2018 NO.23

Style in Japan


Japanese Cosmetics through the Centuries

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White facial powder, lipstick, rouge, tooth-blackening dye… These pages show how Japan’s cosmetic traditions have evolved over time, adapting to changes in the social environment while always reflecting a sense of beauty all their own.

From a conversation with Murata Takako

1.Ukiyoe woodblock print of a woman applying rouge to her lips with a brush. First half of the 1800s.

2.Gorgeously decorated box for cosmetics. It once belonged to Hojo Masako, the wife of the warrior Minamoto no Yoritomo, who established the Kamakura Shogunate in 1185.

It is hard to say when cosmetics were first used in Japan. Haniwa figurines colored with a red pigment on their faces and bodies have been discovered in tombs dating from soon after the middle of the 3rd century, in the Kofun period. But one theory says that the color red was thought to protect the dead from harm, in which case the pigment would have been used for a purpose entirely different from that of cosmetics today. Anyway, we can be confident in saying that personal beauty products were in fashion in Japan at least as far back as the late 6th century. Beni rouge, white powder, perfume—we have ancient documents showing that they were part of a beautifying regime for court ladies back then. By the end of the 9th century, in the Heian period, noble ladies let their hair grow long, and on special occasions they wore multiple layers of clothing in a beautiful kimono array called juni-hitoe. To contrast with this lavish, colorful costume, the face was covered with a thick layer of white powder. The eyebrows were shaved and replaced with artificial ones drawn above, and the lips were outlined to appear small. The o-haguro custom, where women dyed their teeth black to show they were married, apparently began around the same time.

In the 12th century, social prominence shifted from the aristocracy to powerful clans. Women took on a more active role, wearing clothes that made moving about easier. They fastened their long hair at the back, and applied only a thin layer of white powder. Interestingly, it became the fashion for men in aristocratic society to also wear makeup.

When a new era was ushered in with the Edo period in 1603, commerce blossomed and cultural trends became defined more by the merchant class than by the military elite. The age of the common folk had begun, and women were soon incorporating cosmetics into their daily lives.

9th to 12th centuries

3.Part of a picture scroll depicting women in juni-hitoe multilayered kimono. Note the faces made up with white powder.

13th and 14th centuries

4.Man from the aristocratic class wearing makeup even on the battlefield.