Japanese youth were introduced to European street fashion by Sochi Aoki and Noriko Kojima, through the publication of a magazine called Street in 1985. Paradoxically, they promoted these overseas trends in Japan and, in turn, Aoki became famous for documenting the visual response of Tokyo’s youth to these new trends. For his monthly Fruits magazine, launched in 1997, 5 Aoki photographed the self-designed street style dress paraded through the streets and parks of the trendy neighborhoods of Shibuya and Harajuku.
Designers of Japanese street style shared the DIY philosophy of their British punk counterparts, and adopted the use of plaid material, T-shirts advertising punk bands, ripped clothing and studded accessories. Unfazed by mainstream designer trends, they embraced the hyper-celebrity culture of Japan and recreated illusions of manga — a popular cartoon art form aimed at adults—and animé characters in their clothing. This subculture’s form of dress was contextualized within a popular culture that was always transformative, dynamic, and fundamentally linked to trends of disposability. A diversity of custom-made ‘looks’ burgeoned over a five-year period.
These included girls—known as mono—who wore a collage of traditional elements of Japanese ancient dress with kimono, sashes and geta sandals combined with second-hand and home-made items; the cult of ‘cuteness’ or kawaii, which encouraged a childlike appearance complete with plastic jewelry and toys worn as accessories, highlighted by an overabundance of the colour pink; the baby doll Lolita look, with frills and fl ounces; and the Gothic Lolita look, sometimes dominated by black Victorian mourning dress, which created an air of elegance and a nostalgia for an entire fictional past.
Blatant sexuality—manifested in fetishwear of red net stockings, black leather skirts and leopardskin-patterned fabrics, perhaps influenced by Westwood and Margiela—became another version of street fashion. Further appropriations of the Western cowboy look ( ganguro), the tanned and blonde California girl or Mountain Witch look ( yamamba), and the black American hip-hop look for young men, added to this aesthetic chaos. Not only did these borrowed looks take traditional meaning away from the original cultural referents, but they also recycled them into a meaningless fashion potpourri.
Such styles were dubbed ‘dressing up’, ‘putting on a show’, ‘playing at costumes’—these words describe an outsider’s reaction to the new direction of fashion. More critical commentators described this devotion to fashion as self-indulgent and dishonorable. Gothic Lolita, for some, signified a ‘nostalgia fetish’ or ‘a form of drag’.
The wearing of black vinyl kimonos or full punk bondage gear with whitened faces and blackened eyes conveyed a much more sexually aggressive appearance than their doll-like counterparts. Any public display of youthful intimacy or sexuality, whether in the community, on poster advertisements or in the media, was considered immoral before the late 1980s, and was not tolerated. The press referred to young women wearing ‘Harajuku styles’ as the ‘Sirens of Tokyo’.
Whether this individualized styling represents a candid critique of the role of women in Japanese society and culture is difficult to ascertain. Kinsella (1995) argues that ‘this practice of performative dress-up provides a hyper-real form of what the Japanese call “cosplay” (or “costume play”), as well as a nexus between the old, the new, and various connected ideas about identity in relation to culture, gender, and youth’.
If we agree that diversity in dress is complicit with street style, and therefore depicts identity as subject to constant change, then the Harajuku street style emphasizes the way different images of femininity show how tenuous commodity identity can be. Most commodity-oriented subcultures have become complicit in the niche marketing of their own identities. Entire stores in the Harajuku area, for example, cater for a total Lolita transformation—the consumer’s link to an alternative lifestyle.