The kimono, a major element of geisha attire, has changed very little since the seventeenth century. The quality of a kimono’s fabric and its decorative design express the taste of the wearer, who chooses from a selection of kimonos based on the nature of the occasion. All kimonos are single-piece garments cut long and straight, and they can be folded or hung completely flat. When a geisha wears a kimono indoors, she allows the long train to trail on the floor, but when she walks outside she must grasp her skirts and raise them to prevent the garment from being soiled. In contrast to high-ranking courtesans (licensed prostitutes), who wore lavishly decorated garments called uchikake over their ornate kimonos, geisha wore—and still wear—simple, tastefully decorated kimonos.
Over time, the sash (obi) evolved from a narrow belt to a long, wide, stiff cloth. Courtesans were required to wear heavy brocaded obis tied in front with a large knot resembling a pillow to distinguish themselves as prostitutes. Geisha and other women tied their obis in the back. What makes the geisha costume attractive is its aesthetic ideal of understatement; its essence is a delicate balance of beauty and simplicity.
The most characteristic element of geisha style is the elaborate coiffure. Developing from simple ponytails into elaborate arrangements, Japanese women’s hairstyles—not only of geisha but also of courtesans and nobles—became so complex by the eighteenth century that women could not arrange their own hair but had to rely on professional hairdressers who went from house to house. The coiffure was ornamented with many combs and hairpins of different materials—lacquered wood, tortoiseshell, bone, glass, and silver and other metals. On the most formal occasions geisha wear such hairstyles even today, although almost all geisha now use wigs.
Both geisha and courtesans are strongly associated with their white facial makeup, which allows them to be more visible and expressive in low lighting conditions. For the same reason this kind of makeup is used by Kabuki actors.