I’ve been visiting Japan off and on since 2011 for many reasons including weddings, work and birthdays, and over the years I feel like I’ve been able to somewhat witness the various iterations of street style that have become popular in the capital. I’m not here to talk about the famous Harajuku style that’s become somewhat synonymous with Japanese fashion across the world. In fact, many would argue that a lot of that has been co-opted and destroyed by corporations (no surprises there), resulting in the magazine FRUiTS shutting down in 2017 due to there no longer being enough ‘cool kids’ to make up content for the publication. No, no matter how experimental I might be that’s not been the kind of styling that I have the ability to curate. I’m here to share the things I’ve learned about body positivity and active choice from Japanese street style.
From my first trip, off peak in August where it was busy, but quiet, to last month, prime sakura season and crawling with tourists, I’ve been paying interested attention to what I’ve seen on the streets of Tokyo. Back in 2011 I particularly remember noticing how feminine the style was, floaty dresses, ruffled sleeves, and lace abounded. Jump forward seven years, and it was something different that struck me.
In ten days, I only saw one person wearing skinny jeans.
Just one! I was amazed. Having been born in 1993 I barely remember a time without skinny jeans; I witnessed many a fashion faux pas of the early noughties but was slightly too young to participate in them myself, meaning that by the time I was shopping for myself the super low rise trousers were out, and it was skinny skinny skinny all the way. And even if we’ve moved away from the myspace era of shrinking your jeans to literal skin tight levels, skinnys are a pretty solid staple in most adult wardrobes here in the UK. On any given day in London I’d hazard a guess that you would see a minimum of twenty people wearing them.
And yet, I hate them. I wrote about this just a few days ago but, until very recently, I have never found jeans that fit me. I’m all thigh and no ankle, nothing fits me in a way that I like. It’s really only been in the last two months that I’ve gotten over this properly, because for the longest time I literally didn’t have any other options. It was only when I turned 25 that I was able to let a lot of this stuff go. I realised that in multiple areas I was just letting life happen to me, instead of actually making choices based on what I want and prefer, and I decided it was time to change that.
Since making that choice I’ve made several changes, big and small, that have helped me feel more like me. I sat down and thought about what I value and what matters to me, and I’ve made choices based on that, not on what anything else dictates to me. I’d been able to do that pretty easily when it came to sustainability and ethics, but I had to take that mindset and apply it to the other ways I live too. When it comes to styling I’ve never been one to shy away from mixing minimalism and print or colour and neutrals, but I always felt constrained by silhouette.
We’re inundated with media that tells us how to dress to flatter our body, what silhouettes to avoid and to indulge in. Shows that tell us how to hide parts of ourselves, to make ourselves as small as possible to the outside eye. Now I’m not saying this is wrong, it can be super handy information to know, but I had to think about why I was choosing the shapes I was choosing. Was it because I liked them, or because I felt that I had to present my body in a specific way for the world? I think it’s fine to want to flatter our shape if it’s what we want to do, but I don’t think doing it because we believe our bodies are inherently flawed and we need to ‘dress them up’ some way is helpful. In fact I think it’s pretty toxic. When I was in Tokyo this April I looked at all the street style around me and all I could see was oversized. Comfortable and interesting slouchy silhouettes abounded, and people looked great. I’m pretty average height and size for Japan, and the women who were similarly shaped to me didn’t look drowned by fabric or strange. They just looked good. This isn’t to say that the women of Japan had some magical confidence ability I don’t, but just that it was the first time I’d seen that trend anywhere, and seeing it on bodies that are the same size as mine showed me how much of this had been in my head. I made my mind up: I’m going for silhouettes and shapes because I like them, not because I feel I have to dress a certain way.
The opportunity to test this out came sooner than I planned, as a few days later I found the most interesting pair of trousers in a vintage store in Shin-Koenji. I was drawn to the print and quality of the material (I think the fabric may originally be cotton from Liberty in London, but we can never know for sure), but when I first tried them on there were some surprises in store. Firstly there were slits in the legs which, while initially unexpected, turned out to be a pretty cool feature for warm weather situations. Secondly, there was so much fabric. Maybe I could take them to a tailor and get them narrowed a little? Maybe they were just a bit too much?
But then I reminded myself of my actual priorities, the questions I should actually be asking. Were they sustainable? Durable? Good quality? Did I actually like them? The answer to all of the above was yes, so who cares whether the silhouette is ‘on trend’ or makes me look as thin as possible?
I want my styling to be an outward expression of who I am as a person, not something I do to fit expectations.
So I went for the great trousers! And you know what, no regrets. I know this is always going to be easier for me to say as someone who meets society’s standards for conventional attractiveness (slim, white, able bodied etc), but I still hope some of these ideas will resonate with you too. I want how I dress to be fun and representative of who I am, I want to enjoy it and feel free. And the best way to do that is to choose things because I want to, not because I feel I have to.
So thanks fashionistas of Tokyo! Not only did you all look great, but seeing you rocking those silhouettes that I’d always held myself back from gave me the confidence to be more free in my fashion too.
Photos by Gianna Scavo