Bien Senjoko (Face Powder)

An unusual exhibition exploring beauty secrets in Japanese prints and the beauty rituals of women during the Edo period (1603-1868) highlights practices and traditions that sometimes still echo in Japanese society today. Organised in four sections, the exhibition in Paris explores beauty secrets in Japanese prints in over 150 prints and 60 artefacts to display the art of make-up and hairdressing that was not only for special celebrations, but also mirrors the changing beauty ideals held by society during the Edo period.

Bijin-ga: prints of Japanese Beauties

The prints in the exhibition depict beautiful women (bijin-ga) with make-up and hairstyles of great diversity, including prints of women at dressing tables or busy with their toilette which often feature make-up utensils and other objects; they bear witness to the social importance of make-up in Edo Japan. Numerous physical brushes, compacts, mirrors, combs and decorative hairpins used in the Edo period are also on display in the exhibition alongside intricately shaped miniature wigs.

The sophisticated art of hairdressing reached its peak during the Edo period and the elaborate styles changed so rapidly that there were eventually hundreds of different ways for women to dress their hair, which, in turn, brought an enthusiasm for hair ornaments. Like makeup, hairstyles were indicators of age, social class, marital status, or even profession. In the hierarchical class-conscious society of the Edo era, women could not freely choose their make-up or hairstyle. However, one of the greatest opportunities for adornment and individual taste could be seen in the choices made for a wedding ceremony.

History of Make-up Shown through Beauty Secrets in Japanese Prints

Michiyo Watanabe, from the POLA Research Institute of Beauty and Culture, who co-organised the exhibition says: ‘The Edo period spanned 265 years and throughout this period, under the reign of the Tokugawa shoguns, Japan experienced strong economic growth which was accompanied by considerable cultural development. While traditional arts such as kabuki and ukiyo-e flourished, the codes of feminine adornment were also being established: fashions for kimono and obi (belt), white powder make-up and hairstyles. The habit among women of looking after their appearance and using make-up dates back to ancient times, but it was only during the Edo period that make-up became a part of the everyday norms of the ordinary classes’.

The make-up of the Edo era was more basic than today and consisted mainly of three colours: white, black and red. These are explored in the first section of the exhibition. Showing-off a pristine white skin was an important aim for women in the Edo period, with white powder always applied to the face, neck, and back of the neck. Whiteness was considered to be the first point for consideration in a woman’s beauty. ‘The whiteness of the skin hides seven flaws’ was a famous saying in old Japan. These powders contained either lead or mercury and were mixed with water before being applied with a finger, or brush, to the face, neck, back of neck, and chest.

Oshiroi: White Face Powder

The art of applying oshiroi white powder was a complicated task. There were two kinds of white powder in common use at this time, one leaded (lead white), the other mercury-based (keifun or ‘light powder’). Lead white was cheaper and more easily absorbed by the skin, so was the most commonly used. After applying a base on bare skin (with a lotion of scented oil, bintsuke-abura), the liquid powder was applied. The base did not cover only the face, the neckline and the back of the neck also had to be coated to show a complete covering of face, neck and upper chest. The mixture hardened if it was not spread quickly, so applying it evenly required some skill and experience. A handbook from the time for women on manners and make-up describes the task in detail, accompanied by illustrated boards, it shows the different procedures for applying white powder correctly and how to highlight the face by changing the thickness of the layers.

The use and application of white oshiroi powder differed across geographies and times. The Morisada Manko (Illustrated Miscellanea of Morisada), from 1837, explains that from the Tempo era (1830-1844), even if the women of Kyoto and Osaka continued to favour thick make-up, in Edo only the women from the daimyo and samurai classes and their servants along with the courtesans use the white powder in such compact layers, whilst the townswomen preferred a finer texture. This transition of taste occurred in the middle to the end of the Edo period, as tastes of the townswomen evolved from a heavy to a lighter application. This tendency to let the natural beauty of the complexion shine through contributed to an experimentation in beauty techniques and in the change of aesthetic taste of Japanese women in all classes, which helped to form the trend for enhancing bare skin and natural beauty found today.

Ohaguro: The Beauty of Black Teeth

The colour black was deeply linked to female rites of passage, for example, women would dye their teeth black when they married and shave their eyebrows at the birth of their first child – both acts symbolised the status of a married woman. However, at court, etiquette required noblewomen and women of the samurai and upper classes, after a certain age, to redraw their eyebrows at the top of the forehead.

Ohaguro, the custom of blackening one’s teeth has, it seems, has been prevalent in Japan since the 4th century onwards. Evidence of blackened teeth has been found from the Kofun period (250-538) in buried bones and on haniwa (clay figures). In The Book of Wei (a chronicle of the Wei dynasty (386-535), a Chinese historical text, Japan is referred to as the ‘land of black teeth’. This phenomenon is also mentioned in the 12th-century tale of court life, Genji Monogatori (Tale of Genji).

How to Blacken Teeth

In the Edo period, the blackening action was obtained by either using two products at the same time, or alternating them to acquire the desired effect. The ‘water for blackening the teeth’ (ohaguro-mizu) was a mixture of vinegar and saké, rinsing water from rice, and broken nails to create ferric acetate; the second product, a powder called fushinoko, was made from dried gallnut powder and other ingredients. To preserve the colour, it was necessary to coat the teeth every morning, a process which had the side-effect of forming an effective protective layer against cavities and periodontal diseases. Some of the most prominent users in the Edo period were the geisha from ‘The Floating World’, as can be seen in the popular prints of the time. The ‘Floating World’ referred to the pleasure quarters – licensed brothel and theatre districts of Japan’s major cities during the Edo period and were the playgrounds of the emerging newly wealthy merchant class. Despite their low status in the strict social hierarchy of the time, actors and courtesans became the style icons of their day, and their fashions spread to the general population via the popularity of inexpensive woodblock prints that portrayed the popular characters of the day.

The Precious Colour Red and Beauty Secrets in Japanese Prints

The final colour, red, was considered a rare and precious colour in Japan, so it was used sparingly on the lips and cheeks. Both the 8th-century Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), an early Japanese chronicle of myths, legends and semi-historical accounts and anecdotes, and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japanese History) reveal, even in ancient times, that specific beauty customs such as painting the face with red pigments were already in existence. Besides being used as lipstick and blusher, the colour red was sometimes also used to enhance the corners of the eyes or nails. Extracted in small quantities from the safflower used by textile dyers, it was considered a rare and extremely expensive product.

Sasa-iro beni, Bamboo Grass Red

An unusual make-up style from the time is called sasa-iro beni (bamboo grass red) and was in high demand during the Bunka and Bunsei eras (1804-1830), at the end of the Edo period. The upper lip is painted red, while the lower one appears green. This was achieved by red makeup, beni (a dye derived from safflower) that also turns an iridescent green when thickly applied. Beni, at the time, was a product as expensive as gold and this fashion was, it is said, initiated by geisha who covered their lips daily to show off this luxury. The dye was bought in cups (benizara or benichoko) that were coated inside with this precious substance. To use, it was wiped with a finger, or a wet brush, to spread on the lips in successive thin layers. After use, the bowl was placed upside down on the dressing table to prevent oxidation.

Beauty Secrets in Japanese Prints

One print in the exhibition, Feast of the Auspicious First Day of the Year (1854) by Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) shows three women whose status and social class are recognisable by their costumes, hairstyles and hair ornaments. The woman on the left, with teeth stained black, has slipped a protective talisman between her kimono and her obi. She is holding a long-handled tobacco pipe in her hand. She wears a kogai-wage (bun wrapped around a kogai) and has a kanzashi pin adorned with a daruma (Bodhidharma-bearing lucky tumbler) in her hair. The young girl in the centre undoubtedly belongs to the warrior nobility. She has tucked a large pin adorned with a tousled sparrow into her Shimada bun. Its obi with stylised flower motifs in hexagons is tied vertically. The woman on the right is a geisha. Her tsubushi-shimada (crushed shimada) style bun can be seen as a pin adorned with a cocoon-shaped ball, which is given on the New Year as a good omen. She wears an inner garment with patterns of fishnets and physalis, a fruit that can be found at the bottom of her black coat, also adorned with lucky patterns of ‘monkey with tied legs’.

Japanese Hairstyles and Ornaments

Hairstyles and ornaments are grouped in section two of the exhibition and are also part of the exhibition exploring beauty secrets in Japanese prints. The Edo period marked an important turning point in women’s hairstyles. Since the Heian period (794-1185), women traditionally let their long hair hang down their backs, however, kabuki players and geisha eventually began to lift and tie their hair in a bun on top of their head by the end of the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603). During the Edo period, the bun becomes the norm. This evolution of techniques and styles has seen various stages, but during the Edo it reached its peak with a multitude of styles available. Nihon-gami, a term used today to refer to ‘Japanese hairstyle’ (as opposed to ‘Western hairstyle’), refers to this art of hairdressing that originated during the Edo period. Nihon-gami has four parts: a fringe/front hair (maegami), shells on the sides (bin), a section going from the back of the head to the nape of the neck (tabo) and the hair tied up in a bun (mage), whose shapes and balance changed according to the fashions of the time.

The four basic types of chignons that span the entire Edo period were hyogo-mage, shimada-mage, katsuyama-mage and kogai-mage. All followed fixed rules depending on class and social rank, age, marital status, and geographical region. Along with the diversification of hairstyles, hair ornaments, such as combs and decorative pins are developed. These elaborate objects, using materials such as gold, silver, ivory, tortoise shell, wood and mother-of-pearl, were mainly used as a contrast against black hair.

Social Rank Depicted in Japanese Prints

Social rank and society and the role of personal adornment is discussed in section three of the exhibition. In the Edo era, at the height of the popularity of The Floating World, geisha and kabuki actors were constantly in the limelight and leaders of fashion in their class. The townswomen who, unlike the nobles and other elite, were less bound by tradition, were able to copy the latest trends generated by copying the popular prints produced at the time and arrange their hairstyles and make-up in their own way, using these new styles as their models. However, fashion may have influenced some levels of society, but there were still general strict rules in place for makeup, hairstyle, and dress in a population that was divided into distinct social classes. This distinction allowed a visitor to learn to distinguish a married woman from a young girl, a nobleman from a middle-class woman, or a high-ranking courtesan. Edo-period societies, based entirely on a hierarchical system of classes and various rules, were highly influenced by social rank, age, profession, and stages of life, so that women had to be careful in choosing their make-up or hairstyle. Fashion was not just for The Floating World of entertainment that encouraged competition in style, it also had a general social branding function that helped distinguish an individual’s status in society. But, as strict as the law was, the system did not stop the attraction of beauty, or the spirit and inventiveness with which women showed in their goal of reconciling social rules and elegance.

Different Classes of Society in Japanese Prints

The ukiyo-e prints in the exhibition aim to depict women from different worlds. Careful observation of and portrayal of their appearance in these prints makes it possible to distinguish three general categories: the upper classes, imperial aristocracy (kuge) and warrior nobility (buke); the class of merchants, craftsmen and townspeople (chonin); and finally prostitutes (yujo). In the upper classes, which also had their own sharp divisions, the wives and concubines of the emperor, or the shogun, were at the top of the hierarchy, and women have a formal appearance, in accordance with the etiquette of their rank. The middle classes and merchant class, on the other hand, despite restrictions on fabrics or patterns due to the sumptuary laws, enjoyed a relative freedom in choice of clothing, and were dictated more by their economic means. Subtle differences in rank could also be found amongst the women of the pleasure quarters with the oiran (the great courtesans at the top of their hierarchy), who were fashion experts and cultural leaders, highly regarded for their lavish fashion-conscious outfits and elaborate hairstyles.

The Wedding Ceremony, Kimono and Make-up

The wedding ceremony is universally one of the greatest occasions for a woman to adorn herself. In an age when make-up and hairstyle clearly differentiated a marital girl from a bride, marriage was not only a memorable ceremony, but a significant change in status in a woman’s life. In Japan, the bridal costume is called shiromuku, a formal outfit, entirely white, made-up of different elements: from the kosode kimono to the uchikake, a long open coat placed on the shoulders, including the hakoseko, an accessory in the shape of a paper case, shoes or even the headgear. In the samurai class, the bride’s attire appears to have been the shiromuku, which featured an uchikake coat, kosode kimono, and padded jacket, also all white. As the culture of the Edo bourgeoisie developed, black or red uchikake appeared among the prosperous chonin class and wealthy merchants. Worn over a white kosode, this long coat embroidered with gold and silver thread with auspicious patterns – often cranes and turtles, or pine trees, bamboo and plum trees, whose fleece hem must drag on the ground, gives the bride looks more lavish than the understated elegance of the shiromuku.

It was at the beginning of Edo that the kosode (an everyday garment with small sleeves), the origin of the current kimono, became the costume of ordinary class women. While women from wealthy ruling families adorned themselves with heavy kosode with heavy patterns and precious embroidery, lower classes wore rustic kosode made of linen, or other coarse fibres, tied with simple cord around the waist, an obi.

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III

The final section of the exhibition explores the world of Edo beauties that can be found in prints. Among the ukiyo-e prints, there is also a series of surimono. The series One Hundred Beautiful Women at Famous Sites of Edo is the culmination of the work of Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III), who is renowned for his depiction of beauties (bijin-ga). His work features women from extremely varied social groups, from the wives of daimyo (warriors and lords of fiefdoms) to city dwellers and women of The Floating World.

Yoshu Chikanobu

Also on show is the series Chiyoda Castle (1894-96) by Yoshu Chikanobu (1838-1912), which comprises 40 prints that portray the habits and customs of the wife and concubines of the shogun and is considered the quintessential work of the artist. It was impossible for any outsider to observe the inner workings of castle as very limited access was ever granted, however, the artist, as a vassal, had permission to access the court. The series constitutes precious documentation of the dress and manners of the women who surrounded the shogun at the end of the Edo period. As well as their daily life, the annual festivals and rites are also observed. In one print, a woman, seated in front of the basin, is the official wife of the shogun. To the right, a churo, a mid-rank companion, holds a container of hot water. They are performing a purification ceremony that took place on the first three days of the New Year. In accordance with custom, the shogun’s wife wears an osuberakashi hairstyle, her hair tied behind her back in a long tail. horse, and she wears a karaginumo, garment with 12 layers. Once the shogun and his wife have addressed their wishes and wished their parents a happy new year, the churo prepares the basin and the hot water container in the pavilion of the private apartments (goza-no-ma), where she leads the wife of the shogun. The latter stretches out her hands, as if receiving hot water from the receptacle held out by the churo to recite a specific poem.

The exhibition, through prints and other artefacts, brings to life an almost forgotten world of strict etiquette, rules, and visual signs that once every member of society would have been able to instantly recognise and use to navigate the society in which they lived and reveals women’s beauty secrets in Japanese prints. Today, the viewer is left to ponder the loss of these complex signs and mores of the Edo and to recognise the remnants of this past society in the modern world of Japan today.

• The exhibition of Beauty Secrets in Japanese Prints runs until 6 February, 2021, Maison de la Culture du Japon, Paris. A catalogue is available in French, Euro 28.