One of the most prominent features I will remember from meandering through the busy streets and alleyways in Tokyo is the vibrancy of the fashion in the city. It’s impossible to miss the (somewhat stereotypical) features of Japanese style, as depicted in trending anime and manga prints over the world. There are many recognizable ‘looks’, such as the controversial Kogal or ‘schoolgirl’ style, the ‘Lolita’ (a cross between Victorian and French late-Baroque Rococo fashion), as well as countless products featuring rounded handwriting, Hello Kitty or Pikachu icons. These are all elements under an umbrella of an aesthetic coined as kawaii.
Kawaii may be translated as the element of ‘cuteness’ or ‘adorability’ in Japanese culture. The origins of this style, seen as pom-pom hairpieces or even full wigs and costumes for the committed fashionista today, dates back as far as the early 11th century. A classic piece of Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki, used kawaii to refer to the “sentiment of pity and empathy”, as well as people who inspired this feeling. According to John A. Lent in his ‘Themes and Issues in Asian Cartooning’, the use and context of kawaii evolved over centuries from being tied to the vulnerable aspects of human bodies and emotions to be more firmly related to the attraction of children and females who were pitiable, sensitive and compliant.
For most Japanese women, being called kawaii is a compliment. Commercially, kawaii was, and still is, a hit – merchandise labelled as kawaii can extend from stationary and styles of handwriting to toys and fashion. Alongside kawaii outfits exhibited on young girls and women walking around bustling city streets alike, is the style of burikko, the appearance and in particular, behaviour, of a helpless and cute young girl. Burikko was coined in the 1980s by Seiko Matsuda, an idol in Japanese popular culture, and emphasises the childlike behaviours associated with cuteness displayed by many Japanese girls who dress in kawaii fashion. Whilst this appearance may be controversial in its sexual implications of being attracted to submissive, innocent girls, it is nevertheless apparent in many Japanese girls’ everyday attitudes and fashion choices. Categories of ‘cute’ fashion such as Lolita and Sweet Lolita feature ribbons, bows and lace, pastel colours and ruffled petticoats in imitation of innocence and beauty. Childhood characters such as Bo Peep, fairies and baby dolls serve as inspiration and affect the mannerisms of those who subscribe to these fashions.
Tokyo street style is embedded with cute culture, displaying a bold array of fashion characters, and serves as inspiration even to high fashion brands. Designer Shigeki Morino’s A/W 2015 Collection, whose target customer is the sensitive ladies’ man, takes from 1970s Tokyo street style in colourful striped suits and delicate tailoring derived from the essence of masculinity in female clothing. But the majority of kawaii fashion remains on a more affordable level, as numerous street fashion labels have adopted Lolita-inspired lines, with many Tumblr and Pinterest accounts dedicated to these styles.
However controversial the cute, submissive kawaii female is in popular fashion and culture, it has nevertheless served as inspiration to generations of Japanese young adults. Kawaii continues to be one of the most defining features of Japanese culture in general, and a fascinating phenomenon in fashion in particular.