Now I know this is not earth-shattering news for anyone who has spent any significant length of time in Japan, but mainstream fashion is very different from the popular subcultures that Japan is represented by on the internet in general and western media in particular.  I was once on a flight going out of Narita and I was sat next to a full-on gothic Lolita who had apparently been on a tour across Japan and was surprisingly surprised that she had barely met a handful of similarly dressed people on her travels.  Add to that a couple of foreigners striding around Tokyo in cosplay and you can see that even in this day and age people don’t seem to have a handle on mainstream Japanese society, despite having a wonderfully in-depth knowledge of a specific subculture.

On top of that, every lazy foreign documentary on Japan focuses on the oddities of fashion – the “them wacky Japanese” cliche as we call it in the Tokyo Telephone HQ.  I definitely don’t blame them, that is clearly more interesting than the reality that Japan is actually a massively conservative country especially where women are concerned.

I just thought I would take a little journey into the reality of mainstream Japanese fashion, and hopefully illustrate that even at its most mundane, Japanese fashion is still fantastic.

Continue reading to see why I have selected the above shot as representative of the Japanese mainstream, featuring as it does a women clad in western brands…

Firstly mainstream Japanese fashion is guilty more than any other of trying to be foreign.  From the brand names to the photo shoots in the mags, everything is either proporting to either be a foreign brand (in an outright lie!) or alluding to a perceived sense of foreign glamour.  Usually given the extreme cost of those brands when they are actually sold in Japan (think 2.3 times their domestic retail) usually the only items that normal people actually buy are the perfumes, accessories and yes – the bags.

Secondly modest and girly are the aesthetic orders of the day.  You have to remember that subcultures like Gyaru are rebelling against this kind of conservatism in dress.  For the record CanCam is the magazine that most of these pictures are going to be from and a quick glance at their current issue reveals articles like “dresses that boys will like”.  Now I am not for one moment criticizing the mag, I am just saying that it represents a more traditional value set than something like Egg.  Oh, and it is the number 1 magazine for women in Tokyo…

In terms of hair colour – you have to be a couple of shades off black, which is of course the natural colour for Japanese people – you forget this sometimes in the fashion world!  But you cannot be that far removed from black, the very reason that Gyaru have only recently started to use darker colours in their hair is that previously dark hair has always been a sign of conservatism.  Coloured hair is usually banned at school and in a lot of office jobs – even today, if you go to a funeral you are expected to re-dye your hair back to black out of respect.  In short, in the mainstream natural straight black hair is too dull, so a hint off black is what the mainstream opts for.  You really need to bear in mind just how big a rebellion coloured hair actually is in Japan.

Note the skin colour – no tan here!  In fact skin bleaching is the order of the day here – the whiter the better.

Oddly enough, high heels are much more popular than in the west and this is something that I for one have never been able to fathom.  My friends who dress this way always complain about their cheap heels killing their feet and having had to carry someone home on one occasion they were not just complaining.  I guess Lolitas actually have an easier time of things with their sturdier heels.

I really don’t want this article to come off as a critique, just because words like “conservative” and “mainstream” make me want to hide in the Kitakore building.  The mainstream “look” is coordinated stunningly well by a staggeringly high proportion of people and when I say that I think Japan is the most fashion conscious place on this planet of ours I am including the mainstream in that description.  Outfits are generally thought out, sized appropriately and layered.  There is no other country where the base standard of fashion is so ridiculously high.

Hair is usually given a light perm, but other than that largely left alone.  Again messy hair is a bit of a naughty ol’ taboo in Japan so again, remember when you look at the heavy curls of a Lolita or the messy bee-hive of a Gyaru that this is quite the middle finger to society!

Now I know that I am spouting a lot of generalisations here, but I think as an introduction to the mainstream world is has value.  I know many people who buy CanCam every month as well as less conservative mags liks ViVi and mix and match the fashion to suit.  But I think it is important when considering Japanese fashion to be able to deconstruct an outfit to see where in society different elements come from.

Nails are often professionally done, but relatively plain.  The make-up is quite interesting as well – usually the bottom eye-lid is left largely untouched and the upper is free to have fun with.  On my homemade conservatism scale the less make-up below the eye, the more conservative the person who owns it.

Looking at sales statistics this kind of fashion is the most popular amongst young Japanese women though it should be said that that could be because a lot of older people (late 20s) still shop at places aimed at the 19-25 CanCam democratic.  Certainly it seems a shame to me that young people buy into this look and lifestyle so easily – I have always thought that as a young person you have the duty to change society and fashion has always been a great way of expressing that.  That is one of the many reasons why I admire the Lolita rebellion against the aspirational “mature lady” image represented by the mainstream.

But it does not all have to be dull, I for one like this kind of hair style and the subtle touches to the outfit above can be appreciated regardless of your personal tastes.

Another good look – classy and adult, this outfit would fit into edgier fashion easily, but it is earthed by the hair and make-up.

This hairstyle too that started as a Harajuku trend has now gone fully mainstream.  While a lot of the fashion is influenced by the foreign brands, by equal parts Japanese trends can be felt as well.

And this is everything I have been saying summed up in a single image – Samantha Thavasa – a purely Japanese brand with a foreign name, held by the poster girl for the mainstream.

And where do you shop for this kind of clothes?  Pretty much anywhere as it happens although underground malls are the hub.

Now what are the men doing while all of this is going on –

This is Smart – year on year the best selling magazine for men’s fashion, coincidentally is always has a very mainstream model on the cover.  No surprise given the contents which as you can see include a flurry of foreign brands surrounded by affordable and straight-laced domestic fashion.

Excerpt from within.  You get the picture.  Largely untouched hair and face, nicely coordinated but largely conservative.

A pretty common look – note that men are less likely to dye their hair than women.  A man with dyed hair is making a very big statement indeed.

Now this is actually quite a good look.  While I would demand a harsher palate and at least 2 sizes down on the model there really is nothing to complain about here.

I don’t really have a huge amount to say here, mainly because there really isn’t a lot to talk about.  The real meat of men’s fashion can only come from one place – the salary man suit.  If there is one thing that sums up the conservatism at the heart of Japan it is how little this beauty has changed over the decades.  This is actually 109-2 Buffalo Bobs’ shot at a business suit:

Surprisingly this is actually very edgy, for a start it is grey not blue and it is slightly fitted!  It is hardly a wind-tunnel of change but you just have to accept that in the mainstream clothes are a uniform.  Whether that is armor against the conformity of an office or a sign above you that shouts “eligible wife”, some clothes are a mechanism of society, one where fashion has little currency at all.

On the other hand things have changed – even if it is very minutely.  I have seen salary men with pierced ears, spiky hair and even light suits.  I have even worked in offices where men have worn Tornado Mart jeans – well that is new-media for you…

Phew!  I think I am going to have to leave this one here, I am literally on my way to a tattoo convention which I am hoping will be an antidote to this avalanche of uniform conservatism.  But that is just me, as I have said before I totally understand that the mainstream is not ready for what I am wearing now, but what I am thankful for it that mainstream Japanese fashion is actually quite good.  If I am to criticise it at all it is as a representation of far deeper issues in Japanese society.

I hope this has been a nice introduction to mainstream Japanese fashion – it can’t be fun, subcultures and Candy all the time.

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12 Responses to Welcome to the Mainstream

  1. […] Welcome to the Mainstream 1 — This is not earth-shattering news for anyone who has spent any significant length of time in Japan, but mainstream fashion is very different from the popular subcultures that Japan is represented by on the internet and in Western media. […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by キャロライン, R & S. R & S said: Welcome to the Mainstream […]

  3. Sarah says:

    I don’t think I’ve commented before, but hey, now’s a good a time as any, right? 😀

    I think what I love most about Japanese fashion is that I am consistently impressed by the level of put-togetherness that everyone seems to possess. Even the most punk outfits aren’t just chaos and disorder — there’s usually a sense of layering and making it look good, even if it’s not broadcasting all the thought that went into it.

    If I’d grown up with the Japanese mainstream look, I don’t know if I’d appreciate it as much, or at all. But I have a soft spot for conserative, girly clothes — as well as straight up OL looks, haha, but that’s just because what else are you going to wear with gathers and stockings?? ;D — and the sweet, feminine looks that are readily accessible at every mall are sadly lacking when I go back home to the States. Even now, living on an American military installation means going to the grocery store with people in “Juicy” sweatpants, and even if I’d like to say otherwise, I don’t feel the need to dress up if I’m not leaving the base. But if I’m stepping out, I feel like I have to look presentable!!

    For the record, half of my my closet is a mix of gal, lolita, and OL-looks, and the other half is t-shirts and jeans for any old day. I like that I can be as versatile as I want with the clothes available to me. Some EGL/gothic brands (like Black Peace Now) lend themselves to blending in with more casual outfits, so I like to do that now and then, too.

    Hopefully this comment is not as crazy and jumbled as I feel like it is… haha. But I felt the need to make it! (PS: I really enjoy your blog — I’m here via Caroline!)

  4. Tokyo Telephone says:

    Hi Sarah, thanks for getting in touch – your Blog is hilarious by the way, it properly cracked me up 🙂

    Versatility is definitely key especially where conformity is concerned. It was all very well and good strutting round Shinjuku dressed like a host when I lived there, but going deep into the countryside of Fujinomiya was a different story! Whether it is for a job, or just leaving the city you always have to conform to the mainstream at some point – even I have worn a 100% salaryman suit when I have needed to. That is when being able to coordinate comes into its own, when you are representing yourself while conforming.

    Glad to have you on board!


  5. Sarah says:

    Ah, wow! I’m glad you liked it. I need to go pick up somemore insane sodas, I think… 100 yen shops tend not to disappoint, at least.

    I cannot imagine a sartorialist like yourself in a 100% salaryman get up! But you’re right; even if you have to conform, you can still make it your own.

  6. Tokyo Telephone says:

    For the record the suit was for a dull share holder meeting and the moment it was over I whipped the tie off and put my jewelry back on!

    If you can find it you should try “Chocolate Sparkling” from Suntory – it is a chocolate flavored clear soda and absolutely foul!


  7. Leanne says:

    The thing that saddens me most about Japanese attitude to fashion is that it’s ok to dress how you want (whether gyaru or whatever) in your teens-twenties, but once you become an OL/mum/hit 30 you have to dress down.

    I see very few role models of out-there ladies who are older and still cutting edge fashion-wise, the way we have Daphne Guinness (for example), or even more crazy older ladies such as Patricia Field, Zandra Rhodes, Betsey Johnson etc.

    It is just like the heavy curtain of conservatism comes down around 30, never to be raised again, and I for one, couldn’t bear to live like that.

  8. Tokyo Telephone says:

    Totally agree Leanne, the thing that disappoints me most about the CanCam mainstream is that it aspires to that kind of good wife – wise mother position that most women end up in. The only mothers in Japan who tend to break out of that are the single mothers or the occasional gyaru mamas with the audacity to maintain their personality into marriage!

    Oh well, the times are definitely changing, but just not quite fast enough for my liking.


  9. DarkSunMoon says:

    I guess Lolitas actually have an easier time of things with their sturdier heels.
    Humm, no!
    Rocking Horses’ soles will start ripping apart from the vinyl or leather when you have worn them for a while. Some other types of shoes with thick heels made of plastic or rubber have a tendency to split in 2 parts, the heel slowly ripping away from the front part of the sole. I’ve heard of straps on sandals and maryjanes which’s seams let go, nearly causing the wearers sprained ankles, injured knees and bruised hands (and sometimes, scratches on their faces or worse).
    A gyaru friend told me to always carry nail glue because when those incidents happen, that’s the only thing that will work! Some girls I knew had to use chewing gum on a shoe sole once and it only held a while…

    For the rest, I think you pretty much nailed it!

  10. Tokyo Telephone says:

    Hah! I guess when it comes to cheap or specialized shoes I will concede that pretty much everyone is equally screwed!

    One thing I do love about Tokyo is the abundance of good cobblers in pretty much every station. So when your shoes inevitably succumb to the streets you can be back in action within 10 minutes.


  11. D says:

    As an international student from Asia studying in America, I’m so happy I found a blog post that eloquently expresses my frustrations! I don’t think you were being critical at all. You gave a very balanced view of the mainstream fashion in Japan and related it to possible issues within the society each time.

    Thanks so much for posting it, I’m saving several phrases of it to my favourite quotations collection 🙂

  12. Samuel says:

    @ D

    Glad to hear that this resonated with you. I should really do an update to this article seeing as this is now very old, but I think the core principles still stand, especially regarding how Japanese fashion is seen in the West.

    Thanks and good luck with your studies,


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