Fashion is a major component of Japanese culture. From the refined elegance of a silk kimono to the avant-garde displays of street style, Japan is a fashion destination. Delve into the history of these seemingly opposing moments in style — and discover how to experience them firsthand.
Refined Elegance of Tradition
The kimono has been an essential element of Japanese culture since the 8th century. This traditional form of dress is rich with symbolism and style, making it a globally recognizable garment. To this day the kimono is held in high regard throughout Japan and regularly influences fashion around the world.
The name translates from ki, or wear, and mono, or thing. A kimono’s T-shape is typically sewn from four pieces of fabric and worn with layers of undergarments before being finished with an obi, or belt. While a kimono was formerly seen as everyday attire, they are now reserved for special occasions such as weddings, festivals, or ceremonies.
While images of elegantly patterned kimonos with bird or floral designs may come to mind, there is meaningful variety in the adornment of a kimono. Men’s styles are often more subdued in both color and pattern, while women’s styles range greatly. Fine silk kimonos with rich colors and detailed embroidery are a luxury, and often a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation. The color of a kimono holds deep meaning connected to whatever plants were used to make the dye.
The yukata is the kimono’s less formal counterpart. Made with the same design, it is usually cotton and is often worn as a light robe around traditional ryokans (a type of inn), as well as when going out for summer festivals and fireworks. Shops throughout Tokyo sell kimonos and yukatas. As the process of dressing in one of these garments is unfamiliar to many, there are also shops that will also rent garments to tourists who wish to truly step into Japanese culture. There is an art form to properly tying the obi, a practice that the shopkeepers have perfected.
While iconic, the kimono is far from the only form of traditional dress. Still popular today is the hanten — a short, quilted jacket typically worn over a kimono in colder months. If attending a festival, visitors are likely to spot the happi, yet another is a short coat. A happi is lightweight and casual and often paired with a matching headband. Often a bright blue hue, it is also commonly worn by shopkeepers.
If you’d like to buy your own traditional clothing, there are two places just outside the city where traditional dress is more common — and there are certainly shops to find a suitable garment souvenir. Asakusa, a district of Tokyo, often draws visitors thanks to its old-world feel and mesmerizing temples. Nakamise-dori, or Nakamise Street, sits near the beautiful ancient Sensō-ji temple and is bustling with traditional craft shops and street-food stalls.
Nakamise-dori, near the beautiful ancient Sensō-ji temple is bustling with traditional craft shops and street-food stalls
Another easy day trip from Tokyo is Kiryu. Set between two rivers and surrounded by the Akagi Mountains, Kiryu has been a textile manufacturing town since the 8th century — making everything from everyday garments to textiles for nobility. Silkworms from the mountains provided raw material while and canals redirected water from the river to drive water wheels necessary for silk throwing machines. After 1300 years, Kiryu is still one of the world’s major producers of high-quality woven fabrics. The Kiryu Textile Museum and Textile Museum Yukari outline the region’s rich history.
Iconic Harajuku Streetstyle
The Harajuku district of Tokyo has a vibrant history as the streetwear epicenter of Japan. Immortalized in fashion magazines worldwide and captured in real-time across social media, Harajuku style is a varied and personal expression. Some believe the district’s youth are rebelling against cultural norms before adulthood, while others simply see creativity and a sense of community. Either way, Harajuku has earned a reputation for introducing the world to an array of distinct styles.
While there are countless subcultures that have long informed Harajuku’s iconic fashion, a few stand out as particularly influential.
Teens show off their street style in the Harajuku district
Lolita, with its seemingly Victorian-era lace and layers, has many subcultures within the style. From sweet, country and sailor, to gothic, classic and hime (princess) there are many interpretations. Consistent throughout are accessories like knee-length dresses and parasols, as well as an overall desire for things considered sweet or vintage-inspired. Many who ascribe to the Lolita style avoid alcohol and coffee, instead opting for tea parties with friends.
Kawaii, or cute, is a joyful style often laden with accessories and typically features lots of pink. Like Lolita, there is a lifestyle component to Kawaii. For those who ascribe, it focuses on the fun of all things cute. Kawaii style does not shy away from playful clothing or vibrant hues.
Today, some of the most popular streetwear of Harajuku includes goth grunge, a dramatic take on the long-standing look that features accessories like veils and layers of highly structured clothing. The ‘E-girl’ or electronic girl aesthetic is also rising in popularity — drawing inspiration from early 2000s fashion as well as rave culture. Interpretations are as unique as the individual, but these looks typically involve silvery references to outer space and quirky accessories.
Enjoying these and the many other influential fashion movements within Harajuku is as simple as walking the district, which is located between the Shinjuku and Shibuya wards of metropolitan Tokyo. Cafés and restaurants cater to the area’s fashionable residents and tourists, offering truly unique aesthetics and experiences. Take for instance Pompompurin Cafe, where Sanrio’s adorable golden retriever Pom Pom Purin comes to life amid themed food and decor. Takeshita-dori, or Takeshita Street is a pedestrian-only area lined with trendy and often independent shops as well as enticing food stalls.
The culture of Harajuku has shifted since its emergence as a streetwear haven in the 1990s. Some of the subcultures that birthed the most popular styles are becoming increasingly mainstream, and more designer influence can be seen in the district. Fashion movements may change, but Harajuku itself stands as a style capital and draws global attention to the creative flair of its residents.
Be it traditional or cutting edge, Japanese culture appreciates the beauty and creative expression of fashion.
A traditional Japanese kimono