Blacking Teeth by Kitagawa Utamaro A Dyeing Tradition
Historically, in Japanese culture, black was regarded as beautiful and was highly prized. But while outlining and darkening one’s eyes and brows with black makeup isn’t very different from what we do today, dyeing one’s teeth black is more than a little aesthetically challenging. However odd it may seem in modern Western culture, where many people pay large sums of money to make their teeth appear whiter, tooth blackening is something that has been popular throughout history in Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. Chinese women blackened their teeth from as early as the Qin and Han dynasties (206 BC-AD 220), while in Japan tooth blackening is thought to have been carried out since prehistoric times, with the practice, known as ohaguro, continuing right up until the end of the relatively recent Meiji period (1868-1912). In one story of ancient Heian-era Japan, a horrified maid is said to have compared a woman’s unblackened teeth to peeled caterpillars.
Similar to teeth bleaching today, blackening could be a lengthy and painful process. Although there were probably a huge number of recipes for teeth coloring, the main ingredient used was a dark brown solution of ferric acetate called kanemizu, made by dissolving iron filings in vinegar. Combined with vegetable tannins from sources such as gallnut or tea powder, the solution turned black and became non-water soluble. The liquid was then painted onto teeth and applied once a day or once every few days. In addition to the obvious staining effect, it had the added benefit of helping to prevent tooth decay. Other tooth dyes used included a combination of fine gallnut powder, sulfuric acid, and oyster shell, and for the theater, ink mixed with turpentine and wax.
During the Muromachi period (1336-1568), tooth blackening was introduced at puberty, and in the Edo period (1603-1868), all married women were required to dye their teeth black. Afer this time, only men in the imperial family and aristocrats blackened their teeth. Due to the odor and labor required for the process, as well as a feeling among young women that they were aging, ohaguro was practiced only by married women, unmarried women over eighteen, prostitutes, and geishas. On February 5, 1870, the government banned teeth blackening, and the process gradually died out. Now the only places where ohaguro can be seen in Japan, apart from in art and cinema, is in the geisha quarters.
Tooth blackening has continued in Vietnam, though it is in decline and mainly practiced by older women. Although it was often assumed that the black teeth of Vietnamese women were merely the result of chewing betel nut (a combination of betel leaf, areca nut, and lime), glossy, lacquered teeth were in fact a sign of beauty and marked a woman’s coming of age, just as in Japan. But there was spiritual significance to the practice of tooth dyeing, too: According to Professor Ngo Duc Thinh of the Vietnam Institute of Cultural Studies, black teeth are thought to ward off evil spirits, stemming from the belief that long white teeth belonged to underworld creatures, savages, and wild animals, and that painting the teeth black would protect the wearer from the evil spirits within them.
Georgia O’Keeffe once said, There’s something about black. You feel hidden away in it. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to black eye paint, which dramatically defines, styles, and emboldens a face.
Black paint has been used to define eyes with numerous styles and designs throughout history, and although eyeliner is available in many vibrant shades today, black remains the primary color of choice. Penelope Tree, 1967. Photographed by Richard Avedon.
I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colors was black.