Philomena Keet, PhD candidate, School of Oriental and African Studies
What makes a piece of clothing ‘fashion’? What’s the difference between following fashions and being fashionable? Fashion as always been noted for it’s paradoxical elements, simultaneously anchoring the wearer into a group whilst representing the desire to be individual. This dynamic was amongst the phenomena that I researched whilst doing the fieldwork in Harajuku, Tokyo for my anthropology PhD which, appropriately for this blog, is entitled ‘Living in a Material World: Spectacular Street Fashion and the Changing Fabric of Japanese Society.’ Japan, whilst often imagined to be a very conformist society, is a world leader in innovative fashion and the Harajuku fashionistas whom I studied provided yet another instance of individuality to counter this image.
Some people may be familiar with the photo books full of colourful and crazy outfits being worn by youngsters in Tokyo called FRUiTS (Phaidon, 2001). The magazine from which the images came is still published monthly in Japan and is now complemented by a magazine devoted to equivalent men’s street fashion, Tune. Of course, fashions change, and the styles involving bright colours, childish prints and a plethora of plastic which once featured in FRUiTS as as the newest trend are now passé and relegated to the subcultural realm of ‘visual’ rock music.
On every page of current FRUiTS and Tune is a full-length snap of an oshare (stylish) person, usually aged between 18 and 25 and dressed in a mixture of avant-garde designer clothes, ‘remakes’ (customized clothes) and second-hand garments. I spent the majority of my fieldwork working together with the main photographer for the magazines, much of which involved sitting on the railings of a busy corner in Harajuku, a trendy area of Tokyo, watching passers by until one deemed suitably oshare walked past. They were then stalked and pounced upon for photos and a simple questionnaire. Over time I learnt how to distinguish someone who they considered to be oshare, but this was not as a result of learning hard and fast rules, but rather was a process of embodying knowledge over time
|One of my outfits at work: Skirt made out of a parachute, militaristic old leather leg gear attached by wires to a belt and shoes from an avant-garde Russian designer.|
I also had the opportunity to work in a boutique central to the scene. The staff, many having been to fashion school, were often in FRUiTS and Tune themselves, and the clothes sold there featured heavily in the magazines too. The stock reflected the overall FRUiTS/Tune aesthetic: there were new avant-garde designer clothes sourced from Paris showrooms, their famous ‘remakes’ (customized items such as skirts made from parachutes and Swarovski stone-covered trainers) and peculiar and unusual second-hand clothes carefully chosen from flea markets. Every morning I would be dressed and styled by one of the staff, often to quite strange effect! But this process was invaluable for experiencing oshare first-hand and for experiencing the reactions of others to my daily transformation.
|A ‘re-made’ lab coat that I did. It sold quite quickly!|
In this project I am interested in exactly what makes someone in this scene oshare. Of course their clothes, but this is not enough. They need to achieve a completely balanced and coordinated aesthetic that includes hairstyle, looks and posture. The outfit must look like it has been assembled naturally, almost like an extension of the wearer – it must ‘fit’ not just your body but your character. That is that an oshare identity is not entirely constructed by a fashionable outfit, but something perceived to be more intrinsic to the wearer, often referred to as ‘aura’, must authenticate it if it is to be successfully carried off. I am also interested in the flow of trends and trendsetting within the scene and the implications this fashion scene has for wider Japanese society and hitherto studies of creativity there.
I have also recently published a book about Tokyo fashion in general, including not just the fashions that my fieldwork dealt with but the entire spectrum of Tokyo youth fashion, ranging from businessmen to Gothic Lolita. Called the Tokyo Look Book it is out in Japan in July and elsewhere in November.