June 12th, 2005


Style arena fruit shift

Most of the clothes snapped on the streets of Japan by people like Style Arena, FRUiTS and Shift are still cream, denim, black and beige. But flashes of colour appear here and there, and this might portend various things depending on who you listen to and the kind of story you're inclined to believe.

Chromatic Economist: Capitalism is by no means an exact science. We economists have to deal with volatile stuff like "consumer confidence", and of course investors pore over tea leaves, bird gizzards, quarterly figures... anything that'll help them get in early on a trend. So why not colour? In the 60s "hemline economists" said you could tell if the economy was heading for boom or bust by the length of women's skirts. So I'll stick my neck out here, show a bit of leg, and say that bland + beige = bust, bright + bold = boom.

Chromatic Geographer: Ha ha ha, "creative accountancy"! You're just reading the evidence according to your own agenda! This is all about geography. Study the latest style photos from Japan and you'll see a clear geographic trend: the brightest colours are currently to be seen in Sapporo (look at that lovely orange scarf!), then things get more subdued as we travel to Tokyo and all points south and west. Clearly, colour is arriving from the north and spreading towards the south. Now, the question is, how do we explain this? Do we use plate tectonics or adopt a human geography approach and test whether there might be some nomadic population movement going on, something related to transhumance, perhaps? After all, the last major style trend in Japan, ganguro, was due to a massive influx of yamamba, tanned mountain hags descending on the cities en masse, abandoning their animal herds in the high pasture...

Fashion Chromaticist: Honestly, what rubbish! You know nothing about style! We're talking about fashion, so use a fashion analyst, right? That's hardly rocket science, is it? (Rocket Scientist tries to butt in, but is bundled into test capsule and locked in.) Instead of seeing fashion as a mere index of money or migration, see it in terms of its own internal narratives: stories about colours, styles, revivals. Look at these photos. The colours you see are quite limited. There's mustard yellow, aquamarine in light and dark shades, violet and purple (really just different weights of the same colour), some red. The story in Japanese fashion over the last five years or so has been a reaction against the lurid manga styles of the 90s (with their violent synthetic pinks and oranges, electric blues and greens, all high-contrast and jarring). There's been an emphasis on texture rather than colour, with layers of beige, cream, fatigued and frayed denim, blacks and whites. Or else there's been a kind of linear op art energy generated by striped items and bright accessories. The 90s allusions to the funky 70s have mostly been replaced by 00s allusions to the formalist, frilly-yet-macho 80s, so we've seen fatigued, greyed-out versions of the Madonna / Cyndi Lauper look. This was mostly expressed without colour, but when colour was allowed, it's usually been some aquamarine or magenta item. Those are deliberately cold and acid colours which sit well with the aggression of a striped wristband, a skull belt, a black and white scribbly T shirt with a vaguely metallic motif. Green and purple are complementary colours, so they work well together. What's changed recently is that they've been joined by mustard yellow, and even some warm colours like red and orange, colours we haven't really seen on Japanese streets since the 90s. The mustard crept through in striped patterns at first, then, as if gaining in confidence, got more bold and blocky, covering entire garments.

Symbolic Interactionist: That's all very well, but you're not really explaining why this has happened. As a Symbolic Interactionist (here's my business card, curious to meet you) I want first of all to know the meanings of the colours in the minds of the people actually wearing them. Let's interview the subjects, seeking their explanations. Well, it seems we can't speak to the people in the photographs... but a Symbolic Interactionist is always prepared. I have a control group here. Hisae and Yukiko, what do these colours mean?

Hisae: The sailor look is coming back. That girl's yellow stripey skirt is sailor look, it's having some influence. If the Slow Life movement goes on I don't think colour is going to become popular, though, people will stick to plain grey, black and white. Japanese people love black because they have black hair, and black suits them.

Yukiko: There's two different types of girl, one loves to spend money on clothes and cares how she looks, the other prefers to spend more money on her life, buying flowers, passing time having fun and being fulfilled. When you look at magazines, some just show the new look, the others focus on life. Non-fashion-conscious girls prefer to use natural fabrics like cotton and hemp, sometimes stitching and customising their skirts, and they like to use earth colours and neutral tones. Aquamarine bluey-green has been a colour keyword recently, but it's only used for accents: an accessory, a shirt collar seen under other, more neutral-toned garments...

Animal Behaviourist: (Breaking in rudely) But you haven't explained the red! Our studies show that women dress very differently depending where they're at in the menstrual cycle...