What makes a Piece of Clothing 'Fashion'

Philomena Keet, PhD candidate, School of Oriental and African Studies

FRUiTS magazine

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.


  1. For years now, I’ve had this complicated love/hate relationship with fashion. (Fashion as a concept, as an art form, as an industry, etc.) Coming from the States, I have found that my primary frustrations come from the fact that no one ‘dresses’ anymore. Fashion has become in so many words – too easy and is somewhat devoid of originality; style is something learned from the editorial pages of a glossy, and couture is apparently a company that makes two-piece jumpsuits. Japanese street style amongst other things has kept fashion alive for me. Fresh, complex, conceptual and at times overwhelming – what marvels me about it is the fact that it is quintessentially its own language; rule governed with its own lexicon. One of the main things that I can appreciate about Japanese street style is the fact that certain “genres” of it has an element of consciousness. I don’t know a lot about it, but from what I read in books and gleaned from discussions with acquaintances – my understanding of some Japanese styles is that its not only about the embodiment of cool, avant-garde, theatrical pageantry and kitschy garments, but of a set of ideologies and identities. (Correct me if I’m wrong in any of this.) For example, the wardrobe of a Gothic Lolita primarily consists of doll-like and Victorian inspired pieces that are either black and/or white. Their choice of colors (or lack their of) is reflectant on the idea that the world is composed of equals and opposites. Cause and effect. Night and day. Life and death. From one extremity to another – there is (for lack of a better phrase) no grey area. On the other hand, other Japanese “genres,” like the followers of hip-hop music tend to be a bit more “surface” when it comes to their dress and their identities. As it was referenced in Patrick Neate’s book Where You’re At, hip-hop culture in Japan is learned from a textbook. Unlike hip-hop culture in the States – whose conception was in the sound systems of New York, and is kept alive in the hearts, minds, and urban pedagogy of its enthusiasts – the Japanese appropriation of it tends to only reside on the surface, it’s a look and an attitude that’s admired for its coolness factor. All in all, it really makes you wonder weather or not the person makes the clothing or if the clothing makes the person. I’m interested in seeing what information and conclusions your book has to present.

  2. Hi Philomena
    My name is Verónica Durán and I´m a current student in Fashion Design in Buenos Aires University (Argentina). I was making some research over the internet in order to recollect some material on the topics of “gothic lolitas”, FRUiTS, and japanese street style in general. The point is, I´m supposed to write a paper (in fact, something more like a monography) for my university, on a subject of my choice. I´ve choose this area because I always liked the subject and wanted to do something about it, but sadly, I came to know there are little chances to get some valid material here in buenos aires. Almost all the material I´ve been able to recollect are internet links and some pictures, but I need something more serious and “academic” as a valid source, if you know what I mean. Reading at your post, it seems you´re very informed on the subject. Is there any chance you can reccomend me some interesting material I can read and use for my research?
    I would really appreciate that.
    Thanks in advance.

  3. Great Blog….This is a good blog the writer makes several great points….I enjoyed to be here because one of my point has been cleared here…..the posts are also great….

  4. I used to lived in Tokyo. I was always amazed by those young people who dress in very edgy clothing. It is like you see all kinds of edgy people if you go to Harajuku. I guess their fashion is to express their identity. Japanese society still has old expectancy or rules that people think people should follow. For instance, graduate from famous college, and get a job at famous company. But a lot of young people are not finding their freedom and identity in it. That’s why they spend so much money, time, and effort to look dramatically different from everybody else. At least that’s what I think…

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