When you say ‘geisha’, most people picture exquisite kimonos, striking makeup, impractical platform shoes, and elaborate hairstyles. In fact, the image of the perfectly costumed geisha is so strong that it’s difficult to imagine these women any other way. Many folks would probably assume that geishas dress and present themselves in this very stylized and traditional way at all times. But, as it turns out, this assumption is wrong.
According to photographer and researcher Rob Oechsle (a.k.a. Okinawa Soba), who compiled these amazing Meiji (1868–1912) and Taisho (1912–1926) era photographs of geisha, it was not uncommon for geisha and maiko (their apprentices) to pose in a variety of costumes.
“From roughly the 1870s until the early 1920s, geisha pretty much owned the world of fashion and character modeling throughout the photo studios of Japan,” Oechsle explains. “The photographers… needed poised and pretty models who knew how to take direction as they posed in all manner of studio dress... and sometimes undress,” he adds.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, photography was becoming more and more popular in Japan as well as the rest of the world. Postcards, slides, stereoviews and albums were produced in great numbers, but these kinds of postcards were most common. In fact, between 1905 and 1915 there was a ‘postcard boom’ in Japan. The color on these photos was added after they were taken.
It’s not surprising that geishas should be a part of such a massive photographic industry, as they were considered the equivalent of supermodels in Japanese culture at the time. Here, much like contemporary supermodels, geishas and maikos can be seen posing in their swimming costumes (although, granted, they’re far less revealing and shiny than those worn today). And we think you’ll agree that they definitely have a charm of their own.
Clearly, looking at this photograph and those above, the geisha and maiko models are posing in a studio and not on an actual beach. Apart from giving the photographer more control over factors like lighting and weather, this would also have eliminated pesky nuisances like sand – and nosy onlookers! In such beautiful outfits, these pretty ladies would surely have attracted a large crowd on any real beach.
We’re not sure what the planks of wood in this shot and the previous photo were used for. Were they primitive surfboards, perhaps? Or weapons to ward off over-enthusiastic admirers? Whatever the case, we do like the tasteful swimsuit here. The bare arms must have been quite risqué at the time.
For some reason, this geisha (who looks a lot like the girl in the previous photograph) poses with a lobster. It might make for some tasty sashimi later on, but for the moment the girl doesn’t look too impressed with her catch! Props were quite often used to add to the seaside atmosphere of these photographs – some more successfully so than others.
Here, one geisha pours a drink for another. Unlike most of the other photographs compiled here, this one hasn't been made to look like it was taken on a beach. We assume from these images that smiling for the camera wasn't a prerequisite for swimsuit models in those days.
This geisha obviously wasn’t planning to wear a swimming cap today! And although her hairdo is quite large, it’s still more casual than the elaborate hairstyles we often see geishas sporting. Likewise, the girl’s face is particularly natural looking, and if she is wearing makeup, it’s very minimal.
In this photograph, three geishas pose around a rock. Perhaps the wide sashes around their waists were swimsuit equivalents of the obis that geishas traditionally wear around their kimonos. Around this time, Western dress was relatively rare among Japanese women, and it was limited to the upper classes and diplomat’s wives. It wasn't until later that working-class women began to wear Western styles on a regular basis.
We’re not sure if this is a swimsuit, exactly; it looks a bit impractical to be worn in the water. In fact, the outfit even appears to be torn in one section – not to mention in desperate need of an iron. Still, for some reason, we can't help but find it adorable.
The plank of wood’s back! So maybe it’s meant for lying on, as demonstrated by the geisha in the red and white outfit. It doesn't appear particularly comfortable when balanced on the rock like that. And the geisha’s swimsuit looks like it’s made of an unusual netted material. It seems as though stripes were all the rage among the swimsuit girls of old Japan!
In order to preserve her lovely complexion, this geisha is putting on an interesting sunhat. As for other enhancers of appearance, in the early days, the geishas’ trademark white makeup was made of lead. Naturally, however, this resulted in all kinds of skin and also back problems later in life, and by the end of the Meiji era, lead foundation was replaced with much healthier rice powder. In these photographs, we think the geishas look pretty amazing, regardless of cosmetics – or a lack thereof.
When this geisha said she was going to put on a dab of lipstick, she obviously meant it! The truth is, she’s probably a maiko, or trainee geisha, seeing as during their first year maikos partially color only their bottom lip. It also looks as if she’s wearing a wedding ring on her left hand. However, given that wedding and engagement rings weren't common in Japan back then – and, moreover, geishas didn’t marry – it was probably just for decoration.
The wrinkles in the ‘rock’ in this photograph kind of spoil any illusion that this might be a real beach. The colorization of the belt isn't very well done either, when compared to a lot of these images. Still, the geisha’s rare smile definitely makes up for any shortcomings in the photo.
Just try to disturb this geisha while she’s doing a little sunbathing – she has a bamboo stick, and her expression suggests that she’s not afraid to use it! “Geishas are not submissive and subservient,” says Mineko Iwasaki, in her book Geisha, A Life. Iwasaki adds, “In fact they are some of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women in Japan.”
This is another bathing suit that doesn't seem as though it was designed to get wet. In fact, if anything, it looks more like old-fashioned underwear. We wonder if that was the idea?
“No matter what, when the sun went down, and the studio skylights grew dim, she [the geisha] would be back at her ‘geisha house’ donning her beautiful kimono, classic hairstyle and white face in preparation for a busy night working hard at her true profession,” says Rob Oechsle. And we’re grateful to him for sharing this unusual collection of Meiji and Taisho era geishas and maikos having fun ‘out of costume’.