Authentically Chic: Geisha

There are two sides of every woman: The Geisha and the Warrior

The history of Geisha in terms of fashion is something to think about. But Geisha in terms of business is another. At the height of its popularity in Japan during the late 18th century through the 1940’s, Geisha was a business made up and run by woman. The word Geisha means artist or doer and should not connote prostitution, as many Westerners tend to believe and rightfully so. Many women did engage in prostitution – as it was a way to manipulate and achieve power. However, the foundation which a Geisha stands upon is made up of the passion for the art she performs not the love she has for a man. For Geisha, to love is to become a living masterpiece not a wife or a mother.

Originally, Geisha were men until the 600 AD when female entertainers, known as saburuko, began selling themselves for sex and other services. Those with a good education rose to high ranks in Japanese society and made a living entertaining the social elite. In 794, the beauty-obsession of the upper class influenced the emergence of Geisha culture and shaped it’s rigorous and sometimes misunderstood code of conduct and appearance.

Beginning at a very young age, Geisha girls (called Maiko) are trained in the art of conversation, dance, music and manners. Each tradition, from pouring tea to fan dancing are meticulously rehearsed and carry meaning. My favorite Geisha tradition is when the woman pour tea they expose their wrist slightly, a very sensual and erotic gesture – quite different from the bump-and-grind-routine we often see today. The transition from Maiko to Geisha happens after a girl’s Misuage (virginity) is auctioned off to the highest bidder – a practice outlawed in 1959 but that continues from time-to-time even in modern day Japan.

The number of women practicing Geisha today has been dramatically reduced. At its height in the 1920’s, there were over 80,000 Geisha – now the estimation is around 1,000-2,000. What does remain is Geisha’s influence on fashion and culture. In recent years, Arthur Golden’s book Memoires of Geisha helped open the doors to this secret world. The scene below is from the movie adaptation. It is a scene that takes my breath away every single time I watch it:

This dance, as a woman, is a dance I think we all perform at some point in our lives. The containment of power within ourselves, the subtle gestures of a suggested freedom, unleashed. Perhaps this why women have always excelled in the art of expression. Geisha is woman and woman is geisha. There is a mask we wear everyday that’s not as thickly applied but certainly quietly worn. Inside what swims is something unseen. Beneath the shadows of our mucky waters, we can see the pearl within the shell. How we grasp it. What we make out it depends on how solid our own independent foundations are. We stand on sand or sink – proving that what holds us up is will – and a good pair of shoes.

Here are some vintage images of Geisha:

A traditional Kimono – often made up of 3 to 4 layers, can cost over a year’s salary which is why at the height of their popularity, Geisha women were the fashionistas of their time.

  One of the more painful of Geisha tradition is foot-binding (shown above).

 Geisha pictured with a Shaminsen – a musical instrument often accompanied by singing and dancing.

Geisha hairstyles often lead to premature balding due to constant pulling. It takes a lot of hair and hot wax to make this style happen.

A look from NYC Fashion week, 2011. 

Author’s Note: I had planned this article since last week but in light of the recent tragic events unfolding in Japan, my heart and prayer goes out to families and relatives of those affected by the earthquake and Tsunami.  

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