Monday, November 26, 2012

Heian Era Cosmetics

Most of the time, women of the Heian court were hiding their faces behind screens or fans. (These fans are called hiogi, and we'll be talking about them in another post.) But, even though their faces weren't seen in public, women did wear makeup and keep a specific appearance.

Rouge and powder were being imported to Japan from China by the 6th century. A Buddhist priest named Kanjo is said to have been the first to create lead-based face powder in Japan in 692, which he presented to a delighted Empress Jito.

During the Heian era, aesthetic sensibilities were shifting away from the Chinese style of earlier periods. Instead of the shorter Chinese hair styles, which were pulled back in ponytails or buns, women wore their hair long and straight, sometimes reaching to the floor.

As far as cosmetics were concerned, women wanted to achieve an ideal fair complexion. They would paint their faces with either rice or lead based cosmetics to achieve this. The higher quality cosmetics had nightingale droppings as a primary ingredient, and, believe it or not, you can still find such cosmetics available in Japan today, even though they are a bit harder to come across. It's called ugiusu no fun, and you actually purchase it here. (Thanks to Lumikettu for the link!)

Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's fancy poo.

Heian women would also use rouge made from safflowers, called beni, to darken their lips. Melted sugar would be applied to make their lips shine.

Now come the few things that seem a bit offbeat by modern sensibilities. Ladies of the Heian era would shave or completely pluck their eyebrows, and then repaint them higher up on their foreheads. These were called "thumbprint eyebrows", and were drawn on with charcoal.

The perpetually startled look

Heian ladies seem to have had a small kit for removing unwanted body hair, including eyebrows. Just recently, a Heian era tomb in Hyogo Prefecture belonging to a high ranking lady was discovered to have a cosmetics kit inside it - a small clay pot and a small porcelain pot, presumably for holding cosmetics, a bronze mirror from China, a small pair of iron scissors, and a pair of iron tweezers.(Click the pic to go to the original article.)

The most bizarre (by modern standards) cosmetic treatment Heian women would administer was tooth darkening, called ohaguro. Heian aristocrats darkened their teeth not only for aesthetic purposes, but they found that it acted as a sort of primitive dental sealant, protecting them from tooth decay. The actual dyeing was accomplished with an acidic mixture of tea, vinegar, rice wine, and iron fillings, which had to be reapplied every few days as it faded. 

Faking it with modern cosmetics

For those wishing to simulate the look of Heian makeup, there are several modern routes to take. I'm a huge fan of Ben Nye's white cream foundation. It spreads really evenly, and goes on smoothly. I also use Ben Nye's colourless setting powder, but there are many brands, such as Kryolan and Mehron, that offer white foundation and colourless setting powder, as well.

Mary Kay's Red lipstick comes pretty close to what I've seen of safflower rouges. Also, if you use the Mary Kay lip primer underneath, the lipstick will stay on for hours and hours. They also have several shiny lip glosses that can be used over the lipstick to simulate the melted sugar shininess.

If you don't want to shave off or pluck out your eyebrows, there are some alternatives. You can flatten and smooth your own eyebrows with beeswax to create a smooth surface over your brows, and then paint on your new eyebrows with kohl. Or, if you're comfortable applying prosthetic appliances, you can put on some eyebrow covers to completely conceal your own eyebrows. There's also something called Eyebrow Plastic, which is a sort of putty that you can smooth over your brows to conceal them, but I've never used it, so I have no idea how effective it is. If you're going to use the eyebrow covers, then remember to put a reddish base colour on your prosthetics before you apply your final makeup, otherwise the eyebrow covers will look washed out in photos.

Most SFX companies produce a tooth black. I've heard good things about Ben Nye's tooth black, that it wears all day without flaking or smudging off, and comes off at the end of the day easily. Mehron and Kryolan also produce tooth blacks, and I've heard equally good things about the Mehron tooth colour.

Japanese Cosmetics

There are still Japanese equivalents of Heian era cosmetics on the market these days. Keep in mind, that they will be a bit pricier than the SFX makeup, but for some things, like the ugiusu no fun, there isn't a substitute available on the market.

Hannari-ya sells all sorts of traditional Japanese cosmetics, as well as brushes and makeup puffs. They have the oshiroi, white face makeup, as well as the beni rouge for your lips. You can buy the items individually from them, or you can purchase everything in a kit for $300. Hannari-ya also has the ugiusu no fun, and eyebrow wax. You can even get ohaguro from them!
(Thanks again to Lumikettu for showing me Hannari-ya's site!)


  1. Hannari-ya sells shiro-nuri makeup, from the white base paste/powder, to the lip/eye rouge and the the black eyeliner. They also have the Uguiso no Fun on sale. This is the product with nightingale droppings. It's a powder that you mix with water to make a paste, leave on the face for 20minutes and then cleanse off. I do remember that they have ohaguro too, but I cannot be sure if they still have it.

    I've used uguiso no fun myself and even if the though might sound icky, it actually works wonders and I can recommend it.^^

    Here's a link to the Hannari-ya website:

  2. Heian era cosmetics, which one would you recommend to try for normal skin tone?


    1. I'm not exactly sure what you mean. The point of cosmetics in the era was to lighten your skin tone to near white, not to match the natural tone.