A group of teenagers in colourful Harajuku style.

Harajuku Fashion: The Most Eye-Catching Style of Clothing in Japan

Harajuku, a district in Shibuya, Tokyo. The area is approximately around the Harajuku station, between Shinjuku and Shibuya on the Yamanote Line. However, the name carries more than just a geological meaning. Harajuku fashion is probably the most eye-catching scene in the streets, along with countless fashion stores. Harajuku fashion derives from Japanese teen culture, and it, in turn, supports the development of teen culture and becomes a symbol of rebel, outrageous spirits. It was once very influential that it affected mainly Southeast Asian countries and the west coast of the US.

This blog will tell you the history related to the most recognized fashion styles in Harajuku and the reasons why Harajuku street fashion is slowly dying out.

The Origin of Harajuku Fashion

A photo of teenagers with pastel coloured hair wearing mixed styled clothes in the Harajuku style.
An example of Harajuku street fashion – Image Credit: Rebels Market

Harajuku fashion was once trendy during the 1990s and early 2000s. But its existence can trace back to the early 1980s. Harajuku became famous in the 1980s due to the street performers and wildly-dressed teens who gathered there on Sundays when Omotesando was closed to traffic. Omotesando is a very long street with cafes and upscale fashion boutiques popular with residents and tourists alike. Once it became pedestrianised on Sundays, people would gather there for meet-ups. Tokyo has long been known for its expressive and cartoonish styles and its Harajuku district as the gathering place for the most flamboyant and eclectic youth tribes of all. This cradle of sartorial eccentricity, full of fabulously inventive teen subgroups, boomed in the 1990s.

Harajuku Spirit: Break the Norms

It did not have a specific trend for Harajuku fashion in history; rather, it is a mix of numerous Japanese subcultures. This feature has made Harajuku street fashion extremely diverse and free for creation. A mixed style of fashion is usually seen – you can be in lolita fashion, be in gyaru fashion, or be both of them. There is still some consensus when discussing the common features regarding the Harajuku fashion style; they are all very bold in using colours and symbols from different styles, either domestic or foreign. Notably, while men dominate most fashions, Japanese fashion styles are female dominant, especially Harajuku street styles.

Harajuku fashion is nothing about mainstream fashion. Harajuku fashion did its job well as a type of street fashion to identify wearers from the mainstream. There are barely any guidelines for people to follow because Harajuku fashion is total freedom. What and how you dress is just a self-expression. In Harajuku, no one will judge your look. Because everybody looks weird – or, everybody looks normal. It is rebellious in all senses. These creative Japanese teenagers broke the rule where shops and brands deciding what to sell to the people. In Harajuku, the teens decide what the shops and brands should sell to them.

Street fashion also shifted the primary focus from professionally designed styles to the general public. After all, most of us cannot afford to consume luxury brands all day. But we can create our own fashion using whatever elements we fancy, and we can break the norms together. That is the concept of Harajuku fashion.

Iconic Street Harajuku Fashion Styles

As mentioned above, Harajuku fashion does not have a specific guideline for people to follow. Rather, it is more like a mixed showground of many subcultures. Each subculture group has their own dress code and ritual. But it is also ok to have several subcultural elements presenting at the same time! Let’s look at some most recognized Harajuku subculture groups, and you will have a general concept about them.

Lolita Fashion

A group of girls wearing lolita fashion in Tokyo.
Group of girls wearing lolita fashion in Tokyo – Image Credit: Red Ducks Post

Although the lolita fashion looks like 18th to 19th-century western clothing style, it is originated in Japan. The fashion is inspired by Victorian clothing and styles from the Rococo period. The name “Lolita” does not link with the Lolita Book or movie. The origins of Lolita fashion date back to 1960s Osaka. During the 70s and 80s, the trend grew, giving rise to clothing brands. By the 1990s, the Lolita style was already a well-established streetwear subculture with followers all over Japan and internationally. The Japanese cuteness culture heavily influences the lolita fashion. Wearers aim to dress as living dolls. They are easy to spot in the streets because the lolita fashion is very colourful. They usually wear wigs and other heavy headwear, such as big colourful bows and bonnets. It is a common style in Harajuku fashion.

Gothic, Classical and Sweet lolita wearer collection. Gothic girl in black, Classcial girl looks elegant and Sweet girl in pink.
Gothic, Classical and Sweet lolita wearer collection – Image Credit: Arch Ziner

Lolita Fashion Categories

There are many subgroups under the lolita fashion as well. The main three categories are sweet lolita, gothic lolita and classical lolita. Sweet lolita usually wears pastel colours such as pink, blue and yellow. The patterns on the dresses are cute baby animals (kittens, puppies, baby squirrels, unicorns…), fruits (apples, strawberries, cherries…) and flowers. A lot of laces and bows is a must. Gothic lolita takes a heavy influence from the Eastern and Victorian Goth styles. Gothic lolita wearers prefer deep, dark, and sultry colours. Crosses, bats, vampires, and spiders are common elements for them. Victorian iron gates and architectural designs are also often seen in their ghoulish and spiritual clothing.

Classical lolita might be more suitable to wear in daily life, as their style is closer to 19th-century daily clothing. There aren’t many patterns and heavy decorations, and the colours are muted. Unlike gothic and sweet lolita wearers often make themselves like living dolls, the overall look of classical lolita is more “grown-up” and mature. It is not too dark nor too sweet. But for Harajuku fashion, who cares about the colours or “is it OK to wear them outside”? Harajuku fashion is all about creativity!

The rebellious “dolls.”

As a lolita fashion fan myself, I must say this style is a norm-breaker. Japan has a conservative social environment, especially for women. Japanese women barely have any power when facing the strong masculine culture. The Japanese culture prefers submissive, quiet and home-oriented women, which has long been limited to women’s self-development. However, the lolita fashion brings them a way to express themselves without interference from men. One of the leading lolita fashion figures in Japan, Aoki Misako, being single in her late 30s, still wears lolita fashion as her lifestyle fashion. It is absolutely abnormal in Japan that a woman stays single in her late 30s, yet she dresses like a young maid.

Recently, Aoki Misako was in an interview to reveal her true daily life to the public. I remember clearly that lots of Japanese men rejected her just because of the way she dressed up. Although she has a decent job (she works as a nurse) and her personality is great, the judgy society in Japan can still push her away. She insists on wearing lolita fashion every day as it truly reflects her personality and the way she wants to be. The lolita fashion is not 100% favourable to men’s tastes. Therefore, it is the fashion that escaped men’s glaze and empowered women to be whoever they want to be under the girly perspective.

Gyaru Fashion

Girls with typical Gyaru fashion style. Blonde hair, tanned skin and mature looking high school girls.
Girls with typical Gyaru fashion style – Image Credit: Suki Desu

The Gyaru fashion, however, contrasts with the lolita fashion. This word originated from the English “girl” and the slang “gals” to refer to beautiful girls. The gyaru fashion was first created to cater to Japanese men’s tastes. It is affected heavily by western culture, as gyaru fashion wearers prefer to bleach their hair to blonde or lighter colours and tan their skin. It is completely different from the lolita fashion because gyaru wants to be more feminine and sexy. Their clothing is more mature as it was what Japanese men wanted – exotic sexy blonde ladies.

But soon, gyaru fashion started its own revolution. Girls made their skin even darker, had more curls on their hair, exaggerated false lashes, white-coloured makeup, shorter and shorter skirts, highly decorated nails…The fashion exaggerated the traditional elements that men thought women should have and became another major trend in Harajuku fashion. Things went downhill when the gyaru fashion began to be associated with inappropriate things. Over time the idea of independent and rebellious gyaru became a cuter style.

There are a lot of subgroups under gyaru fashion, too, such as Shiro (gyaru who don’t tan their skin, as in white), Kogyaru (high school uniformed gyaru), Gyaruo (boys in gyaru style), Onee gyaru (older women with gyaru style)…It is also a rebellious move of Japanese women fashion. The gyaru fashion has everything catering to men’s tastes, but all of them are exaggerated to a sky-high level, which is a bit ironic, isn’t it?

Visual Kei

The famous visual kei band named Versailles.
The famous visual kei band – Versailles – Image Credit: Visual Kei Encyclopaedia

Japanese bands formed in the 1990s and early 2000s usually adopted visual kei as their fashion. As its literal meaning, visual kei bands are all about their looking. I’m not saying that their music is not good, but their appearance is certainly more impressive. Visual kei styles themselves with varying levels of make-up, elaborate hairstyles and flamboyant costumes. They looked similar to Western glam rock, but they made their own fashion style. Some leading visual kei bands are X Japan (the pioneer), L’ Arc-en-Ciel (glam-rock aesthetics), Versailles (French Rococo style) and The Gazette (glam rock style). Their music styles are usually heavy metal or punk rock.

The visual kei bands first appeared in the 1980s, and the name “visual” came from X Japan’s album. Visual kei fashion then experienced a big bang during the 1990s; however, the booming success lasted for 4 years. There was a major decline in visual kei bands in the early 2000s, as they started to gain public attention, but the novelty soon worn off.

If the gyaru fashion and lolita fashion are rebellious moves by the Japanese girls, visual kei bands will move for the boys. Not gonna lie; my boyfriend is a big fan of Versailles’s guitarist. He used to copy their clothing style and haircuts but unfortunately, he had a little budget to support his fashion when he was still in high school. But he learned the electric guitar, and guess what, he is actually so good at it! Other than their look, the visual kei band fashion makes music speak too. Heavy metal music is often emotional and is also a good way to express thoughts.

Kimono Style

Two girls smiling to the camera in the street-adapted kimono fashion. Street adapted kimono fashion is much more colourful than the traditional kimono.
The street-adapted kimono fashion – Image Credit: Kyoto Kimono
The street kimono style is a transition from the traditional kimono culture. It is also common in Harajuku fashion. When adapting the traditional kimono style, the creative teens add many colours and modern patterns to vintage kimonos. Both men and women can be seen in this style. Many shops are selling these adapted kimonos to the younger generations online, often featured with a big, eye-catching “Oni” pattern – a Japanese folklore monster.

Making changes to traditional ethnic clothing is definitely a rebel label. Compared to the three fashions mentioned above, the street style kimono seems more gentle in breaking the norms.

The Dying Harajuku Fashion: “No More Cool Kids”

The FRUiT magazine front page by Aoki Shoichi. It is a photo of a teenage girl in Harajuku street style.
The FURiTS magazine by Aoki Shoichi – Image Credit: i.d.vice

According to the pioneer photographer Aoki Shoichi, Harajuku street fashion is slowly dying nowadays. Aoki Shoichi runs a street fashion magazine called FRUiTS. The magazine was once very influential for recording Harajuku street fashion and outstanding photo shooting skills. Aoki believes that the Harajuku fashion was a fashion revolution in Japan in the late 1990s. However, in 2017, he shut down the magazine. Aoki said: “There are no more cool kids left to photograph.” One biggest reason is the government gave permission for traffic in this area. Harajuku arose because there was no traffic at the weekends, but now the traffic has affected this gathering mecca for creative young people. Harajuku fashion lost its canvas, and “cool kids” don’t have a place to present themselves anymore.

Another reason is the rise of cheap and fast fashion. Harajuku fashion styles are expensive – as younger designers boldly use colours and fashion elements to express their opinions. Cheap and fast fashion such as Uniqlo, H&M and Zara make the competition unfair. People would certainly choose cheaper options rather than paying more to look “weird”. Also, Harajuku street fashion has gained popularity in the mainstream culture. Aoki thought it was the end for Harajuku street fashion because the freedom of creation was lost. Retailers started to commercialise street fashion clothes, which were meant to be unique. After that, the original value of Harajuku fashion of being a rebel and fighting against norms has been lost with mass commercialisation.

The Japanese traditional culture has been an obstacle too. The tradition always requires people to be submissive and suppressed. No self-expression, don’t be the one who is different from others, listen to the mainstream…The mainstream looks down on Harajuku fashion because they don’t want their kids to be different. The acceptance of Harajuku fashion is generally low in society. Even though people always praise those who are brave enough to break the norms, they will choose to be good sheep and never fight back when it comes to themselves.

Conclusion

Although Harajuku fashion has been lost in commercialisation, it is still valuable to the fashion industry as it provides lots of new thoughts and creative ideas from Japanese teenagers. We should always remember the value of Harajuku fashion – never compromise to what you believe is wrong and always express yourself in your own style. People should have the courage to break standards and create their own norms. 

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