Geisha turned diva

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Photos: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria/Textile Museum of Canada


A geisha’s kimono is said to mirror her stature, ambition and personality. It also reveals much about her age and social standing. For Ichimaru, a distinguished cultural figure of 20th-century Japan, kimonos were all these and more.

When she moved from the private to the public realm – from geisha to recording-artist diva – Ichimaru continued to style herself in the image of a geisha. She wore her past with pride: on the cover of one of her records, she donned a customized kimono with the silhouette of Yanagibashi (Willow Bridge) and a riverbank, in the geisha quarter in Tokyo, where she once was from.


Ichimaru was photographed in this semiformal kimono (homongi) for the cover one of her albums. The riverbank and the Yanagibashi (Willow Bridge), where she once worked, recall her past life as a geisha.






















Mitsue Goto was born in 1906, one of 11 children raised in poverty. She later left her home in the Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture, and transformed herself into Ichimaru.

The Textile Museum of Canada’s exhibit, From Geisha to Diva: The Kimonos of Ichimaru, pays tribute to Ichimaru, but it also challenges the public’s misconceptions about geishas (the common one being that they were well-paid entertainers/prostitutes) and invites them to appreciate the role that they have played in conserving classical traditions inasmuch as they also tested the boundaries of taste through their attire.

“That’s something that our Western culture struggles with trying to figure out,” says Sarah Quinton, curatorial director of the Textile Museum of Canada. In Japan, geishas were often respected and considered guardians of Japanese culture, she said. They had to undergo rigorous training at a young age, with the expectation that they would be well versed in  traditional Japanese dance, song, poetry, and literature, calligraphy,  and the art of tea ceremony.

Kimono 1

This homongi (semiformal kimono), made of silk crepe and silver thread, depicts kimonos hung out to air. Photo: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria/Textile Museum of Canada

Ichimaru’s ambition to stand out and nurture her abilities ultimately  propelled her to fame. Under the tutelage of Enchiga Kiyomoto, a well-respected teacher, she learned traditional singing and enrolled in shamisen (three-stringed Japanese musical instrument) lessons.

From there, she became a sought-after singer, and performed in restaurants where the elite gathered. In 1931, Ichimaru landed her first recording contract, and left geishadom; she would make televised appearances well into her 70s. [Ichimaru died in 1997, at the age of 90.]

Most famously, she recorded the Shamisen Boogie Woogie, composed by Ryoichi Hattori, an American jazz singer. Ichimaru also earned the distinction of being the first singer invited to perform in the U.S., post World War II.

Ichimaru could well have been the Madonna or Beyoncé of her time, but without the cult of personality and the flattery of imitation that follows generational figures. Geishas were “avant-garde trendsetters,” placed on a high pedestal and seen as embodying the ideal woman gifted with grace, charm and intellectual bite.

To rise in the ranks from where Ichimaru started as an oshaku- waitress, one who pours sake, to striking out on her own as a recording artist, one needed to possess a repertoire of skills that could match and complement the high-brow interests of her clientele. And yet, for all that a geisha like Ichimaru was worth, class distinctions remained entrenched.

She may have set trends, but for whom? Other women outside of her realm were bound to social and age distinctions in their attire. One can’t help but wonder how other women regarded geishas. Even as they were touted as “conservators” of culture, the nature of their profession warranted discretion on their part.

Ichimaru broke those unspoken rules about appropriate wear for women of a certain age. She refused to limit herself to muted colours with minimal embellishments, which were perceived as more suitable for young, unmarried women.

The exhibit is a stunning collection featuring Ichimaru’s prized kimonos and other personal ephemera — down to the wig that she wore as part of her geisha regalia.

Geishas were expected to invest in about 10 kimonos, to give her options for different occasions and more specifically, different styles that reflected the four seasons.

Ichimaru’s kimonos, for whatever occasion, celebrated her taste for big, bold patterns and motifs laden with symbolism — from her formal kimono (tomesode) with its pine tree motif representing the New Year, to one of her more semiformal kimono (homongi), with dancing flutes, an instrument played by geishas.

The kimonos were often made with either silk crepe or silk gauze, and secured by an obi — a decorative, silk sash.

Sadly, it’s difficult to place the exact dates for when her kimonos were made. As a whole, the exhibit offers a rare glimpse into the life (and wardrobe) of an enchanting icon who won over both the East and the West with her singing.

The travelling exhibit, which originated from the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in British Columbia, runs until May 25 at the Textile Museum of Canada, in Toronto.

The Textile Museum is also hosting a special lecture and reception  with Akiko Fukai, director and chief curator of the the Kyoto Costume Institute. Tickets to “From Kimonos to Comme des Garçons: An Evening with Fashion Historian Akiko Fukai” are $45  for General Admission and $35 for members. 

For more information visit or call 416-599-5321.



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