Sunday, 29 April 2012

Geisha - a new quilt for Minerva. Long posting, sorry!

I thought that because the space was a bit bigger at Minerva, I would do a larger piece - more along the lines of the Life series I'm working on for another exhibition.

I've been trawling the interweb trying to find out about Geisha's and the Tea Ceremony, and very interesting it all is too!!

I don't know if anyone else out there will be madly interested, but I thought I'd regurgitate some of the things that I've found out.  I've got a rough idea where I'm going with the quilt but it may seem a little odd compared to the last 3 I've made for Orientation!  Anyhow, here's what it will be based on. (model coming on Wednesday, so not a lot of thinking time left!)  Naively I thought this Geisha stuff was all a very chaste, decorative and zen, but apparently it's not - or at least the roots of it all aren't.

Geisha's and Tea Ceremonies are inescapably linked, but the world of the Geisha is much more complicated. Basically their history starts pre-600's as female entertainers and included sexual services. In traditional Japan men were not expected to be faithful to their wives, who would be a "modest mother and manager of the home" (rather like my goodself!!) and for sexual enjoyment and romantic attachment they went to couresans. The original "Oiran" (early Geisha) combined being an actress with prostitution, and dancing.  The dancing side was called kabuki and the wild erotic dances became the beginning of the kabuki theatre.

In the 18th century the first Geishas appeared, and were men. (there are still male Geisha today) They entertained customers waiting to see the courtesans.  The first female Geishas were trained as chaste dancers for hire; they called themselves Geisha after the men, and were paid to perform in the private homes of upper-class samurai. They were forbidden to sell themselves for sex to protect the business of the Oiran.  Prostitution was legal in Japan until the1950's and as such was widespread. Since the 1960's girls are no longer sold into indentured service as Maiko and trained to become Geisha, nor are the coerced into sexual relations - her sex life being her own private affair. However I discovered that even in 2001 the auctioning of a maiko's virginity could still happen, and that the men she meets are carefully chosen and unlikely to be casual. Although the ceremony for deflowering a young maiko is supposed to be illegal it's considered a right of passage and part of the understanding a professional geisha should have of the opposite sex, and still occurs.

And if you've stuck with this so far, here's a little bit about the makeup and hair.  Maiko (the young girls who train to be Geisha) have a scarlet fringe on the collar of their komono which hangs very loosley at the back to accentuate the nape of the neck. This is considered a primary erotic area in Japanese sexuality.  She wears white makeup on her face and on the nape, leaving two or three stripes of bare skin exposed.

Her kimono is bright and colourful with an eleaborately tied obi hanging down to her ankles. She takes very small steps and wears traditional wooden shoes called okobo which stand nearly 10 centimeters high. There are 5 different hairstyles that a maiko wears and they mark the different stages of her apprenticeship. They spend hours each week at the hairdresser and sleep on holed pillow to preserve the elaborate styling. They can develop a bald spot on the crown caused by rubbing and tugging in hairdressing and it has become associated with womanhood and a particular hairstyle adopted after a maiko's first sexual experience.  They wear lots of hair combs and pins.  Traditional hairstyling is a dying art and today many women use wigs.

They wear a thick white base makeup on their face with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows. The white base was originally made from lead, but was replaced with rice powder when the effects of lead poisoning became known. Its a time consuming process to apply with a wax or oil applied next to the skin.  The white powder is mixed with water to a paste and applied with a bamboo brush starting from the neck and working upwards. Leaving some areas of the neck, and around the hairline uncovered (see above) gives the illusion of a mask.  A sponge is then patted to remove excess moisture and blend the foundation.  Then the eyes and eyebrows are drawn in traditionally using charcoal to colour them black. A maiko also applies red around her eyes.

The lips are filled in with a small brush, and the colour comes in a small stick which is melted into water, and sugar added to give lustre. The lower lip is coloured in paritally and the upper lip left white initially but coloured later when the girl become a geisha. The idea is to create a flower bud so the whole of the lips are rarely coloured. For a brief time Maiko also colour their teeth black to contrast to the white face makeup and make them disappear when their mouth is open.

You don't have to be Japanese to be a Geisha. Liza Dalby in the 1970's, an Australian Fiona Graham, in 2007, and in 2012 A Romanian and a Ukrainian. You are expected to remain single and retire if you marry.

Enough?  Perhaps I'll leave the tea ceremony for another time!


  1. In 2001 I was fortunate enough to win a three week study tour to Japan...and we were invited to a tea ceremony as part of the trip. It was the most amazing experience. We were also taken to a kabuki concert...and a sumo tournament as well. The Japanese culture is an amazing complexity of culture and tradition...and the people must be some of the most hospitable in the world. I cannot wait to see a picture of your quilt...

  2. Gosh that was quite a prize to win - lucky you Bonnie. The tea ceremony is very interesting and I will have elements on it on my quilt. I'm thinking of playing with the idea a bit though, and westernizing it. I think we have a tea ceremony in this country too; and if you've ever been to Betty's in York or Harrogate, you'll know what I mean!!! So, the quilt may just have to have the teapot on a low table, with a cake stand with sarnies and scones on it. :))

  3. I have been to a tiddly posh afternoon tea in London somewhere on a trip to the UK, and it was certainly an experience! Only trouble is that I have trouble extending the little finger...and my etiquette is askew. Apparently it's not okay to tip hot tea into the saucer to cool it down!

  4. Yes perhaps a good slurp out the saucer is best kept as a ritual amongst good friends!! My grandad always used to drink out the saucer and it used to drive Granny mad.

  5. Oh Annabel - I wonder if a field trip to Bettys is called for?? It is one of my favbourite places in the world - and I visit them all quite often - yum. Have you read 'Memoirs of a Geisha' and also Liza Dalbys book 'Geisha'? Both totally fascinating - Hilary x

  6. For more information I have just been given a book called Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki, a fairly modern Geisha. It is fascinating as is the Memoirs of a Geisha, I haven't read Liza Dalby's book yet.
    Speaking to an expert on the culture the other day I am still confused about the construction of a Kimono, particularly the sleeve construction so if anyone has expert knowledge.....

  7. I wonder if England has any Asian shops like we have in Wellington, New Zealand? The owners bring in containers full of used Japanese 'stuff' and sell it. There are the real McCoy kimonos as well as house a mixture of fabrics. Two of our daughters live there so I get to visit the shop about once a is not central city. It is an Alladin's cave...and best of all they have apple picking bins filled to overflowing with the basic kimonos for $5 each! Gives me something to do on the four hour trip home...I unpick them ready to wash the pieces before using them for artsy and quiltsy stuff!
    They are easily undone because they are handstitched...and although some of the fabric is stained sometimes there is always plenty to use. It might be worth you have our equivalent of yellow pages in the phone book where businesses are listed? Just a thought...

    1. Hi Bonnie,
      Last year when I was in NZ I visited one of those shops, a real treasure trove! I couldn't buy much as my the weight of my luggage had already caused me problems on the way out, but I got a few bits and pieces.
      Sadly I haven't found any shops like this in England, has anyone else?

  8. Thanks everyone for the suggestions. I shall look for the books on my next library trip as I'm running out of things to read. (I downloaded - for free onto my kindle - the complete works of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Edga Allen, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskill, and am just coming to the end of them all!) As for a field trip to Betty's ...what an ace idea!! But it reminds me to tell everyone of Compton Verney which is off the Fosse Way and quite near to me. If anyone fancies a day sketching in the gardens, looking at the Chinese stuff and various paintings, and having (and this is the important bit) a most delicious tea with cake stands and cream, and amazing sarnies, and scones, and warm jam, and 3 sorts of sponge, and fruit cake...and .....(ahem, I may be overdoing the dieting; forgive me!) just say the word!!

    btw I have just had your book about Haiku, Hilary, and your Japanese one Marie, delivered from Amazon, so am going to try and be inspired and compose something meaningful whilst sewing endless tiny bits of paper piecing together this morning (it's raining still).

    I won't be starting the quilt for a while but have already thought of a name which came to me in a flash of inspiration with my morning coffee...."Shall I Be Mother" White necks, red necklaces, and blue china with cake.

    Oh, and before I go, I'm a bit clueless with clothing Marie so am not going to be much help, sorry, but there's so many helpful people out there that I'm sure someone will know. Bonnie's idea of unpicking one would be good, but I'm not aware of anywhere like the one she mentions in NZ.

  9. Marie, I've just ordered a book from Amazon by Jenni Dobson about making Japanese clothing. The garments look simpler than they are, so I need help!

  10. Hi Steph,
    The garments are quite complex,I am slowly figuring it out and realising that at the scale I'm working there have to be concessions for me. Do you want to email me with any questions though I can't guarantee to get the answers right....

  11. Thanks Marie. It's much more difficult making tiny garments than full size.