japonisme: signals

06 November 2007


By the 1880s, interest in Brittany.... was high and Pont-Aven was already an internationally known enclave for artists (and sightseeing city folk).....

Establishing the regional particularities of Brittany, with its special native costumes and customs, terrain and religiosity, is fundamental to an understanding of the iconography of [Nabi] painting[s].... [in which we see] Breton women's homespun costumes with their characteristic stiffly starched white headdresses, or coiffes.

Each headdress design, explicated in terms of how it identified the wearer, indicated locale and status: small headgear was worn by working class women; a widow let the flaps of her headdress hang loose; sous-coiffes were for working; and special, ceremonial coiffes were designated for holidays. 1

The Edo Period was the most gorgeous period in the history of Japanese woman's hairstyles, with hundreds of different styles existed. They differed according to a woman's age, occupation, regional background and social or marital status.

For example, a single woman wore her hair in such styles as the momo-ware or the shimada-mage. After getting married, the maru-mage, ryowa-mage or sakko styles took over, and a widow's hair was cut short to indicate her status (kiri-gami). The most well-known hairstyle for courtesans was the yoko-hyogo style, resembling a butterfly with its wings spread open. The feudal lord's waiting maids used the katahazushi style, synonymous with their position itself. 2

Clothing, hairstyles, hair ornaments, the way the obi was tied on the kimono, the way of walking were all signs of [a courtesan's] rank. 3

At first hair ornaments were luxury items affordable only by ladies of the nobility, affluent townswomen or high-ranking courtesans. By the Meiji Restoration in 1868, hair ornaments of every variety were available to women of all social classes. 4

Apart from being able to dance, sing, and play, the well-trained geisha was expected to know all the latest jokes and stories, to be quick at repartee, and an accomplished conversationist.

Her dress was as beautiful as that of the courtesan, but she wore her obi tied behind, while her head was not adorned with the enormous hair-pins of the latter. 5

A few comments on the geisha vs. prostitute question: Historically, geisha and prostitutes were completely different classes in Japan. The highest-ranking prostitutes still in existence when the first geisha emerged were "oiran", who had evolved from a previous class of very accomplished courtesans called "tayuu". These women were often quite brilliant artists and poets, and these talents were often considered much more important than sexual prowess. While tayuu were usually very beautiful, they were valued as much for their brains as their bodies. Lower-ranking prostitutes also existed--there were several ranks, arranged according to artistic accomplishment and beauty. (There is a lot of information on this in "Yoshiwara: The Nightless City", which has recently been reprinted.)

The meaning of the word "geiko" (a more recent and specific term for "geisha") is "woman of the arts". When geisha districts were first established, there were very strict rules to keep the geisha from interfering with the customers of the oiran. They had to wear less vibrant colours, and smaller and fewer hair ornaments. The pictures one sees of Japanese women wearing many large ornaments in their hair and very bright many-layered kimono are oiran or tayuu, not geisha. Geisha were not intended to take money for sex (although it was known to happen). But a very successful geisha would not really need to do that. She would earn a great deal of money just for entertaining. 6

You know how Utamaro's beauties sought
The end of love in their all-speaking braids
-- Wallace Stevens

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Blogger Princess Haiku said...

The hair clips and ornaments are beautiful. Beauty requires such artfulness as well as the grace of nature.

06 November, 2007 20:36  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

that artfulness always has been a puzzlement to me politically....

07 November, 2007 20:18  
Blogger Princess Haiku said...

Politically? Surely, not art and politics in the same sentence.

07 November, 2007 22:43  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

you're not actually in berkeley, i take it. ;^)

07 November, 2007 23:24  
Blogger Princess Haiku said...

Well, yes and no.

09 November, 2007 09:32  
Blogger Princess Haiku said...

I noticed in your profile that you like accordian music, Lotus. Any suggestions there?

09 November, 2007 09:35  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh my... well, yes: astor piazzolla (argentinian tango), gus viseur (french musette), music from lesotho in africa, where accordions fill in for a non-shared language in a mining town. irish, eastern europe, cumbia from columbia, forro from brazil....

that's off the top of my head :^)

09 November, 2007 13:16  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

and Guy Klucevsek!!!!

09 November, 2007 15:11  

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