Harajuku Fashion and Bloggers: Surreal Without Sleaze (I’m looking at you, Lady Gaga)

click for source and an article on Harajuku style

I’m no expert on Harajuku style and fashion- it’s a complex and constantly changing subculture in a country I’ve never visited.  I do enjoy many of the styles that come out of Harajuku, and lately I’ve been learning more about some of the personalities that help create the kaleidoscope of pastels, fluffy dresses and eyelashes, killer stockings and crazy hair that makes Harajuku famous.  Another non-sewing post!  I’ll get back to being useful next week…

Gothic Lolita style… click for source

Harajuku is an pair of streets near the Harajuku train station.  After the war, the area became something of an American quarter, with foreign shops and restaurants that catered to American servicemen.   Young people from Tokyo also congregated there- young people love novelties.

I’d wear something like this… Click for source

These days, Harajuku is something like the Champs-Elysee in Paris: shopping, shopping, shopping at exclusive international retailers on the broad, tree-lined Omotesando.  Another, narrower street runs parallel to this street- Takeshita Dori.  It caters to younger and poorer tastes with cheap restaurants, independent retail shops, and second hand stores.  I think I’d be more likely to wander Takeshita Dori than Omotesando!  I suppose the thrift-shops would be fairly well-picked over, though.  Can anyone tell me how the second hand shops are in Takeshita Dori?

click for source

Harajuku kids (mostly young women) meet on a bridge on Sundays.  Since Harajuku has achieved a legendary, iconic status as a street fashion hub plenty of tourists and professional photographers also fill the space, snapping photos of the posing kids.  Some of these photos go into blogs (like the ones I’m linking to) and some show up in Japanese fashion magazines.

Click for source and more ganguro

Some of the very specific styles don’t excite me much.  This girl is Ganguro. Her bleached blond hair and fake tan serves a dual purpose- to emulate the “California Girl” look and also to rebel against traditional ideals of Japanese beauty.  That is, pale skin and dark hair.  Around here, we call the fake bake and bleach look the “Tandoori Chicken.” (Or is it just me?)  It’s a perfect caricature, isn’t it?

I found a pretty interesting sociology paper written about Harajuku and discovered that many of them bring suitcases to change into their outfits after they reach Harajuku, lest they stand out too much on the train.  I love that, it seems so polite.

Click for source and more detail shots

Some Harajuku kids grow up into fashion icons, designers, pop singers or retail store owners in this interesting shopping district.  A few weeks ago I found Party Baby, a Japanese indie fashion label created by a girl named Kumamiki.

This utterly charming mini-micro-film about Kumamiki shows you the sweet, tenacious and hard-working lady underneath the fluff and candy-colored hair.  I always enjoy watching a talented sewist at work, too.  She talks about her time in fashion school- “I made friends with different fashion styles,” and talks about how she found her own style.  Of course, I looked up Party Baby, but only a few of her items are available online at Electric Alice.  Looks like I’ll just have to go visit her shop someday…

(Candy Candy by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu- Love song to candy with evil onion overlord…)

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is another Harajuku celebrity.  She started as a blogger, and then last year made the video Pon Pon Pon which has been viewed by over 30 million people on YouTube.  It’s a bit weird, but also funny and catchy and cheeky, yet inoffensive.

I mean, she farts rainbows… She’s released several other videos since then.  I really enjoy them and so does Lila- perfect “get ready for the day” music.  It’s rare for me to find pop music I don’t mind Lila listening to (and don’t get me started on the videos…) but this is light-hearted and whimsical and sets our toes tapping.

click for source

She tends to make funny faces in many of her photos…

click for source

…and chooses some very surreal hairstyles…

click for source

and accessories.  I like that about her.   She doesn’t trade on “pretty” alone, but also injects her work with a strong dose of humor.  It’s light hearted, and she doesn’t sexualize herself to advance her career as so many other pop stars have before her.  The Japan Times said

For now, however, it is perhaps simply enough to know that in a pop world seemingly engaged in an arms race to concoct the ultimate formulaic female idol, a figure as sharp-witted and monstrously silly as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu can exist when we need her.

Aside from the occasional costume party, I haven’t played much with Harajuku fashion in my own wardrobe.  I like to look at it, and if I had the chance I’d break the bank buying up bits and pieces up and down Takeshita Dori, but I don’t dress this way myself.  I suppose I find more inspiring the spirit of the place, and it makes me happy to know that this little pocket exists somewhere on our tiny spinning planet.

Like I said, I don’t know much about Harajuku fashion, so do chime in with links to your favorite Japanese street fashion blogs or your own experiences.  I’d love to hear about it.

Do you like Harajuku?  How about those “Ganguro”?

Next time we’ll stay in Japan, but take a look at what’s going on in the sewing/crafting scene.  If you have any great links or recommendations, do email me!


29 comments

  1. I think I love their hair styles the most. I would never dress that way but it’s still pretty fun and interesting, like a costume party every weekend!
    The ganguro is kindof yucky though, looks like clown makeup (and the word ganguro sounds like gangrene to me… so that doesn’t help)

    • Yes! It’s like the hipster-iest hipsters on earth… Ganguro means something like “Blackface” or “burnedface”… I remember girls in my year in highschool dressing much the same, but without the stylized irony. Never really cared for that look…

  2. It may be that I just didn’t know where I was going, but I did not see any thrift stores in Harajuku when I was there a few years ago. The shops near the station (Takeshita-dori) really cater to a very young crowd, and most of the clothing is of the low-end semi-trendy variety. (Much seemed to be the breton stripes that we are now seeing in the U.S. this year). There are also shops that sell pre-fabricated Harajuku looks, goth lolita, etc. Frankly, I did not see any clothing that I was interested in buying in any store there. However, its a good place to go for 100 yen stores and streetside crepes. This is a touristy area, fyi.

    Walking farther from the station, leaving the crowds, Takeshita-dori narrows to a lane and has some more interesting boutiques and (what looks like) small designer shops. That is more interesting to me, but it is not the ‘harajuku look’ at all and it is often a lot more expensive.
    Have to say, I did enjoy Omotesando! When it is horribly humid in the summer its tree-lined blocks are rather nice to stroll under. Yes, it is certainly more expensive, but nice to look. I have deep regrets about not buying a certain pair of platform shoes…

    Now, on the other hand, there is some interesting fabric shopping in Tokyo. I had not yet restarted sewing then, so I did not (other big regret) buy any fabric (except for hankies, napkins and furoshiki). I saw some interesting little fabric shops outside the gates of the temples at Asakusa. (When facing the main temple, turn left and wander into the maze of streets). I have also read about a fabric store street in Tokyo, but have never been there.

    I am no expert in the Harajuku look, but I suspect that it has to do with the some of the less flexible aspects of Japanese society. A small release valve, perhaps. For example, regular office attire is very conservative, both in style and in color. (I did not dare to wear a pink blouse to the office I was interning at. It would not have been prohibited, but I felt conspicuous enough, being a unpetite American…). On the other hand, I have a friend who works on the creative end of the ad business–he goes to work in things like sweat pants and tank tops. Go figure!

    ~Jen

    • Oooooh thanks for the mental picture, Jen! I’d love to go fabric shopping in Tokyo. My brother is a musician in Chiba, I keep telling myself one day we’ll be able to go visit him (and Harajuku, and the fabric stores, of course!)… But, sigh, no trip to Japan for us just yet…

      I love wandering mazes of streets… ;)

      Yes, I think the Harajuku look has heaps to do with letting off a little pressure in a fairly harmless way. I mean, it’s not like they’re vandalizing parks or something. They’re just dressing up all crazy and hanging out…

      Do you read Murakami? I think he’s one of my favorite authors, I love his magical realities.

      • Ha–I absorb Murakami! He’s the only author who I pre-order on Amazon.

        The Fabric Street is called Nippori Fabric Town or Nippori Textile Town. The shops around Asakusa is something different that I just happened to see. There also seems to be a lot of older people around living around the area and working in the shops. Nothing trendy, but an interesting area to explore, especially after the temples close for the day.

        Sigh, too. I won’t be going for awhile either. It’s also really expensive right now…

        • I haven’t read all of his stuff, but the first one I ever read is still my favorite- Kafka On the Shore… Murakami is an incredible writer, I wish I could read him in the original…

          I was hoping that the Japanese gov’t would make good on that rumor they were going to hand out 10,000 flights to Japan to jumpstart the tourism sector and to help show the world that everything is ok… But it doesn’t seem they plan to do that anymore. Boo.

  3. Takeshita Dori is not really cheap thrifting. It’s closer to vintage thrifting. For things like the Japanese like it is a well cultivating collection. I always liked the “Chicago” shops for interesting jackets. It is a fun street to shop but be ready to pay more than thrift prices. As a side note the goodwill in Tokyo is fun to shop but you’d need someone to make you a map as it’s not easy to get to.

    • Well that’s cool anyway, as long as the shops aren’t horribly picked over… You know how they get in certain areas… The ones here in Chinatown are rather blah, I think it has everything to do with them being in a “young” and “hip” area. The ones near me in manky suburban church basements always yield treasures, though..

      I’ll put “find Goodwill” on my list of things to do for an eventual trip to Japan… :)

  4. Oh my, I am getting old! While i find the cultural implications of this style interesting, I hope that as adults these young women embrace the traditional beauty of the Japanese woman. Fun for the young ones though, no doubt about it!

    • Well… I could imagine that the traditional ideas of beauty carry plenty of cultural baggage, I guess you have to have a few reactionaries to shake things up every now and then… The Ganguro (or any Harajuku) look is not the norm… It’s very much a subculture. But still very interesting…

  5. Well, why the heck not dress in Harajuku fashions? It hurts no one, it is modest, it is fun, it is a safe way for individuals to express themselves in a culture that does not value individuality. I like the pastel, cotton-candy versions the best. Cannot see myself ever dressing that way, but then I am a 53-year-old plump matron from the southern United States. The ultra-femininity of ruffles, lace and pretty soft colors get expressed in a whole ‘nother design philosophy here. We DO have the giant hair wearers still, but the blue/lilac/pink rinses for white-haired ladies haven’t been seen since the 1970s (except on Dame Edna Everage, and only then on television).

    • I think that there is a subtle misperception about Japan-I wouldn’t say that Japanese culture does not value individuality, rather, it’s just that it’s not individual-centric. Maintaining the good of the family (and the ancestors) is more important than personal ambition, for example. Selfishness is strongly looked down upon.

      I’m wondering if the Harajuku scene is still going on now? Or has it been subsumed by Cosplay? I wouldn’t wear either, but I did see a fascinating pink cupcake-like dress by Comme des Garcons in an exhibit awhile ago. Beautiful details.

      • That “not individual-centric” emphasis on maintaining the good of the family and ancestors is also a strong cultural theme among old Southern families! Girls and women, especially, are urged to fit in, to stay in the background, to not embarrass the family, to be neither seen nor heard. That’s all I meant about a culture that does not value individuality — traditional Japanese culture is not so very different from traditional agrarian culture in the U.S. Older women in my community are often quite vicious in their condemnation of any woman who defies their expectations of what a “good girl” should say and do and wear. (They presume that I share their indignations. I do not.)

        • Sorry, I probably didn’t say that so well! I lived in Texas for a few years when I was young. As a kid in the 1970s, I was fascinated by the beautiful skin and bouffant hairdos of my teachers. They had the ultrafeminine look mastered, for sure. I was a bit too young to get a good sense of culture, but I think I know what you mean. I guess the way I wrote “not individual-centric” sounds similar in some ways, but it is a bit different in Japan. For example, sexual mores are quite relaxed by American standards, so there isn’t really a good/bad girl thing (The stereotype of a submissive Japanese woman must be a Hollywood-made myth I think). In regard to “traditional Japanese culture,” I have only experienced that in the Tohoku region, which may be a bit different from the rest of the country. Tokyo, of course, anything goes.
          Anyway, I agree about the fashions–I wouldn’t be caught dead, but it’s great to see it on someone else!

          • A more collective mindset, as it were… I don’t think that rampant individualism is the best way to run a society, but collectivism has its problems too… Very interesting… :)

    • I think you’re so right, Lin! And I believe the cutie pie pastel stuff is called “Kawaii” or something like that.. You live in the American South, right? I grew up in that region… Well do I remember the floral prints and big hair… And I’m sure some of the older ladies in our church had purple/blue rinses.

      Jen- my mom was super impressed by the cultural homogenity she saw when she was recently in Japan… It sounds quite interesting, very different. I never lost my childhood curiosity for understanding the way other cultures think… Very interesting…

      • Kawaii means cute in Japanese. On the other hand, Kowaii means scary. It’s kind of hard to hear the difference; hilarious possibilities…

        I think that the homogenity is most interesting in regard to social values. There is not a gulf between groups of people like we have in the U.S. right now.

  6. I do love Harajuku styles—I’ve always loved out-there fashions, be it Punk, glam, goth, whatever. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I first heard of Harajuku girls via Gwen Stefani, and of course was utterly enchanted. My favourite are probably the goth lolita looks, but they’re all fun.

    I was quite delighted, a year or two ago, to see two would-be (white) Harajuku girls on the train here in town. Not quite the degree of pink frilliness you see in the photos, but still very distinctive and recognizable…

    I do wonder where these kids get the time and money to make/acquire/put on those crazy outfits…

    • My brothers studied Japanese in highschool, studied abroad and one of them moved there after college… I guess I’ve always been more or less “aware” but I do well remember Stefani’s Harajuku Girls. :) “You Harajuku girls… damn you got some wicked style…” Such fun.

      Well, I think the cost of the outfits would be the same for any other subculture… You can shell out $$$ for pre-fab outfits or you can put them together yourself with little bits and pieces… Usually the latter is much cheaper and better respected, I should guess it’s more or less the same with them…

  7. I have to say this is one of those phenomenon that I know very little about but find strangely alluring. I love the confidence of these girls to pull together a look that is very different from the norm. Perhaps they have something to teach us all?

  8. When I was in Tokyo last time (maybe 2years ago now) there were very few harjuku kids hanging out on the bridge on Sunday, I think all of the publicity has made them move onto somewhere new. Also I have a few magazines called Gosu Rori (Goth Lolita) from Japan. Full of patterns to draft and make your own goth Lolita clothing. I made a really awesom jacket from one of them.

    • Neat! I’d love to get my hands on magazines like that, but it’s tough when I don’t know the language… :)

      Hmmm… I couldn’t say, since I am not in Japan, but the Harajuku fashion blogs and Tokyo fashion seem to be updating pretty regularly….?

  9. The other day, six lasses walked into my shop, all dressed in the Lolita style. We tried to agree upon a collective noun – I like ‘flounce’ – a flounce of Lolitas (Lolitae?). Most of them visit us individually from time to time and I find the look delightful, but to see SIX at once, the impact was very impressive.
    There is a website called fanplusfriend.com that sells a lot of the clothes, including a rather intriguing take on a kimono with the full skirts and fitted waist. :)

    • How lovely! I like that- a “flounce” of Lolis… That website is amazing, I can’t believe they have panniers and frock coats and top hats… and the stockings! Thanks for pointing them out, MrsC!

  10. I just wish they had latched onto a different name than ‘Lolita’! The original Lolita of Nabokov’s novel was an 11 year old kid who wore Tshirts and shorts. What she wore had nothing to do with her becoming the victim of a pedophile. Sexualizing children and pedophilia are not harmless, and I know that no one here has said anything remotely so. But my brain gets all tangled up and my hackles rise that the movies and fashion have co-opted that word -Lolita- so thoroughly that we are supposed to forget its beginning. Sorry to burst in on an otherwise enjoyable post!

  11. What about Gwen Stefani’s take on the whole thing? She appropriated the look for one of her albums (she even had dancers dressed in/as (?) Harajuku–aptly named the Harajuku Girls–touring with her) as well as a line of clothing for little girls that’s sold via Target here in the States… http://www.target.com/c/harajuku-mini-for-target-brand-shop/-/N-5al7m?ref=tgt_adv_XS000000&AFID=googlestr&CPNG=harajuku+minis+search+2012&adgroup=harajuku+general&LNM=Gwen%20stefani%20harajuku&MT=broad&LID=28p4259827&KID=6e2a247b-744b-2449-9abe-00001da7625f

    Personally, I find it to be a fascinating sub-culture for the simple reason it seems to be speaking back to social and cultural constraints and expectations. What I do kinda get icked out by, however, is how Harajuku translates to things like graphic novels, anime, comic-cons etc. where it IS incredibly sexualized–you see a lot of images/young women dressed in incredibly revealing “Lolita” gear. The clear demographic for these modes of consumption aren’t young women (so much) as they are young men. So Harajuku becomes a sort of costume in which the innocence of young women is made a sexual commodity for both the characters within the books/movies as well as the young men reading/watching.


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