September 18, 2013

My Geisha Transformation In Gion, Kyoto

From a young age, I appreciated the value of costumes, cosplaying regularly. Clothing represents more than choice, it exists as symbols, signifiers and extensions of our personality. Costumes were more than dress ups, they were symbols of roles, status and emotion.
I was always fascinated with kimonos after my mom showed us her kimono, a gift from a Japanese government official during her business conference in Tokyo. True to Japanese form, it was meticulously wrapped in silk and Japanese paper. We would always pretend to be Japanese dolls when we were younger, fuelled by our love of anime and Japanese culture. In essence, we pretended to be Geishas, dancing with our paper fans and serving tea.
Sayuri from Memoirs of a Geisha
One of our fave films: Sakuran. Although they are NOT Geishas, I still adore their costumes.
Whilst Geishas remain the quintessence of Japanese culture, their narrative, history and cultural position came to life through Memoirs of a Geisha, one of my favourite books. These memories have always motivated me to go to Japan - and I knew that when I went, my experience would not be complete if I didn’t wear a geisha costume.

One day, whilst Mark was in class in Kyoto, I searched online for Geisha transformations. I was surprised to find out how expensive they were. But the choice was simple - the transformation definitely trumped extra shopping, a decision which speaks volumes of my love for costume.
When we went to the studio in Gion, the price went up, as the typical Japanese fashion of add-ons, options and extras with types of wigs and the amount of shots became serious decisions. There was the full wig, which is more affordable and the half wig, which uses your own hair, but is more expensive. The staff suggested I use the half wig, as the full wig would age me and reduce the authenticity of the exercise.
Tradition and youth, won out and the half-wig was to be worn.
After selecting the options, I was ushered into a very clean and very Japanese locker room. After changing into my white yukata, I went upstairs to the make-up room where other girls were being made up. No cameras were allowed inside.
A very nice lady removed my make-up, cleaned my face and fixed my hair to put the wig cap on. I was then moved onto another chair where the make-up artist proceeded to pile white make-up all over my face and neck, then red eyebrows, followed by brown. I donned red eyeshadow, followed by black eyeliner; red lipstick and a bit of blush, to complete the look.
She then proceeded to take small portions of the front part of my hair and dyed it black with a chalk-like material, whilst securing the wig with several pins. After my wig was attached, she let me choose my hair pin. Like most aspects of Japanese culture, hairpins or kanazashi varied depending upon the season. February marks the prelude to spring and traditionally red is worn.
Next, was the most anticipated part: choosing my kimono. They were held in an adjacent room and I spied them whilst I had my make-up done. There were almost one hundred to choose from, all beautiful, elegant, shiny, extremely heavy and very long. They say that younger Geisha don brighter and fancier kimonos, but they become simpler and darker as you get older. I took my time, choosing which one to wear. Other pretty girls took a long time to contemplate their choice, so the pressure of competition mounted. I wanted to wear a purple, pink or gold kimono, but none of the designs were pretty enough for me. Finally, I chose a red one with gold, metallic designs of flowers and rivers. Next, I chose my obi or belt, the color of gold to match the designs on my kimono.
The delicate beauty of the kimono belies its brutal application procedure. It took at least five layers of clothing, pads and wrapping before I donned the actual kimono, followed by at least two layers of obi and pads. Like Victorian dresses, it was heavy, uncomfortable and constricted my breath. I cannot understand how Geishas entertained guests in these, but early commentators on Japanese culture should have investigated the clothing to have debunked the urban myth that Geisha were prostitutes. Clearly, with THIS much clothing, it would be a miracle if any man attempted to take any of it off.


After everything was set, I was ushered into a waiting room for my turn for the photo shoot. Mark was already in the room and I sat with 2 other made-up girls. I stood beside him, but he didn’t talk to me, so I nudged him to let him know it was me. 
The transformation was a success. Mark did not recognize me. The make-up, wig and kimono, like any costume had transformed me. The clothing had altered my posture and movement; the wig and make-up my expression. A Geisha’s ‘costume’ is as much an extension of her manner and personality as it is aesthetically pleasing. In the end, I was not just me, I was, in form, though not substance, a Geisha.


The photo shoot keeps traditional Japanese rooms, where we were allowed to take photos by ourselves before the official photographer began. The room was done in Edo-styling and I was able to feel how much the costume altered your movement and attitude. Elegance and the demure were reflexive in a kimono, almost effortless. Mostly, because you could not move at all! 

The official shoot was formal and surreal, much like a Graduation shoot. I stood in front of various backgrounds, holding a wagasa (Japanese oil-paper umbrella). Western culture teaches us to smile in front of a camera and it was awkward to fight that urge to maintain the composure of a Geisha. The photographer was patient and helpful, so I eventually got into the swing of things.
The studio photos came out cheesy and 90s, but I'll show them to my grandchildren (not in this blog though.. sorry) and I will put this in our house, to remind me of the power of costumes and how I lived one of my dreams to dress as a Geisha. It will always remind me that if you wish hard a enough, dreams can come true...or maybe a scratch off a bucket list.
x
Millie

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