Oiran or Japan’s highest ranking courtesans were the grandest and most spectacular women of the “floating world”. The word oiran means “first flower” which poetically indicates their exalted status in society. Like geisha they often had humble beginnings, and many were originally sold into the business as children and were left to work their way up over the years as apprentices. Oiran should not be confused with geisha whose dress was more subtle and simple. Oiran, known for their beauty, artistry and intelligence, dictated the fashions of the day and influenced many artists, poets and musicians. They are part of Japan’s cultural legacy and the famous oiran parade called the “oiran-dochu” is still re-enacted in Japan today. An oiran’s costume consists of many layers of thick padded kimonos along with a large ornate brocade obi tied in the front as was required in her profession. (Kimonos traditionally are tied in the back). She wore towering black lacquer geta which caused her to require assistance to walk. Her hair was arranged in an elaborate hair style with large hair ornaments artfully placed, displaying her rank and status. Objects worn by the oiran are hard to find these days, but I was lucky enough to obtain some of these tortoise pieces as well as this amazing pair of black lacquer shoes from the early 1900’s. One can only imagine the stories these pieces have to tell!
Thank you for this beautiful piece of scholarship, Miriam.
I wonder if the mask they had to wear to hide their feelings was as ornamental as their costume. When you come from such humble beginnings that your parents sell you, who do you really become?
Regardless of the circumstances life gives us, sometimes there can be hidden opportunities for success within those circumstances. That is why history is dotted with stories of people in humble, poor and seemingly hopeless situations who went on to “rise to the top”. I think oiran are fascinating because they symbolize the potential, the hope really, for ordinary people rise beyond their circumstances.
Geishas are sold into the business. Courtesans are usually chose at birth. Both learn the techniques to be great lovers. Courtesans are usually future wives in training. Geishas work in geisha houses entertaining clients. Courtesans entertain Royalty and are usually a future wife or current wife of Royalty. This does not mean the typical geisha is less important. Geishas can be very educated and even help close business deals. For instance some geishas work only as entertainment at business meetings, but they are usually attornies at the same time and can witness sign to close deals right at the table in a resturant or other public or private place. It’s also important to note that Kabuki artists look like geishas, but they are NOT geishas. It is also important to note the difference in hair ornaments. Flowers in hair or flower shaped hair ornaments symbolize a Courtesan in training. Objects in the hair that do not look like flowers usually represent a sex worker by playing on the term “sex object”. Anything that looks like sun beams fanning out on the head represents the Emperor’s Courtesan or can represent an Empress status. The fan being worn on the head usually represents a hand-maiden of some sort. The fan can also represent a female protector or body-guard that knows martial arts. Please remember that an Empress is NOT a geisha. It’s very important.
Thank you, I learned so much.