ジェンダレス系 / Genderless Kei has been a fashion trend prominent on Japanese social media since 2016 or so, even though androgynous tendencies have been around in Japan even in the medieval period. It is a style that questions the established gender binary and challenges the ideas society generally has about what it is to dress like a boy or girl.
Big names in the Japanese fashion industry have been talking about it for years: androgyny in fashion. The avant-garde designers from the 1980s brought a distinct Japanese style to the catwalks, standing out because of their ambiguity gender-wise.
However nowadays, androgynous or genderless fashion isn’t exclusively haute couture. The streets of iconically fashionable Harajuku don’t shy away from experimenting and crossing the established boundaries either. The tip of the iceberg is social media, instagram posts by known genderless figures (the likes of Genking, Kondo Yohji) or fashion spotters (such as @tokyofashion), featuring fashion students and enthusiasts wearing long shapeless fabrics, experimental makeup and atypical hairstyles.
But where do these trends come from?
Japanese history (or human history in general) has not always been distinctly split into men and women, and neither has fashion. The traditional kimono can even be seen as un-gendered from a structural perspective, as designers Takeshi Kitazawa and Emiko Sato stated in an interview. Besides, the male/female and masculine/feminine dichotomy in Japan might even be considered relatively new.
To demonstrate: in the medieval Edo period (stretching from the early 1600s to 1868) the male/female binary wasn’t as embedded into the Japanese brain as it was in our Western societies.
For example, the so-called wakashū (‘beautiful youths’), androgynous adolescents often presented as lust objects for both men and women, can be seen als Japan’s 17th century “third gender”. Often, it were these youths that played the onnagata roles in kabuki theater, too. Because women were not allowed to play in kabuki theatre, their roles were taken over by men and wakashu, therefore called onnagata (literally “women-role”). These actors started to impose a new beauty ideals for women to look like and men to desire for. Apparently, many female sex workers cross-dressed like these wakashū, copying their specific hairstyles and mannerisms, as their androgyny was a desirable feature to their clients.
After Western intervention in 19th century Japan, though there were new Western influences on the rise. But no hundred years later, in the 1920s, we see the new image of the Modern Girls and Modern Boys, moga and mobo respectively. They discarded their traditional kimono and joined the new culture of consumerism, going with the trends in Western, not Japanese fashion. The modern girl wore short skirts and a cigarette between her lips. She was sexually liberated and independent, not lagging behind in the coutures of the housewife and good mother, as tradition required. Representing a free spirit, she imposed a danger according to intellectuals, because she was not interested in politics or social movements, only in fashion and sex. They wore bob-cuts and trousers, and most importantly a different mindset towards fashion.
Ever since the second World War, the Western trends started to seep through even deeper in Japan. People replaced their kimono for casual Western jeans and t-shirts.
Two very big names emerged after the postwar period. Influenced by this era, they became known to be two avant-garde designers that had an enormous influence on the entire world of fashion: Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. They brought a new idea of genderless fashion to the main scene, a new style unknown to Western fashion. In one of his many publications, Yohji Yamamoto writes: “In my philosophy, the word androgyny doesn’t have any meaning. I think there is no difference between men and women. We are different in body, but sense, spirit and soul are the same.”
Another important influence is a new Japanese trend from the 90s onward, named ‘visual kei’ or ‘visual rock’. The name originates from the catchphrase of a rock band called X (“psychedelic violence/crime of visual shock”). The rock scene was mainly dominated by men, whose prominent makeup and costumes were an important characteristic of their style. The meaning of ‘visual kei’ has since then evolved to a general fashion trend. As the term suggests, it is all about the visual image, the most important aspect being makeup, which is a thing nowadays only women are “allowed” to wear - though makeup worn by rock musicians is not always feminine. Men’s makeup industry boomed as visual rock swept over the popular music scene, which realized male aesthetics in general. X, who is seen as the legendary founder of visual kei, had an image that could be seen as both masculine and feminine, with the fluid image of leader Yoshiki switching between male, female and androgynous fashion.
Though visual kei did not at all revolutionize the established gender roles (male and female fans of visual kei were extremely segregated), it did give men a place in the beauty industry, paving a way for…
… Genderless kei. Boys wearing makeup and skirts, girls doing the opposite. The beauty community is being claimed by all genders, and the influence of perfectly groomed K-pop stars and manga characters sure have an influence as well. But generally, it means that “men don’t have to look like men, and girls don’t have to look like girls”. In essence, genderless youth just wear whatever they want, not looking at the men’s or women’s label at the store. Just like Yamamoto and Kawakubo, rock band X and even medieval youngsters at Edo, they change the established boundaries of what people are supposed to look like according to their gender. Gender is a social construct anyway, and in the end, clothes are only pieces of fabric.
- Clarke, Ashley. “ジェンダレス系：インターネットに復活する原宿ファッション” i-D. September 13, 2016. Accessed May 26, 2019. https://i-d.vice.com/jp/article/8xn7pp/genderless-kei-harajuku39s-online-fashion-revival
- Frank, Priscilla. “The Androgynous ‘Third Gender’ Of 17th-Century Japan.” HuffPost. April 13, 2017. Accessed May 26, 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/third-gender-japanese-art_n_58e6a18ce4b0585892c9c078
- Frank, Priscilla. “Contemporary Artists Are Reinterpreting 17th-Century Japanese Erotica.3 HuffPost. July 4, 2016. Accessed May 26, 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/contemporary-artists-reinterpret-17th-century-japanese-erotica_n_57053c0ae4b0a506064ddeab?guccounter=1
- Nichols, James Michael. “Japanese Youth Are Fearlessly Embracing The Genderless Fashion Movement.” HuffPost. December 7, 2017. Accessed May 26, 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/japanese-youth-genderless-fashion_n_59665a5fe4b09b587d644107?guccounter=1&guce_referrer_us=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_cs=qXoPnKCkKXNDHdAEynZE0w
- Thomas, Samuel. “DressedUndressed: Beyond Genderless Fashion” The Japan Times. March 19, 2018. Accessed May 26, 2019. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2018/03/19/style/dressedundressed-beyond-genderless-fashion/#.XLCUlegzbIV
- English, Bonnie. Japanese fashion designers: the work and influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. Oxford ; New York : Berg, 2011
- Lancaster, Roger N., Di Leonardo, Micaela (editors). The Gender/Sexuality Reader: Culture, History, Political Economy. New York : Routledge, 1997.
- Sato, Barbara. The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003
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Article from edited volume:
- Inoue, Takako. Constructing Male Aesthetics in Rock and Makeup: Gender Strategies by Musicians and Fans of Visual Rock in Japan”. Gender and Modernity: Perspectives from Asia and the Pacific. Melbourne : Trans Pacific Press, 2003
- “i-D Meets: Tokyo's Genderless Youth”. Directed by Taichi Kimura. Produced by Naoya Watanabe, Taro Mikami, Benedict Turnbull. Accessed May 26, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrYJE1sFVd8