History of Makeup in Ancient Japan ~ Geisha

The Geisha are traditional Japanese female entertainers who are trained in the arts(including games, music, dancing, singing and conversation).  Geisha are entertainers who act as hostesses mainly for male clients. The word Geisha is made of two words, Gei ~ Art and Sha ~ Person.  Literally translated into English, the word Geisha would mean artists or performing artists.

Inspiration Board for Geisha Hair and Makeup

The origins of the Geisha were formed in the Imperial Court during the Heian period .  The culture of this time was obsessed with Beauty.  Beauty was considered an integral part of what constituted a “good person”.  During this time, the aristocracy wore white powdered faces and blackened teeth. Women wore small, red painted lips while eyebrows were plucked out or shaved and re-drawn higher.

The Geisha emerged from the Courtesans of the “Pleasure Centres” of the Imperial City.  The most renowned Courtesan entertainers were those accomplished in Dancing, Singing, Playing Music, Poetry and Calligraphy. The first Geisha were actually men who entertained people while they waited to see the most talented courtesan entertainers.

Female Geisha became prominent in the 18th Century in Japan with their style having a massive influence on many fashionable women in society.
Prostitution was a major factor in the evolution of the Geisha as many courtesans existed to attend to the sexual needs of men, however, Geisha distinguished themselves from ordinary courtesans with their artistic skills and abilities.  Geisha was considered an official occupation for women by the year 1800.

WWII in brought a huge decline to the Geisha culture as most women were moved to work in factories during the war. After the war, the industry resumed but the status of the Geisha had suffered with as a result of many Japanese prostitutes calling themselves “Geisha Girls”.  The Women who had returned to their industry rejected any western influence and returned to the traditional ways thus preserving the time honoured ways of the past.


In 1960 Japan introduced mandatory education which made it difficult to achieve a Geisha apprenticeship.
A brand new Geisha is called a Minarai (which means learning by watching), this stage takes about a month.
An apprentice Geisha is called a Maiko and she will complete between 3 to 5 years of training before she becomes promoted to a fully fledged Geisha.
Maiko are considered to be one of Japans most wonderful tourist attractions.  The Maiko wear brightly coloured kimono which drapes at the nape of the neck.  They wear white makeup on their face and neck with two or three stripes of bare skin exposed at the nape of the neck.  Their hair ornaments are more elaborate as are their hair styles which are styled with their own hair.  The white foundation is thick, the eyebrows are painted in either black or red and the lips are painted with red. Only the lower lip is painted for junior Maiko.

The Geisha wear less elaborate kimono, hair styles and hair ornaments.  At around age 20 – 21 years, the Maiko become promoted to Geisha with a special ceremony called Erikae  (turning of the collar).
For Geisha, the makeup is thinner and less elaborate.    The eye makeup is red and black however the more experienced  Geisha becomes, the less red eye makeup she may wear eventually perhaps omitting the red eye makeup all together.

Author / Hair and Makeup Artist ~ Dana Harris
Model ~ June Ezawa

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