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  • Juju Kurihara

Yujo, Prostitutes were Fashion Icons in Edo Perido -Hairstyle-

Updated: May 3, 2023

In Edo period, prostitutes were the fashion leaders. They were the ones who created new hair-styles, invented new ways of wearing kimono and getting tattoos as a fashion.

Yoshiwara was a famous red-light district in Edo and was home to around 1,750 Yujo (遊女/prostitutes) in the 18th century, at one time there were some 3,000 women from all over Japan.

Some of them became famous and called Oiran (花魁), high-class prostitutes. The meaning is, the head (魁/ran/kashira) of the flowers (花/oi/hana).

They were not only the top of prostitutes but also the top fashion icons for common women at that time.

Before Yoshiwara, women simply tied the hair and let it down, which is called taregami or subekarashi (垂髪). When Yoshiwara became popular, women started to put the hair up and the ways they arrange it had become diverse.

Here are the major styles. Left: Hyogo mage style (兵庫髷)          Middle: Shimada mage style (島田髷)          Right: Katsuyama mage style (勝山髷) Left: Hyogo mage style (兵庫髷) Middle: Shimada mage style (島田髷) Right: Katsuyama mage style (勝山髷)

Some styles have been arranged a little quieter and used in the current Japan.

Katsuyama for example has developed as Marumage (丸髷) that are commonly used for married and elder women.

Shimada is a common style for Geiko (芸妓) and brides. The typical style for brides is called Bunkin Takashimada (文金高島田).

This is a hairstyle catalogue, “Tose Kamoji Hinagata (当世かもじ雛形)” published in 1779. You can see what style was popular at this time. Women are always into fashion and want to be up-dated.

Kougai mage style (笄髷) is an exceptional. It started among the ladies in the imperial court and the people in the high society. The women tied the hair around a stick called Kougai and put it up in their private time.

Once use kougai, a girl was often considered as a woman and people would make it as a ceremony to be an adult.

In the current Japan, Kougai style is changed to sakko (先笄) and used for a maiko’s (舞妓) last hair-style just before they become as professional geiko (芸妓).

How did women washed the hair?

In Edo period, women would wash the hair once or twice a month. The reasons were, to save the water, it had to be a dry sunny day to dry the hair completely and it was a whole day work. Although public bath was very common in Edo period, it was prohibited to wash the hair in the public bath. Imagine the cost of water if all the female customer washed the hair every day!

With what did they wash the hair? The mixture of wheat flour and a type of seaweed called funori which is often used as a glue. The women rubbed this mixture into the hair and combed it while rinsing.

How did they style the hair?

Styling the hair was getting more complicated in the mid Edo period and it was almost impossible to do it alone. Hair-stylists became a profession. Many of them didn’t own a shop but came to the clients. The price was about 6,500 yen (60€) at that time. Considering that the barber was about 980 yen (9€) and a bowl of soba noodle was 520 yen (5€), it was a luxury. Edo Bakufu (Tokugawa Shogunate) issued Sumptuary laws and often banned hairdressers but the population had increased. Even the powerful Tokugawa couldn’t control women’s passion for beauty.

Hair accessories:

As the hairstyle changed, the hair decorations became diverse. The one the common women especially longed for was tortoiseshell combs. Yujo would use two of those combs, one was for themselves and other for combing the customer’s hair. Later this has become a fashion.

How did they maintain the hairstyle?​

Now that the hair is clean and dry, it’s time to set it again. Sometimes whale bones were used to keep the form of the hair. Once it’s styled, the oil was applied to hold the shape. This oil is called Bintsuke Abura (鬢付け油) and it’s a mixture of wax, rapeseed oil and aroma. This oil is still used for setting Sumo wrestlers’ hair.

Sleeping is also not so easy. Since they had to keep the style for at least two weeks, they used a high box-shaped pillows, which don’t look comfortable at all. The women in Edo period were really into fashion as we can see.


Hairstyle in Edo period :


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