha who will adorn themselves with made-up wigs and with fewer accessories (more modest).

The hairstyles of the Maiko are distinguished by a strip of red cloth attached to the front, bearing the name "Chinkoro". The bun called "Wareshinobu" is also composed of a piece of red cloth in harmony with the Chinkoro. The Geiko's wig is named "Katsura", styled into a bun bearing the name "Shimada".

The hair of a typical Geisha is usually dense and black and is arranged to clear the face and highlight it. Achieving these intricate and elaborate hairstyles is time consuming especially since they have to last about a week. 

So the hostesses must maintain their hairstyles by sleeping on small supports supporting their necks named "Takamura". 

Kanzashi styles depend on the seasons or a geisha's taste. When they match the seasons, they represent replicas of seasonal flowers.

Shoes: an important accessory to a Geisha's finery

A Geisha's outfit is embellished with white socks (Tabi) and wooden flip-flops (Geta). The Geta are traditional wooden high shoes, raised with teeth. They have a useful function during rain or snow since they prevent the Kimono from dragging.

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These particular sandals also help define the status of a Geisha. The Pokkuri or Okobo-geta worn by Maiko have an appearance in the form of a slightly slanted wooden block. The Okobo must be higher than a Geisha's geta given its long train.

Advanced Geisha lean more towards Zori, similar in style to the Okobo, but not as tall and lighter. However, newer models may have soles of different heights. Usually made of silk or other modern material, they tend to be worn at ceremonies or prestigious events.

The Luxurious Look of Geisha

The Kimonos of these Japanese artists are made from the most luxurious silk fabrics. This women's kimono can weigh up to 20 kilos and reach very high prices. The Obi belt too can reach an exorbitant price as it is hand embroidered.

Even the hairstyles they have are made by the best hairdressers and are made in several hours as they are so complex. They must therefore keep them intact for several days. Some accessories are even incorporated with precious stones

Another accessory that accentuates the luxurious appearance of Geisha is their folding fan. Most of the time it is kept in the folds of the belt when not in use. A Geisha's fan is made of thick paper covered with paint, lacquer or gold leaf. It is often made of wooden spines covered with lacquer. This accessory is used for dancing or to hold makeup so that it lasts longer.