Once sign of rigid conformity, girls’ sailor suits now a fashion statement

by May Masangkay

Kyodo News

For Japanese schoolgirls, the school uniform has gone from being a glaring reminder of rules and regulations to a trendy fashion statement.

“When I go out, I change into what pretty much looks like a uniform, but it’s not my official uniform,” says a 15-year-old girl, who calls herself Ami, in central Tokyo.

“I know of girls who wear real school uniforms, but not theirs,” she said. “Why? It’s cute, cool and fun.”

One would think uniformed schoolgirls get enough of wearing their plaid skirts or sailor-style uniforms most of their waking hours.

But not Ami. She and a teeming number of her fellow high school girls, or “joshikosei,” are capitalizing on their position as teen fashion trendsetters with their daily school wear, donning it after class and even during holidays.

“High school girls’ uniforms have evolved into a kind of brand, which the girls relish, enjoy and experiment with to the hilt because they honestly find the uniforms cute and fun to wear,” said Haruyuki Maruya, manager of the store Live.

Located in the Shibuya district’s towering 109 apparel complex, which is known as a mecca for high school girls, Live sells a wide range of miscellaneous goods to teens.

The store began selling ribbons to go with school uniforms in December 2001. Feedback was favorable and since then items on the shelves have come to include plaid skirts, blouses, bags, socks and other school uniform accessories.

Maruya, 44, recounts how his proposal to sell the ribbons — then a novel concept — was not openly embraced by his colleagues. Now, the ribbons are hot sellers. He is proud Live was a pioneer in selling such items when no other store in 109 would.

Due to the initiative of the likes of Live, coupled with the influence of teen idols, popular magazines, including Seventeen and Popteen, TV shows and word of mouth, teenage girls’ penchant for wearing real or imitation school uniforms for fashion reasons has gained steam.

“We exchange ribbons among ourselves, and we all get fired up talking about them,” said a 16-year-old Tokyo high school student. “They become an interesting subject to discuss among friends, and they connect us to each other.”

Rika Kayama, a well-known psychologist versed in youth culture, attributes this phenomenon to a change in girls’ perspective of school uniforms over the years from being uncool and oppressive to something fashionable and liberating.

“Since around 1980, school uniforms, especially those of private schools, have been remodeled to become more attractive,” Kayama said. “Also around this time, the uniform’s association with rules was shed, and students began to see the school as a kind of brand.”

The students began wearing their uniforms and carrying school bags as status symbols, with some girls even wanting to go to certain schools just for the uniforms, according to the 44-year-old psychologist, who is a regular guest on TV shows where she comments on youths, pop culture and social issues.

A 15-year-old high school girl put it this way: “Being bound to uniform regulations actually makes it more fun when there are no more rules, because then we are free to do whatever we want. It is a matter of how we can modify and enjoy ourselves within the school-wear restrictions.”

Motoko Yokoyama, spokeswoman for clothing brand Comme Ca Boys, put the school uniform trend in the perspective of European “trad-fashion” (traditional fashion), which Comme Ca Boys has promoted.

Yokoyama said Tokyo-based Comme Ca Boys began selling such fashion “as part of its trad-fashion business” even before school uniforms became vogue, noting Euro trad-fashion’s popularity stems from the quality and timeless appeal of finely tailored clothing.

“There is a reason trad-fashion is loved by people of all ages,” Yokoyama said. “And I believe it is this enduring appeal of traditional fashion, which is neat and exudes class, with the current young generation arranging ‘trad’ in its own contemporary style.”

Apart from its appeal in terms of fashion, freedom and history, Kayama believes another underlying factor lies in the “value attached to being young in Japan.”

With high school fashion trends coming and going like lightning, stores are perpetually reinventing themselves to cater to the whims of their style-obsessed schoolgirl clientele.

But despite the uncertainty in the booming teen fashion market, Maruya sees the school uniform trend enduring due to its “mass appeal.”