Bold, Blonde and Beautiful?: Gyaru Fashion and Style

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My last street fashion-centric article for Otaku Lounge being on Japan’s lolita subculture back in October, I thought it might be time for a look at another trend, and one which might even be considered by some as the antithesis of lolita fashion at that: the ever-evolving gyaru style.

Like a great many other Japanese street fashion trends, gyaru (the Japanese pronunciation of the English ‘gal’) began sprouting up during the 1980s and reached a peak during the mid and late-90s – although the name itself originated from a 1970s brand of jeans called “gals” advertised with the slogan, “I can’t live without men.” While the jeans themselves soon became a less significant part of the overall gyaru look, the general style became popular enough that it produced its own sub-categories under the umbrella of gyaru fashion, such as ganguro, kogyaru, and bibinba, among numerous others.

The common element linking all these different styles together is a strong sense of what might be referred to as a particular kind of ‘glam’: big bleached hair, a lot of artificial tanning, long fake lashes and nails, and make-up that typically makes very heavy use of pink rouge and pale tones of eye shadows and lipsticks. The early ganguro style, for example, took what might now be considered the default gyaru look to the extremes, with skin so heavily tanned it was the colour of mud, and hair so intensely bleached that it was more grey than blonde. Other adherents were interested in more of a rough-girl image, and went a bit easier on the make-up to instead indulge in large amounts of gold bling and a hip-hop inspired feel.

The kogal look, one of the most noted influences on gyaru fashion as a whole, popularised shortened school skirts, baggy white socks held up with sock glue, and Burberry scarves. They were also particularly known for their devotion to conspicuous consumption, attaining their brand-name goods by mooching off their parents or, in some cases, engaging in enjo-kosai (compensated dating). Promoted by pop stars of the likes of Amuro Namie and Hamasaki Ayumi, these kogals were cited in newspaper ‘exposés’ and made cameo appearances in all manner of media, from anime and manga such as Detective Conan, Great Teacher Onizuka, and Gantz to Western films like Kill Bill. Like the American Valley Girl of the 1980s, kogals – and by extension gyaru as a whole – were all about living the high life as easily and as obviously as possible.

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To some, the gyaru style therefore was and still primarily is based on a vapid shallowness and unabashed materialism. However, others consider gyaru to be a force for good; unlike some stereotypical views which label the Japanese as largely serious-minded, overly formal, and emotionally repressed, gyaru are sometimes perceived as a positive contrast. Fun-loving, outgoing, and bravely independent, it’s no surprise that fans of gyaru style look at the style as an encouragement of freedom and spiritedness in the face of the regulations and constraints of Japanese society. An example of this kind of viewpoint can be seen in Gals!, a shoujo manga serialised between 1999 and 2002 and released in anime form as Super Gals! in 2001-2002. Its main character, a self-identified kogal named Ran, is ditzy, obsessed with anything trendy, and often persuades guys to buy her what she wants. However, far from being mean-spirited or promiscuous, Ran actually has an embarrassment of intimacy and is often seen as a role model by her peers – a gyaru who rules the streets of Shibuya with a strong spirit of justice.

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Indeed, one possible reason as to why gyaru fashion became so popular despite its sometimes ‘unattractive’ style lies in its core ideals of non-conformity. Prior to the youth culture boom of the 1980s and 90s in Japan, fashion for women was still largely restrictive. Moreover, traditional Japanese standards of beauty have long since revolved around pale skin and, as far as women are concerned, a soft-spoken and delicately feminine manner. It was once considered unquestionably rude and even downright uncivilised for Japanese women to bare their teeth while smiling; some women are still today in the habit of covering their mouth when they laugh. The gyaru subculture was, at least in part, a rebellion against the norms of the past and a celebration of a newly-discovered autonomy. Models in gyaru-orientated fashion magazines like Popteen, Cawaii! and Egg grinned widely and stuck out their tongues.

Adherents of the more extreme variations on gyaru such as ganguro weren’t dressing and acting this way because they thought it looked pretty or sexy – in fact, for a lot of young women the whole point was that it didn’t. Girls weren’t necessarily out to get dates, but instead to differentiate themselves. As a result, the louder and more provocative you appeared, the cooler you were. Of course, the downside to this was that as soon as everyone began mimicking a trend like ganguro, it ceased to be a statement of individuality and instead became just another type of conformity. Girls were forced to one-up their peers if they wished to remain apart from the crowd, but since there’s only so darkly tanned and so heavily made-up a single person can go, this inevitably lead to the end of the road for many gyaru devotees.

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Nonetheless, the gyaru style today is still alive and kicking, albeit in slightly different forms. Kogal culture, which began to die down in the last of the 1990s, rebounded after a few years with a more adult image of sexuality – less teen club-girl and more high-flying socialite. Ganguro, which began displacing kogals during the later 1990s and early millennium, died down shortly afterwards but spawned sub-styles of its own like Yamanba and Manba, both more colourfully flamboyant versions of ganguro with a pseudo-Hawaiian feel. For gyaru who had since moved on from school and the single lifestyle, magazines such as I Love Mama popped up to fill in the gaps, featuring gyaru models with children and supplementing fashion tips with housekeeping and parenting advice. Some magazines also released “older sister” versions of the original publication, as with Popteen and PopSister, so that readers could “graduate” from one magazine to the next as they and their fashion tastes matured.

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So, where to from here? The subculture no longer seems to be the ground-breaking movement it once was, although time has also proven that while the gyaru look might wax and wane quite dramatically over the years, the style itself never dies out completely but rather spirals off into new directions almost by accident. As long as the space exists for the consumer-conscious youth of Japan to gather and inspire one another to new heights of fashion, as in Shibuya, Harajuku, and Ikebukuro, then the gyaru look is likely to continue to exist and evolve right alongside them.

Question of the post: What do you think of the gyaru style? Are there any particular gyaru sub-styles that you either really like or dislike?

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6 thoughts on “Bold, Blonde and Beautiful?: Gyaru Fashion and Style

  1. Pingback: Exploring Enjo Kosai | OTAKU LOUNGE

  2. Very interesting. I appreciate your tie in of Japanese street fashions to character designs in anime. I thought gyaru was just hideous but your take on it gave me reason to respect it- mainly that it was about challenging old conventions imposed on women like “cover your mouth while smiling.” I think I could hang with a bunch of gyaru after all. BTW: I don’t know a thing about the sub-styles that have spun-off from gyaru.

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂
      I personally don’t like the look of gyaru fashion either – I honestly think the whole aesthetic is pretty ugly, and even if I didn’t that would just never be my kind of style – but yeah, I think it’s definitely possible to respect something while not actually liking it. This type of fashion makes a whole lot more sense to me when I consider the fact that for a lot of people, it’s probably not intended to be beautiful but instead a statement about gender and beauty norms.
      At some point I might take a more in-depth look at some of the substyles that came out of the whole gyaru fashion/lifestyle.

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