Kokura Spring 2005 Fashion Report: Introduction

I had a request for a fashion report, so here it is. I did random street photography in Kokura over a period of three weeks this year starting on April 16, and ending on May 4. For the most part, I did the camerawork while on errands with Lia or Jarrod. Or sometimes with both of them.

I was originally going to make this one long post, but it took on a life of its own. Unlike the saga of my Kitakyushu bike ride, however, it’s not quite dissertation-length. I started out with 34 images, then added a few more for a total of about 58. So I’ve split it into posts based on the dates I took the pictures. There’s today’s long overview followed by five pages of photos.

I’ll start with some background information before I get to the photos themselves. I should start with a disclaimer for those of you who don’t know me very well. I’ve never been terribly interested in being seen as fashionable, and I don’t know a whole lot about that aspect of my own culture, let alone how it works in Japan. I’m not an expert. I learned most of what I know about fashion from watching the British comedy Absolutely Fabulous, and the occasional fashion report as I channel-surfed in the wee hours back when I actually spent time watching broadcast television.

Having said that, I don’t consider myself judgemental about what people choose to wear, unless it’s obviously uncomfortable or inappropriate for the weather. Stuff like micro miniskirts in the middle of winter, and extreme high heels on a mountain climb. Aside from that, most of it just baffles me. If some of what follows sounds like a critique, it probably is borderline critical. But as I note below, cultural standards of propriety are widely different between this sprawling Japanese industrial city far from Tokyo, and what I was used to, having grown up in a small hub city in the middle of the Canadian prairies.

Fashion is a way of life here. Much more so than anywhere else I’ve been. Many people are obsessed with the latest and most popular styles, colours, brand names, and such. To the point where I’ve heard—and this is someone a friend of mine works with, so it’s not like those internet rumours—of a person buying new clothes rather than being bothered with figuring out how to wash something. I think part of it has to do with group mentality, where they allow an anonymous authority—in this case the fashion industry—to issue decrees on appropriate behaviour, and the masses jump to conform. In the same way that there’s an entire segment of the travel industry devoted to the “top three” of everything. The top three mountains. The top three bridges. The three most beautiful night cityscapes. The three best culinary hot springs resorts. The list goes on. Making it onto one of these lists is like license to print money, and the place is guaranteed to be overrun by tourists. Meanwhile, any locale that falls off the list can look forward to obscurity, a huge lull in traffic and the resulting peace and quiet of a collapsed economy.

As can be expected, there are different market segments with the fashion industry. One of my former students tried to explain it to me—with sample magazines—last year. Two of the most popular looks for young women—young being late teens and early twenties—are the “cute girl” look, which involves a lot of miniskirts, floppy handbags, fake (or real) fur, and a lot of pink. Barbie and Playboy are two popular brand names. Yes, brand names, but that’s another post. Another look is more conservative, with a lot of layering, and a muted colour palette. Earth tones, as well as blues, teals, and greens—at least those were the colours last year—are common. With this style you can also expect sheer crinkly skirts worn over top of jeans, sometimes with the cuffs rolled up to mid-calf. And layers and layers of shirts, vests, and other tops. Some older women also wear either of these styles. I’ve given links to two Japanese fashion magazines at the end of this post.

There’s the housewife look, which is basically any style of clothing with a heavy-duty apron on top. This “battle-apron” is a wordless declaration of motherhood—or housewifehood—worn with the pride of a soldier receiving a medal, and signifies that no matter how meek and frail she looks, the wearer is not to be trifled with. These veterans of the home trenches are seldom seen far from residential areas, and therefore are rare in Kokura. In fact, I don’t think there are any pictures of them in this series.

Middle-aged and older women also wear the apron but are more commonly seen dressed impeccably in conservative ensembles that make me wonder if they’re going to Easter Mass. Yes, they’re dressed like they’re ready to go to church. On one of the major feast days. Younger women—twenty- and thirty-somethings—who either aren’t married or else are having a break from the kids, are also usually seen with perfect makeup and perfect clothes. This superficial perfection is often accessorized with an attitude to match. Anyone who hasn’t paid as much attention to their own deportment is an object of scornful looks and stage-whispered derision. And don’t forget an umbrella for rainy days or a parasol if it’s sunny.

What about the men? Men seem to have very little fashion sense in any country. Myself included. Though you’d think that the men here would get a clue and at least try to dress in stuff that looks good together. It’s not for lack of trying, though. Some guys spend a lot of time and energy on their wardrobes. It just doesn’t look like it. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Let’s return for a moment to the subject of fashion as a way of life. A lot of people here consider shopping to be a hobby. Most people have one single hobby that they devote all of their spare time to. If your hobby is fashion, you spend your free time at the mall, or at the shops, or contemplating your next purchases. As with any hobby in this country, it’s an all-consuming passion. Brand names figure prominently, and no major city seems complete without its collection of designer boutiques. In Fukuoka City there’s even a mall of such shops. It’s called eeny meeny miny mo, and is home to Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Donna Karan, and a host of other boutiques. But that’s a topic for a future post.

As I mentioned, people use fashion magazines as style guides. They’re full of sample wardrobes, advice on coordinating, recommendations for what to where in what situations, as well as tons of ads. But there’s a huge difference between the way these magazines are perceived here versus in the west. In the west, people—especially women—look in fashion magazines and except for a very small population, shake their heads and wonder how any real woman is going to fit into a designer outfit that’s hugging the skeleton of an anorexic model. But here, girls will look at a fashion spread and see models with the same body type. Because of the genetics of Japan’s largely homogeneous culture, young women who have hips and/or chests are in the minority. Of course, this has dreadful consequences for teenage girls who are larger than average. But that’s a can of worms I don’t want to open today. As is the issue of the use of Eurasian models feeding a plastic surgery industry that’s already rich from women’s low self esteem. Suffice to say that most women can turn to a random page in any fashion magazine, and see something that they’ll be able to find at a nearby shop, and that will likely fit them.

I imagine the western woman’s mental dialogue going something like this:

I couldn’t possibly fit into that, and neither could any normal human being. Even if they did make it in my size I wouldn’t be able to find one locally. And besides, why would anyone want to wear a rhinestone-encrusted pink pleated miniskirt, a white knit cardigan with rabbit fur trim and a playboy logo, and matching thigh-high boots? That’s just trashy.

And the Japanese (about the same fashion spread):

Cuuuuuuute! I’ll go down to Tenjin to pick that up on Saturday. I’d better call my best friend to help me decide what to wear for the trip.

A few final notes, in random order:

  • A lot of women here have an attitude of “I’ll bear the discomfort of this outfit because it’s so fashionable.”
  • It’s fine to wear micro mini skirts and vertigo-inducing spiked heels, but don’t show your shoulders, cleavage, or belly. Though I’ve seen more girls with bare midriffs in the last couple of weeks than in the previous year-and-a-half. Could be Britney Spears’ influence.
  • Seasonality of clothing is strictly enforced. For example, I wanted to buy some sandals in late August last year. They were no longer in stock anywhere I looked, but I managed to find some other summer footwear at clearance prices. If you don’t buy something in season, you basically have to wait until the season comes around again, regardless of what the weather is like.
  • Plaid(!) pants.
  • Foreign words and phrases are really common as decoration here. Especially English and French. But they often don’t make sense.
  • There is no taboo against mixing any or all of the following: floral prints, stripes, patterns (including gingham, plaid, and argyle), solids, lace, sheer, knits, rhinestones, clashing colours, etc. Anything goes.
  • Glittery surfaces are really popular right now.
  • A Louis Vuitton bag goes with anything.
  • A plush cartoon-character mobile phone case also goes with anything. Including a Vuitton bag.
  • Pets are a fashion accessory.
  • Children are a fashion accessory. Extra points if parent and child have matching outfits.
  • High school students are not allowed to dye their hair, so a lot of the young people in the photos sporting solid black hair are 16-18 years old.

Whew! The end is near. Here’s a preview of the 14 photos I’m going talk about tomorrow, from Saturday April 16th in Kokura.

thumbnail images of the first day's photos

And here are those links to a couple of Japanese fashion magazines’ websites: ViVi, for the “cute girl” look, and non-no for longer hemlines and more layering. The splash pages were enough for me so I didn’t venture any further than checking that the links work.

One thought on “Kokura Spring 2005 Fashion Report: Introduction

  1. I remember the fashion well….it was everywhere in Australia…of course only worn by the Japanese. You are right, it is too trashy by North American standards…and probably ten sizes too small! I love some of the men’s shirts however…kind of sex pistol meets bowling in the fifites…

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