Daniel Robson on the rise and fall of girly fashions
Japan has always had a male-oriented culture. Even today, men get paid better than women, have more opportunities, demand more respect, and are the prime target of the entertainment and sex industries.
But it is getting better. And one reason for that is the efforts of the gyaru.
The term “gyaru” is a Japanese transliteration of the English word “gal” and these days is kind of an umbrella term for style-conscious young women who worship high-street fashion. But its various subcultures and factions have helped shape the perception of the fairer sex in Japan over the past two decades in weird and wonderful ways – sometimes for the better but ultimately... Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The first gyaru began to appear in the early 1990s. Unlike most fashions, the kogyaru (“young gal”) look was not spread by mainstream media, but supposedly grew organically with young girls from affluent families sexing up their school uniforms before going out with their friends. Kogyaru would raise the hem of their skirts, wear floppy “loose” socks and show off a little flesh that was lightly tanned at salons. Think Gogo Yubari, Chiaki Kuriyama’s character in Kill Bill.
Around this time, Japan was heading into a frugal turmoil as its economic bubble burst – but the kogyaru were upper-class school girls with money and no responsibilities, so they bucked the trend by spending big on fashion.
The marketers took note. Before long, Shibuya’s then-ailing 109 department store was repurposed as the ultimate shopping destination for kogyaru, a status it retains to this day. And as the money rolled in, specialist magazines such as Egg, Popteen and Cawaii! became dedicated to covering the kogyaru craze, soaking up the advertising revenue in the process. They filled their pages with amateur models and purikura (print club) photographs sent in by readers. The whole thing was totally grassroots – for a while.
Now that kogyaru style was in the eye of the media, it exploded in popularity – and not just among young girls. Every dirty old man and his dog knew that Shibuya was now the place to spot hot young things who dressed increasingly like Julia Roberts’ high-class prostitute in Pretty Woman.
As the fashion spread to less affluent girls, reports began to appear in the media of enjo kosai, or compensation dating, whereby girls would go out with older men for money in order to buy clothes. Actually it’s unclear just how many of these compensation dates involved kogyaru, but in any case many led to sex, and the kogyaru began to attract unwanted attention from men.
And that’s when things got extreme. The hardcore kogyaru who had been there from the beginning were generally not interested in boys, and certainly not in old perverts. They’d been dressing up for themselves and each other, and no one else. And so in the early 2000s, the style made a shocking evolution.
Ganguro was that rarest of things: a fashion that was actively intended to not look sexy. While the fake tans favoured by kogyaru had gradually been getting darker and more exotic, the ganguro (and even more extreme yamanba) took it a step further, getting fake tans so deep they were practically burned to a crisp, at salons with names such as Blacky. Remember that in in Japan, pale skin has traditionally been the benchmark of beauty.
In addition to the blonde or ash hair colouring favoured by kogyaru, ganguro often went neon. And to ensure their features would stand out from their impossibly dark skin, they used white or silver makeup, painting their faces in almost tribal styles, or like the Joker in negative.
The effect was pretty startling. The specialist magazines went with it – after all, many of the original kogyaru were now ganguro and some even worked for these publications. The boys were repelled as planned, except for the hardier ones who developed the parallel gyaru-o style of effeminate clothing and overblown Bon Jovi hairdos that remains to this day.
But eventually the advertisers were repelled, too. Similar to the early punks in London some 25 years earlier, the rebellious ganguro were considered so repulsive by the mainstream that no one wanted to emulate them. By the middle of the decade they were all but extinct.
“Gyaru have changed,” says a barmaid at 10sion, a new theme bar in Shibuya staffed entirely by gyaru. “They used to have really dark skin and they were kinda dirty, but now there are all kinds, from very girly, fluffy girls to tough girls with strong tans.”
Indeed, gyaru has become the default mainstream look for young women today. In trying to keep their subculture for themselves and going ganguro, the hardcore gyaru were shunned; but the buying power remained in the immaculately manicured hands of girls.
Nowadays foreign and domestic brands such as Forever 21, Samantha Thavsa, Cecil McBee and Peach John do big business selling affordable style – not high fashion – to girls around the country. Avex singers Namie Amuro and Ayumi Hamasaki became gyaru icons; the kyabajo subsect took big hair and glamorous evening gowns to hostess and “cabaret” clubs everywhere.
Remember, gyaru is now an umbrella term that includes many subsets, but the common style notes include things like short miniskirts, preppy camisoles or T-shirts (often with English slogans on them), long fake eyelashes and even longer clickity-clackity nails, light-coloured hair with ringlets, stocking suspenders, slightly visible bras and, more recently, a discrete tattoo.
Because of their look, gyaru have also remained highly fetishized. While compensation dating is a thing of the past, there is strong demand for gyaru pornography, in which the stars are often debased in lurid ways. And at “girls’ bars” in every major city, men pay by the hour to indulge in conversation with gyaru, in a set-up similar to hostess clubs.
10sion is an obvious evolution of this, pitched somewhere between a girls’ bar and a maid cafe. Though it advertises itself as a place for likeminded gyaru to come and hang out and swap make-up tips with the barmaids (girls get in free), the clientele when I visited in July were all men, paying 1,000 yen per hour plus drinks to chat and flirt with the staff.
You might expect that sex is involved in an establishment like this, but it very rarely is. No, these places attract men in their droves because the women behind the counter are different kinds of objects, obliged to listen to their conversation, no matter how banal, and to flatter their egos. Their job is to smile and look pretty.
The fact that a place like 10sion can open in 2012 should tell you that the gyaru failed to make their subculture their own; their beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But then again, the original British and American punks now sell butter and car insurance on TV, so who are we to judge?
Yes, gyaru are exploited now by marketers, by pornographers, by letches and salarymen. But they are also probably the strongest group of consumers in Japan today, with brands vying for their every yen. And when you consider that the trend had consumerism and materialism (plus a scoop of rebellion) at its very heart, that’s a big deal.