I have often found while doing research on kimono, geisha, or various related subjects that I come across a piece of information that has not been elaborated very well. The basics on these subjects are easy to find anywhere. Any basic page on kimono will explain that it literally means "thing to wear" and that geisha are "people of the arts". But there are many finer points of interest that I have only found through copious amounts of research or simply through personal experience, and these are the things that I find especially interesting about these subjects. So, I thought it would be fun to explain some of them whenever I have the time.
When one begins their research into the world of kimono and geisha, a particular movie and the novel it is based upon tend to show up. I am speaking of course of "Memoirs of a Geisha", with the movie directed by Rob Marshall and the book written by Arthur Golden. The book itself tends not to have a direct influence on people's artwork, but I have noticed that the movie can often have a strong influence on the artistic choices of people who are newly interested in creating geisha inspired artwork. This can tend to be an issue.
This is because the director and creative team behind the movie were in a position in which they wanted to hold onto the mantle of authenticity, but they did not actually want to be authentic. Although Rob Marshall never came out and said it, his artistic choices in the movie showed that at some level he did not particularly like the way real geisha looked. This is actually a common problem with people who are introduced to geisha through the novel. Because it is a book, people are at liberty to imagine the visual details however they want. Golden painted a world of sultry sirens, women of unimaginable beauty, so most people imagine what that means to them. In reality, geisha aren't erotic, and they aren't exactly sultry either. In fact, they aren't even sexy by the English understanding of the word. What they are in Japanese culture can be most closely approximated by the English word sensuous. This meant that the image of real geisha came head to head with how the creative team wanted to display them to the world, and their ideas won out. The characters in the movie look in no way like real geisha.
A lot of people make fanart about the movie, and that is not what this journal is about. This is about people using the movie as a launching point for a picture about geisha in general. I've come to learn that most don't think it's a big deal when someone creates a piece of artwork about geisha that isn't accurate. They often use the phrase "artistic license". Perhaps it is not a big deal for them, and they do have the right to artistic license, but it should be remembered that geisha are still real. This isn't like taking liberties in creating something about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, because at the end of the day both of them are dead. Nothing we say is going to directly affect them anymore. The same is not true for geisha, they're still around and they are affected by our artwork. Modern geisha are very deeply invested in their public image, and they are affected by foreign perceptions of them. This can be in the form of foreigners coming to Japan with false expectations of them, as well as foreign concepts about them entering the public domain in Japan. The reality of the situation is, very few people in Japan write about geisha, and most Japanese people don't know a lot about them. A good deal of the published material about them is foreign, and foreign perceptions about geisha thus affect the Japanese populace more then most people would like to think. The most well known work about them, in Japan and abroad, is in fact "Memoirs of a Geisha". Thus, I take artwork and written material about geisha rather seriously.
Nonetheless, when a person is new to the world of kimono and geisha, with only the movie as an inspiration, it can be rather hard to see what is wrong and for what reasons. Thus, I will use comparisons between pictures of real maiko and geisha of the period next to movie stills and explain piece by piece what is wrong and for what reasons. Thus, people who are new to this can get a better understanding and know what to avoid in their own artwork.
Every costume in the entire movie, save perhaps the men's suits, had significant problems, but the image that I will focus one is the ensemble Sayuri wore for her misedashi, her debut as a maiko [link] [link] [link] [link]
. This is what a real 1930s maiko looked like [link] [link] [link]
. One of the largest issues with this ensemble is that it is not appropriate for the actual event. As my purpose is to simply point out what is off in the actual picture, I won't go into fine details, but essentially the ensemble is not nearly formal enough. To see what a misedashi ensemble should look like, please visit my gallery. The design on the fabric is also completely inaccurate. It was created entirely by embroidery, and embroidery is used very sparingly by maiko and geisha. Embroidery is heavy, it pulls and weighs on silk. It effects draping strangely. While it was a very popular choice among regular women for their obi, on kimono it's two primary usages would have been on wedding kimono and a courtesan's over-robe. It is just very strange on this garment, and stylistically it doesn't make any sense.
The design, particularly on the hem, is not placed in the same way as it would be on a normal kimono. It follows the line of the hem and extends out, giving it a vertical feeling. On real kimono, the design essentially floats on the empty background, there is no relevance placed on its position to the hem [link]
. There is an up and a down to these designs, and occasionally there is perspective in landscape designs, but there really isn't a distinct feeling of horizontal and vertical because there is no three-dimensionality to the designs. Furthermore, none of the seasonal images in the ensemble add up. It is very scattered. Floral motifs aren't spring images in and of themselves in Japanese aesthetics, a flower's seasonal relevance is dependent on the time that flower blooms. Her kimono is covered in flowers that bloom throughout the entire year, which isn't an inaccurate practice, but maiko will bolster that kind of kimono with strong seasonal images in their obi and accessories. There weren't any particular seasonal cues in the rest of the ensemble to push it into any particular direction, the images are pulled from every season. This makes the ensemble rather inelegant.
That aside, the ensemble itself, as well as all of the other ensembles she wears, suffers from two major issues. In many cases it is blatantly inaccurate, and it is very sloppy. It is much sloppier then what a real maiko would wear.
Starting from the head, her hairstyle is completely inaccurate. That hairstyle goes beyond what would be inaccurate for just maiko and geisha, it is completely unlike how traditional Japanese hairstyles work. Traditional hairstyles of that time worked on the premise of dividing their hair into sections- a forelock, two side eaves of hair, a back bottom section, and a top back section. Finer distinctions are occasionally made depending on the stylist's technique, but that is essentially what the impression should be in the finished look. All of the sections of hair should make their way to the back top section of hair where the bun is formed, but the size, plumpness, and curves varied depending on the particular hairstyle and the features of the woman in question. The size, plumpness, and curves also had their own meanings, too. All of the traditional Japanese hairstyles of the time worked on minute variations of that formula (with some minor theatrical variations to the forelock), and Sayuri's hairstyle in no way follows them. Japanese hairstyles never pulled the hair back behind the ears, the ears were always covered. When finger-waves were introduced to Japan, the style was modified into the Mimi-Kakushi [link]
, literally ear-hider, in which the hair came down in finger-waves and covered the ear just so that it would mesh with traditional Japanese aesthetics. Sayuri's bared ears are inaccurate and inelegant. The bun itself was much too loose and floppy. Honestly, they made such a big deal about how they have to sleep on an omaku because the hair was so difficult to put together, but the hairstyle she actually wore could probably be put together in less then half-an-hour and wouldn't have even lasted a day. Maiko also wore very specific hair ornaments in very specific places. A maiko of that time would essentially be wearing about seven to ten ornaments in her hair, depending on the situation. Sayuri wore two, and neither of them were traditional. The flower ornament she was wearing is based in part on how modern newly debuted maiko wear dangling flower hair ornaments, but that was not a practice for maiko in the 1930s and earlier. It is an entirely modern practice, and furthermore, they are made of actual silk, of the same quality as their kimono, folded into shapes artistically reminiscent of flowers [link]
. They are not the fake "silk flowers" that are supposed to artificially replicate real flowers.
Her makeup was modified to suit Western tastes. This scene is the whitest the makeup ever gets in the movie, and real maiko and geisha wear it whiter then this [link] [link]
. The reason is because teahouses were originally lit with candlelight, and candlelight simply isn't very strong. The rooms were draped in shadows, and a girl's face was easily lost in the darkness. This was especially noticeable when she went to the other side of the room to dance, so they used the same makeup Kabuki actors used to help the audiences see their faces from the stage. That is why it is starkly white, it's a lighting trick. The line of bare skin near her hairline was also exaggerated with an overly harsh line. This could be partly inferred by the fact that Arthur Golden wrote that it was supposed to be very noticeable, but in reality it wasn't [link] [link]
. The line of bare skin was much smaller, and in the low candlelight, it was barely noticeable. Blush is also used very differently for this kind of makeup. The purpose of blush in Western makeup is to simulate and amplify the color that is naturally found on the cheeks. Blush is used in geisha makeup for definition. It is placed on the sides of the nose, the eye sockets, and the sides of the face to give definition to these areas that would lack it on such a stark white background. It is not used for cheek enhancement. She is lacking the red that is used on the eyes. That, along with the accompanying black eyeliner, also served to give the eyes definition in the darkness. The eyebrows were too long, maiko create much shorter and thicker eyebrows, normally with a touch of red. This is inline with traditional Japanese aesthetics. The lips were too full. Traditional Japanese aesthetics prefer small lips to large, pouty ones. Japanese aesthetics didn't place any importance on how "kissable" the lips looked, and small lips were elegant, dainty, and feminine. Although Golden's assertion that all maiko and geisha of that time period only painted their lower lip is incorrect, the act of only painting the lower lip was in itself a common practice of the time... for maiko. Painting part of the upper lip was also common, for both maiko and geisha, but no one painted the full lip. It wasn't considered attractive, and was considered especially bad with the white makeup. The eriashi, the two prongs of unpainted skin at the back of the neck, is painted in a very poor fashion [link]
. They are both far too low and and too harsh. This is what a real eriashi should look like [link] [link]
. They will sometimes extend to the middle of the neck, but they never extend past the shoulders.
The collars are very strange. The under-kimono collar and kimono collar are arranged in such a way that the under-kimono collar looks uniform in size. This is not how they are arranged normally, they are supposed to appear tapered, and actually I have no idea how they did that. Kimono just don't work that way, and yet the collars were consistently arranged this way for everyone. This is how they should actually look [link]
. Kimono of this time were also worn layered, and Sayuri is in fact wearing a second (albeit flimsy throw-away) kimono, but she is not wearing it properly. They put it on, tied it, and then put the top one over it, leaving only a small touch of blue at the collar (this also creates a serious problem with the hems that I address later). In reality, a second kimono is put on at the same time as the top kimono, so that the extra line of fabric continues down with the top kimono's collar. This is more noticeable and more flattering. This can be seen in the extra white and red kimono collars seen in the previous photograph.
Maiko are children, and they wear children's kimono. A child's kimono has tucks on the shoulders and the sleeves where excess fabric is taken up [link]
. For normal children, this fabric is let out later, but maiko simply wear these until they become geisha (aka adults). Sayuri has these tucks in this outfit, but the are too low on the shoulder. The tucks should sit on the top of the shoulder. This leaves the fabric tight and neat. Her tucks sit below her shoulders, on her upper arm, creating unattractive wrinkles. It also gives the impression that her kimono is too big for her. Furthermore, only some of Sayuri's ensembles had these tucks. A maiko wears these tucks on all of her kimono, including her everyday, ordinary ones as can be seen here [link]
Conversely, her sleeves are too short on her arms. When the hands are extended out, the sleeves should cover the wrist. When holding her hands before her, they should at least hit the wrists. Her sleeves do not reach her wrists. This is a very serious problem for a dancer. When dancing, it is very common to grasp the sleeve opening with the hand, holding it in place with the fingers. When a dancer does this, they should still be able to fully extend their arm. If they can't do this, then the movement appears stubby and unattractive. Thus, it is an absolute necessity for a dancer to have sleeves that are long enough. Because Sayuri was supposed to be such a spectacular dancer, the fact that her sleeves aren't long enough is actually one of the most serious breaches in her wardrobe. The kimono lining is also visible on the sleeves, when it shouldn't be. Antique kimono often do have a noticeable sliver of lining on the sleeves and hem, but that's a product of age rather then an intentional feature. Over time, the lining relaxes and slips down. When these kimono are newly made, that shouldn't be seen.
The obi is sitting too low. Maiko are children, and children wear their obi high. Zhang Ziyi was already an adult when she took this role, but real maiko of the time were literally children when they became maiko. At that time period, becoming a maiko at the age of twelve was common, but younger ages weren't unheard of. They did not have developed chests, and their obi were worn very high on the torso. Furthermore, it was the vogue in the 1920s-30s for not just maiko and geisha to wear the obi high on the torso. The obiage, the obi scarf, should really be sitting just under the armpit [link]
. The obiage itself is not right. Maiko did wear obiage in the shibori tye-die style, but they only wore it tied. When an obiage was wrapped over the obi, it was always of untextured silk, and it had a secret stiffener in it so that the fabric stayed tight and crisp. The obi is also crossed incorrectly. When crossing the obi, it should cross squarely in the center of the body. Otherwise, it looks off center and sloppy. The obi cord and obi brooch are much too high on the obi. They should be placed squarely in the center of the obi, where they can best appreciated. Putting them so high up looks like they're trying to hide the brooch... or like they did a bad job tying the obi and needed to put it there to hold something in place. The obi cord is also too skinny. Maiko wear a type of obi brooch called a pocchiri, and they are hefty [link]
. A dainty little obi cord isn't going to hold them up. On that note, the obi brooch in the ensemble is rather unsubstantial and looks cheap. The pocchiri should be one of, if not the most, expensive items she's wearing. It shouldn't look like a throw-away.
The hanging sleeves are very, very sloppy. The charm point of those sleeves is their arrangement. They should be elegant, and the right is horribly crooked. I've never actually seen sleeves fall like that. Even when moving, maiko usually keep their sleeves in a much more elegant fashion [link]
. Also, they're actually too long, especially considering they've already been tucked up.
The worst aspect of her entire ensemble are her hems! They are the sloppiest aspect of her entire ensemble, which is quite a problem considering the close up shots they gave the hems throughout the movie. When maiko and geisha are dressed, the hem is folded back just under the obi [link]
. This affects the line of the kimono, giving it an extremely elegant and tapering effect, similar to the cut of a mermaid-style gown (which Sayuri's ensemble lacked completely). This becomes even more elegant when the kimono has a lining in a contrasting color, but at this time period a second kimono in a contrasting color would have been used. That is why second kimono were put on with the top kimono at the same time, so that the hems could be pulled back together to show off the contrasting color and create that spectacular effect. On this ensemble, they only folded back the top hem, so that the lower hem on the left just falls in a lump, and because they didn't put the blue second kimono on at the same time, it doesn't get folded back and just falls in a mess under the top kimono. It's really very sloppy. Her red under-kimono is also much too short. The under-kimono should nearly touch the floor [link]
, but Sayuri's is sitting so high that a sliver of ankle can be seen. This isn't indecent exactly, but it is rather crude.
Those are the points of contention with that one costume. Every costume, from the most casual to the most opulent, suffered from inaccuracy and sloppiness. I might consider covering the other costumes later, but largely everything I point out in this costume effected the others. The costumes all suffered rather consistently.
I'm aware that most of my regular readers can point out most of the mistakes that I did, but I do hope this reaches more people who might be considering using the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha" as their inspiration for an image about geisha. I'm not questioning people's enjoyment of the movie, but I want people to be aware that this movie does not represent real geisha and why. If you are going to create an image about geisha, please base it on real geisha.