Itô Shinsui’s portraits of women are all about hair – but the black thread can be traced through the entire Japanese culture.
Itō Shinsui: “After washing your hair”, color woodcut, 1936. (Image: Courtesy Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, Japan)
There is a Shinto shrine in Kyoto, where a rite for hair combs that are no longer used is held annually in September before they are put on fire. Unlike the small bamboo brooms for the tea ceremony, combs in Japan are not things that you just throw away when they are done. Rather, it is sacred things to which one is given the last honor after having served meaningful actions in their thing-life.
Combs come into contact with a part of the body that has long been loaded with symbolic meaning: the hairstyle was used as a social sign system that provided information about age and status. Hairstyles for girls, for young women, for married and widowed people were different. Today, Japan hardly differs from the West in terms of hair fashion. The hair as a subcultural phenomenon runs like a thread through the Japanese culture.
Hair as writing
“Kami” – “hair” is a representative color woodcut by Itō Shinsui. The artist, one of the most important representatives of modern Japanese woodcut, then made the object the black, long, flowing hair. He created this important pressure in 1952 when he was named "Living National Treasure". The picture that shows a woman bent over a wooden tub while washing her hair is representative of a topic that Itō Shinsui has dedicated himself to throughout his life: the depiction more beautiful women.
Itō Shinsui: "Kami", color woodcut, 1952. (Image: Courtesy Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, Japan)
This traditional genre is all about female hair. In a culture that tended to make the body disappear under panels of fabric, hair was long considered the most important attribute of femininity. In its deep black, it is the most striking visual element in Japanese female portrayals. It frames the white of the face and contrasts with the red of the lips. It has the color of the ink and corresponds to the black of the inscription and calligraphy. In the wonderful Itō Shinsuis color woodcuts, as they are now shown in the Museum Rietberg, apart from the fabric patterns of the kimonos, the attention of the master of hair styling is often the focus.
The open hair is held up with a ribbon when a nude white make-up is applied. Then the gaze falls on the neck of a beautiful woman, who is just fixing her pinned-up hair with a comb. The face of a woman at the edge of a bathroom is mysteriously covered by black hair while wringing out the towel. A courtesan drives a thoughtful look into his hair, whose hand – a sign of its modernity – is adorned with a ring. After the bath, a young woman strokes her long, wet hair with a typical Japanese boxwood comb.
In the mirror, however, a fashion-conscious lady also reviews her modern short hairstyle perm. Such page heads, popular with the so-called Moga – short for Modern Girls – from the 1930s, were not welcome in society. At Itō Shinsui they rarely appear. Rather, he served a longing for traditional values aroused by the rapid modernization of Japan. His bourgeois ladies therefore wear their hair mostly long and classically pinned up.
Even in the traditional woodcuts before Itō Shinsui, the hairstyle often functions as a kind of key to the subject of the picture. Hair can be read like a font in such pictures. If it goes down to the ground for a long time, the initiate knows that he is dealing with courtly ladies from the medieval Heian period. If it is pinned up, the practiced eye will recognize a courtesan or a geisha depending on the number of decorative combs and hairpins: In order to differ from the prostitutes, Geishas was temporarily prohibited from wearing hair accessories. To do this, they saved an area under the hairline on the neck, which is considered the most erotic part of the female body, from the white make-up, which reveals the view of a little bare skin.
Erotic and magic
The eroticism of skin and hair: it has a long tradition in color woodcuts. The fisher girls wear their hair loose, stick it wet on their shoulders and breasts. If it falls strangely in the face, you have a «bitch» in front of you. In the erotic shunga or pillow pictures in particular, the woodcut artists not only demonstrated their skills in depicting artistic women’s and men’s hairstyles. They were also masters of shaping pubic hair. Whereby a fully and lush sprouting bush was considered particularly sensual. Often, the hairstyle alone can be used to tell which of the delicate faces of a twisted couple belongs to the lover and which one belongs to the loved one. So the samurai shaved the top of their skulls bare, because the thick hair under the helmet disturbed. This hairstyle prevailed for centuries, with the braid tied up at the back of the head. Only in the course of the Meiji reforms were these old braids cut off by government decree.
Of joy girls and modern girls
The men found it difficult. Because long hair was not only equated with beauty, but also with vitality and vitality. The traditional crest of men fell victim to adaptation to the West. An expression of the Meiji era says that the pat on a head with short hair sounds like civilization and enlightenment.
Before the Meiji period, women were especially prohibited from cutting their hair. Only widows who had decided not to wear it were allowed to wear it briefly marry. It was trimmed to unfaithful women. Nuns shaved their heads as a sign of renunciation of the world. Temples and shrines are said to still hold mountains of hair that women sacrificed to the gods in prayer. There are also known offerings made from human hair for fastening beams when rebuilding temples. And proof of the widespread belief in the magical power of hair is the custom to stow a bundle of women’s hair in the bar of a new fishing boat, symbolizing the spirit of the patron saint of fishing.
In some of Itō Shinsui’s woodcuts, the hairstyles give a somewhat static impression: the hairstyles, especially those of the geishas, were so artfully made that it was unthinkable to lie comfortably when sleeping. Headrests kept their heads in the right position so that the hairstyle was not damaged.
Wigs and fetishism
Because styling such hair styles has become too expensive, geishas are increasingly wearing wigs. Earlier, however, they put up complicated, looped structures made of real hair on special occasions. Wigs and toupees have a tradition in the land of the rising sun, they are particularly common among men, and not only among Kabuki actors.
A genuinely Japanese development is the hair-thin Kanekalon plastic fiber for particularly real-looking hair pieces. She has long since conquered the global wig market. The wigs and hair extensions made from such synthetic hair are the essential accessories of Tokyo ‘s colorful, bizarre youth street style: The Japanese fashion subculture between Lolita and Punk uses synthetic hair "made in Japan" in all possible colors from pink to hydrogen blonde to turquoise, but rarely in black.
"The whites’ hair is light colored, ours is black," says the Japanese writer Tanizaki Junichiro. He believed that nature itself had taught the Japanese the law of darkness. In earlier times, women shaved their eyebrows and stained their teeth black, so that the white-painted face could be brightened up with black hair. Tanizaki speaks of ghostly beauty when he describes in his classic "Praise of the Shadow" the old ideal of beauty, which consisted of face and darkness, so to speak, and got by without a body.
The ghosts of Japan also have no body: they actually only consist of the head and a lot of long, jet-black hair. This is how the great Hokusai portrayed his ghost of a maid rising from a coffin: with a long hair tail. And so long black woman’s hair also plays a central role in the Japanese horror film classic "Ju-On" as an element of horror.
The director Sion Sono organized a real hair orgy in "Exte – Hair Extensions" from 2007. In the hair-raising film, the master of "Ero guro nansensu" (Japanese for erotic-grotesque nonsense) portrays a hair fetishist who came from a morgue female head hair stolen and sold as hair extensions to hairdressing salons. The hair of some such "extensions" comes from a victim of violence who was sheared in a sadistic way.
These hair pieces soon launched a vengeance campaign against all those who adorn themselves with it: equipped with demonic powers, they grow and multiply, fill entire rooms, suffocate and strangle their wearers or penetrate their bodies to get out of the skin at all conceivable places to sprout. In the end, they shoot out of the mouths and eyes of their victims in long threads. – A picture that conjures up a particularly impressive passage in Tanizaki’s little booklet about the darkness of Japanese women: «From their bodies, from their mouth with their blackened teeth, from the tips of their black hair, they let out darkness, like the earth spider’s threads spew. "
In contrast, Itō Shinsui’s women, even if they are kept in the twilight of nostalgia, literally shine in the bright glow of modernity.
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