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Expression as Camouflage in Japanese Fashion

                   (Main image Vogue.com: Comme des garcons Spring 2019 )

   出る釘は打たれる – “The nail that sticks out get hammered down.” (Japanese saying) 

As many Western fashion followers will attest, the catwalk can provide inspiration and ideas. And yes, technology makes the high street even better positioned to mimic catwalk looks. However, the practicalities of daily life mean that designer-informed asthetics are difficult to maintain for those with day-to-day concerns, especially in a melting-pot culture like Europe where being truly different is a harder game to play.

In Tokyo, street fashion practitioners have long looked to and also past the runway for ideas. The historical and modern feed into each other and are useful reference points for those looking for inspiration or an understanding of how (old and young) Japanese dress, and how designers are also influenced by these factors.

Lets begin with the idea of costume, an inherently (though not exclusively) expressionistic concept in the West, wrapped up in modern/existential notions of individuality, revealed through metaphors and motifs that tell us – through a scrutinizing critical community – much about the artist her/himelf. 

A classic example in Europe might be Jean Paul Gaultier (“I like when dreams become reality…”) for whom costume and characterisation are central tenets of an approacch that helps embolden the individuals wearing his creations. Yes, his clothes are highly stylized, but they are created with the intention of framing and eroticizing the female form – to make what is present more pronounced.

Not all of Gaultier’s creations are as such (his Spring 2019 collection even embraced aspects of Japanism) but note below the tight waist anchoring a v-shaped bust area to create a revealing frame of the chest for neck and face.

By contrast, the Japanese sense of costume, while equally pronounced, is undertaken with a different set of values and cultural expectations. We’d have to go back to Japan’s interest in Noh theatre (where masks and elaborate costumes are worn) and Kabuki (where heavy makeup is worn by a male playing the female role) to understand that camouflage, while expressionistic, is one of the main roles of this form of dress.

The Japanese proverb 出る釘は打たれる best illustrates a way of thinking in a culture – still partly parochial  – where adherence to accepted social codes is paramount. In such an environment, where expression becomes only superficially tolerated, greater gravitas is placed on visual transgressions and (paradoxically) the need to hide.

Japanese couture and street styles are highly influenced by this sense of ‘masking’ – designer Chitose Abe’s Sacai label frequently incorporates camouflaged army fabrics or pieces that appear (from the front, for example) to be one thing, but are completely different from the rear. The melding of incongruent colours and patterns and male/female silhouettes is another way she creates a sense of unity and visual beauty by shifting attention away from the singular self. 

Likewise, fashion’s street-elite on Tokyo’s Omotesando Dori use hyper-realised concepts that hide their ‘true’ selves (see below):

In conclusion, Western enlightenment culture has helped create beautiful garments whose role is to frame and accentuate the best in the individual. In Japan, where people are often expected to hide their true selves, beauty can be found in the layers that lead to but also temper identity. 

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