Subverting Style: Japanese Street Fashion

Japanese street fashion has a unique and adventurous style not seen anywhere else in the world.

For decades, the youth of Japan have driven fashion in unique and unexpected directions, with an eclecticism and sense of adventure not seen in anywhere else in the world. Starting in the 1980s, the young people of the Harajuku district of Shibuya, Tokyo, have had an unprecedented influence on fashion.

Emergence of Japanese Street Fashion

Harajuku was the juncture of a converging set of social and economic factors, that colourfully exploded globally in the form of a fashion revolution.

The rise of Japanese youth culture:
The end of WWII brought massive social changes to Japan. Rapid industralisation and adoption of Western influences caused a cascade of social changes. As in the United States, Japan had a post-war baby boom, and cultural ideas about youth and adolescence began to change. Younger generations started to enjoy a prolonged adolescence, delaying marriage and financial independence. In these years, they enjoyed the social freedoms of adulthood, while still living at home with their parents. These young people had more disposable income and free time than prior generations.

The Japanese economy:
The Japanese economy rose rapidly in the 1950s and onward, peaking dramatically from 1985 - 1990, benefiting this new young leisure class.

The importance of Japanese fashion designers:
In the 1980s, Japanese designers like Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons, and Yohji Yamamoto were making a mark on the world fashion scene, redefining Japanese style for a new era.

The Harajuku district itself:
In the late 1970s, Harajuku was the site of a few fashion retailers, and began attracting fashion-conscious shoppers. Also in the late 70s, Harajuku closed local roads to create pedestrian-friendly shopping areas on Sundays. Local parks on the promenade attracted teenage street dancers and musicians for impromptu performances. The Sunday pedestrian district became known as a place for teenagers to show off their fashion sense, to see and be seen.

This convergence of a relaxation of social rules and expectations, increased free time and money, and growing attention to the fashion choices of their peers drove the young people of Harajuku to become increasingly adventurous with their clothing choices, borrowing global influences and transforming them into a distinctive, avant-garde street style that was all their own.

Japanese street styles

Today, the youth of Japan continue to lead the way in bold and unique fashion, always inventing new trends, and many distinct styles have emerged and continue to be seen on the streets of Japan:

  • Lolita: Lolita fashion is heavily influenced by Victorian and Edwardian fashion, and has become a world-wide phenomenon. Lolita has several different sub-styles, but tends to feature full skirts and tight waistlines, and focuses on cuteness. Gothic Lolita styles are Victorian and dark, often featuring dark colours and bat and skull motifs, but still presented in an appealing way. Sweet Lolita is childlike, and generally features pastel colours and fairy tale themes. Kodona is a more masculine form of Lolita, echoing Edwardian male fashions with cropped pants, lace cuffs, and top hats.
  • Gyaru: Gyaru emerged in the late 1970s, and echoes a glam-rock style. It typically features outsized, dramatically artificial wigs, lashes, and fingernails. It often showcases deeply tanned skin, high-contrast white eye make-up, and glitter.
  • Kogal: Kogal is an adult interpretation of the Japanese schoolgirl uniform. It reflects themes of a corruption of innocence, with schoolgirl skirts worn very short and high (but often loose and slouchy) socks. The look may be completed with platform shoes, and with a scarf or necktie.
  • Visual Kei: Visual Kei is another reflection and interpretation on Glam Rock, and is often considered a musical movement as well as a fashion movement. Visual Kei includes flamboyant costumes, elaborate make-up, and dramatic hair styles, often reflective of the style of the glam artists of western music. Visual Kei includes many sub-styles.
  • Dolly Kei: Dolly Kei is similar to (and perhaps inspired by) Lolita, in that it borrows fairy-tale motifs and focuses on cuteness, but Dolly Kei may also include styles and elements that date back much further, to the Middle Ages and Grimm's fairy tales. Dolly Kei aspires to create a vintage, doll-like appearance, and hair and makeup are often worn more naturally, while clothing is heavily accessorised with period-inspired pieces.
  • Kimono style: Kimono style or Kimono Kei uses elements of traditional Japanese clothing, combined with high-fashion or western-influenced elements. It may include a kimono-wrapped garment, worn with very modern boots and accessories, or western-dresses with the traditional kimono-tied bow (obi) at the waist. Kimono style is often accentuated with either very elaborate traditional Japanese hairstyles, or with big, ultra-modern, spiked hair.

There have been many styles and trends in Japanese street fashion, but these are some of the most influential and enduring trends.

Themes in Japanese street styles

Japanese street fashion borrows elements from all over the world and all different time periods, and remixes those influences in new and unique ways.

Gender Fluidity:
Starting from the earliest days of Glam styles in the 1970s, Japanese street style is gender-fluid, and disregards fashion tropes of masculine and feminine clothing.

Japan, and Tokyo in particular, are epicentres of consumerism and a culture that sometimes obsessively purchases products or follows trends. Fashion is just one expression of Japanese consumer culture.

Japanese fashion has ongoing and enduring influences on Western fashion. From Western designers who have been influenced by traditional Japanese attire, borrowing fabrics, silhouettes, and motifs from Japanese tradition and applying them to modern designs; to Japanese fashion designers like Yamamoto and Kawakubo, inspiring Western designers like Galliano and McQueen; to Japanese street styles inspiring fashion choices among young people in London and Paris.

This dialogue between Japan and the west, where fashions and trends are borrowed, traded, remixed, and expressed in whole new ways, shows no sign of slowing down.

The adventurous youth of Japan are masters of creating and dominating new trends and styles, before quickly moving on to something else. But the vast array of influences, from historical epochs, from musical acts, from film and manga, and from all over the world, will continue to provide endless material for new forms of expression and reflection.

Keep reading. Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.


Anthony Ierardi


Adrian Bortignon


Anthony Ierardi


Anthony Ierardi


Anthony Ierardi


Anthony Ierardi