The origins of the white make-up on a geisha’s face are still nowadays uncertain. One theory has it that in the Middle ages a traveller returned from Europe with stories of “pale-faced” beauties. Although this might sound quite plausible, the white make-up is said to come from China and later adopted by Japanese courtesans. Considering that its use first appeared in the Heian era (794-1185 a.C.), when China had a strong cultural influence on Japan, this sounds like the most likely version.
Women in the Heian era used rice powder mixed with water to form a thin layer of paste to be applied on the face as foundation layer. Then they would remove their eyebrows and paint in thick, straight, false eyebrows high on their forehead and coloured them in thick black in the middle of the forehead. The lips were painted red.
To finish off this dramatic look the teeth would be stained black with a mixture of oxidized iron steeped in an acidic solution. The custom of teeth blackening ended in the Meiji era and is now only used by kabuki actors and by maiko (training geishas) for the week before they become geiko. The romantic look of the Heian era was then adopted by the courtesans of the pleasure quarters trying to recapture the elegance typical of the long gone “Golden Era”.
When geishas appeared in the pleasure quarters they set themselves apart from the courtesans for their more sombrely coloured and decorated clothes, as well as for their less elaborated hairstyles and simple makeup compared to the others. This was due to specific laws that were enforced in an attempt to stop geishas from competing with the pleasure quarter courtesans.
This actually worked in favour of the fascinating geishas, who started embodying the ”iki”, i.e. chic and smart. Over the years they also adopted flashier appearance as for make-up, hairstyles and kimonos.
At the start of their career, the Maikos must wear the white make-up every day, and leant to do so without the help of their elder sister (the geisha who takes her under her protective wing) or the okasan (the owner of the okiya they are part of). After being a geisha for three years the make-up becomes lighter and starts wearing her hair pulled back in a simple bun. The reason being is that her “beauty” is now in her maturity and art (gei) rather than her appearance. For formal occasions and dances though, she wears a wig (katsura) and the heavier make-up. The application of the make-up is a complicated time consuming process. A wax/oil substance called bintsuke-abura is applied onto the skin with a brush to help the white foundation paste to adhere better to face, neck and chest.
The nape (komata) is the part of the body considered focal in Japanese eroticism. While all the face and the remaining visible part of the neck is completely painted in white, the geisha will leave a “V” shape unpainted to enhance the sensuality of this area. For special occasions, for instance when a maiko becomes a geisha, they leave three lines forming a “W” unpainted. The naked skin shown on the nape is a veiled reference to other intimate parts men would be longing to discover. Also the kimono is dressed in a way to leave it bare.
The next step is painting in their eyes and eyebrows. When doing so geishas must be very careful and have a steady hand: one mistake in the application and they might have to restart the whole process right from the beginning! The eyebrows are drawn in black with a touch of red. Traditionally they would have used charcoal to darken them, but today specific cosmetics are used in their place. After the eyebrows the geisha moves on to painting 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.
To finish off the lips are coloured with a small brush. Once the colour was extracted from a flower (benibana, safflower) infused in water, then covered with crystallized sugar to give it lustre.