Fashion: Identity and Social Context


“Fashion is a key resource through which individuals in late modernity construct their identities and position themselves in relation to others” A Bennett, Culture and Everyday Life (2005)

Discuss this statement with reference to individual examples.

Fashion, understood as being a popular trend in clothing or appearance, constitutes a key step in the on-going process of identity construction as not only does self-adornment provide us with an opportunity for self-expression, but it is also what separates humankind from the animal kingdom (Polhemus, 1988). Fashion is not synonymous to clothing as ‘Fashion postulates anachrony… [there] the past is shameful and the present constantly ‘eaten up’ by the fashion being heralded.’ (Barthes, 1990) I will examine this subject within the framework of how certain elements or habits adopted by Japanese youth subcultures intentionally reflect upon the identities they construct for themselves with specific reference to ‘Gothic-Lolita’, ‘Yamanba’ and the ‘Gyaru’. These trends can be particularly interesting when observed within the context of globalisation and the burgeoning youth culture associated with it, proliferated via the mass media and the internet.

I have chosen to look at Japanese youth culture specifically because of its extravagant and extreme appearance, and comment on how different elements of their aesthetic are used to compose a unique identity and acculturate themselves into specific societal groups. Their ever-evolving fashions have become symbolic of today’s ‘fragmented’ self, in which there is no overriding pure culture but instead a multiplicity of cosmopolitanisms (Maynard, 2004). This anti-essentialist view of the self is today more or less widely accepted as no longer can places or things be seen as ‘authentic’ and free from outside influence due to the inter-textuality of today’s world of fluxes.

People use garments of clothing and accessories in order to display their individual and collective affiliations such as their political views, nationality, and social status and thus fashion is generally given a significant meaning within the context of society. Similarly, clothing orientates our position with regards to gender to and sexuality. Nowhere is the use of personal style for assimilation more evident and complex than in post-modern Japan. A sense of community is achieved in subcultures by the performance of being seen in certain styles of clothing that become a ‘visual shortcut’ (Steele, 2008), connecting people who wish to lead similar lifestyles and have a shared aesthetic. Furthermore, some Japanese subcultures seem to have resisted the Great Masculine Renunciation, meaning that bodily adornment is indulged in equally by both sexes.

Japanese street style is commonly thought to have blossomed from the Japanese cultural forms of Manga, Anime and video games (Fukai, 2010) that enjoy enduring popularity worldwide. Some theories state that although there is no specific social purpose to Japanese street style (unlike movements in the west such as punk, in which politics is intertwined with personal appearance) the mere ‘visual overload’ of postmodern consumerist culture with its advertising and pictorial media pushes youngsters to explore ever-more extreme representations of identity upon the canvas of themselves (Kurihara, 2005).

The youth congregate in the Hokoten (“Pedestrian Paradise”) on days when traffic is banned from the main squares and roads of Tokyo’s Shibuya district (Message, 2005) and share in their dress, their makeup and their general interests. In this way, a Japanese adolescent who wears for example, a Victorian-style crinoline and a black lace corset will be identifiable as one who follows the ‘Goth-Lolita’ trend and who will more often than not also listen to the appropriate music, have friends with the same style and shop for the brands associated with the latter.

Increasingly, the Japanese youth use a creolisation (Mathews & White, 2004) of different elements originating from various cultures and adapt them for use in their own country; however one could not write this off as westernisation or mere cultural homogenisation. This is because the Japanese adapt and creatively re-contextualise these looks by adding in elements of traditional Japanese costume (such as the kimono shape). This resignifying of traditional Japanese costume to integrate it into current fashion is a way of making evident one’s cultural heritage and ancestry and this could be said to be representative of one aspect of an individual’s identity.

The youths of Harajuku and Shibuya are generally seen as being aggressive consumerists, with a wide array of brands catering specifically to different subcultures such as ‘Baby, The Stars Shine Bright’ or ‘Alice and the Pirates’. However the inverse is also true, as these young adults can be seen as consumer anarchists, reacting against the hyper-capitalism of developed, prosperous japan and using handmade and widely sourced items to complete their outfits. In this way the outrageous dress could be seen as a form of political protest through a rejection of traditional consumption habits.

It could be also be argued that the rapid evolution of technology in the late twentieth century caused the shift of the importance of knowledge from the ends of human action to its means (Lyotard, 1979) which explains in part the emphasis the Shibuya frequenters place on the ritual of getting ready, rather than merely the finished product. Girls use the styling process as a bonding opportunity that allows them to form friendships around mutual interests, this is an example of how fashion in postmodernity allows us to orientate ourselves socially.

Above; from left to right the typical embodiments of gothic style and Lolita style. All images from

The branches of Japanese street youth style called ‘Lolita’ or ‘Gothic’ (or the hybrid aesthetic between the two, ‘goth-lolita’) first appeared in the early 1990s, a by-product of the popularity of ‘visual-kei’ rock bands, whose outlandish costumes and extreme makeup were picked up on and adopted by devoted fans. The term ‘Lolita’ in Japan does not share the sexual connotations that it has in the west regarding Vladimir Nabokov’s novel and instead implies a childish naivety or innocence seen as the ideal state of being. While the gothic style is similar to its western counterpart, if slightly more adventurous in terms of dress, the Lolita style literally refers to grown women dressing as pure-looking ‘doll’ figures and can also include a host of childlike activities such as ‘playing dress up’ or ‘tea parties’ (Bernal, 2011). The Lolita trend is often referred to as being a reaction to the overt sexualisation of women in modern Japanese and global mass media and is commonly seen as trivial due to its’ infantile image. It has been suggested that despite their ultra-feminine appearance, the Lolita style is ultimately made to be intimidating, a ‘”screw-you” to older men who might fetishize the [style]’ (Pinckard, 2012). Some theorists relate this infantilisation of certain segments of society to the collective trauma of the Japanese defeat in World War Two, with specific reference to Hiroshima (Steele, 2010).

The paradigm of ‘Kawaii’ (Miller, 2010) represents a facet of collective Japanese youth culture that is commonly seen as being unreasonable or worrying by the Japanese population at large; these young adults are creating identities and personas that seem more founded in a land of fairy-tales and children’s stories than reality. This escapist movement seems to be a collective rejection by many of the hardships associated with adult life and in a way a suppression of the formation of the achieved and adult self.

The ever-transitional face of Japanese street fashion is particularly relevant to school children and adolescents who forge their new intergenerational identities through clothing.

Above: Pictured is a typical ‘Yamanba’ female. Note the use of white makeup to slim the nose and emphasize the eyes, the tanned skin and bleached platinum blonde hair. Image from

The female version of the Yamanba style took the representation of the American California girl and modified it to make it more extreme. This was a severe contrast to the pale faced and expressionless geishas that had previously been the beauty ideal of Japanese women. Male Yamanba style, meanwhile, might be seen as a parallel with the American Hip-Hop stars of the 1980s, with baggy jeans and copious amounts of ‘bling’ around their necks. The excessive tanning of the skin and the white patches of the Yamanba is their interpretation and exaggeration of the appearance of Caucasian females who have slender noses and wide eyes and represent a western ‘beauty ideal.’ This trend can be explained in part to the popularity of Hip-Hop music (both western and Asian) amongst Tokyo’s youths (Takatsuki, 2003). The lifestyles of the rap artist’s it imitates are aspirational, embodying for the individual wearing it a certain self-proclaimed prophecy of success.

The Japanese population has long been seen as a ‘quintessential imitator’ of other cultures, either as passive victims of Chinese cultural domination or post-modern American influence, and it is stated that their transcultural borrowing allocates the same signification for the Japanese adoptees that it does for the original ‘home-land’ consumers (Brannen, 1992). It is through the Yamanba style that the question of American cultural imperialism is at once asserted and subverted (Message 2005). This again could be seen as an example of transcultural substitution relating to a high regard for the western lifestyle and image in eastern societies.

Interestingly, there has recently been resurgence in the trend for porcelain white skin in Japan known as ‘Bihaku’ meaning literally ‘beautifully white’ (Mowbray, 2004). The popularity of skin whitening products in Japan and the Asian continent can be explained by both the aspirational value of white skin, seen as a hallmark of the prosperous western world and by the old-fashioned representations of Geishas and the aristocracy that connote power and exclusivity. Changing one’s racial appearance might be considered as the ‘final taboo’ of body modification, as an option that has only recently come into existence. This could be seen as a mark of rebellion, or divergence from the cultural norm that has its roots in persisting racist attitudes that depreciate the way that ethnicities are viewed in parallel with the Caucasian appearance. Altering one’s skin tone is an extreme form of statement to make regarding identity as it attempts to change something we are born with.

Furthermore, there has long existed a perceived correlation between certain luxury brands and social status and in Japan and Asia in general this idea of class is regarded as important. There are many stories of women who work several jobs or even prostitute themselves in order to afford the branded goods that carry with them a connotation of wealth and success. The psychology of the “aspirational” brand is that its exclusivity (due to limited production numbers) and high price turn it into an object of desire for the masses (Shukla, 2010).

The ‘Kogyaru’ of Shibuya recognise and adopt luxury western brands into their aesthetic in order to send out a visual message of ‘moneyed nonchalance’ (Marx 2012). This allows the youths to put themselves in a position of superiority to those who do not own the brand, who ‘lack’ this luxury and are not part of this privileged set. The philosophy of luxury however means that with the inevitable ‘trickle down’ effect these items can come to be seen as undesirable or even clichéd (consider the Louisa Vuitton monogram print). The Kogyaru of Tokyo have come to be associated with a negative image of the female; many view them as being promiscuous, materialistic and the antithesis of the conventional and respectable Japanese woman. Although some might despise and dispute this label, stories of prostitution or self-starvation with the intent of making money for luxury goods are not uncommon. The latter merely demonstrates how crucial certain marketing is in making us think that it will reflect well on our identities.

In conclusion, it is not possible to discuss matters of identity without in some way bringing up fashion, make-up/grooming habits and clothing. Using Japanese street style as an example, different clothing and consumption habits do not merely exist for their own sake but instead serve to communicate a particular message about the wearer’s personality (whether that be an ‘authentic’ message or a knowingly constructed one). In a world that is increasingly fashion-literate and in which everything is progressively customisable (Gibson, 2001) individuals are using fashion in a way that is not only decorative aesthetically but also indicative of various aspects of their personality. Finally, as ‘fast-fashion’ becomes readily available and more affordable for people all over the world, this age of sartorial hyper-individualism shows no sign of slowing down.


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