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Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno: Tokyo Teen Fashion Subculture Handbook, by Patrick Macias and Izumi Evers, illustrations by Kazumi Nonaka. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007, 148 pp., profusely illustrated, $16.95 (paper)

Fashionable clothing on young women is often seen as an indication of the state of society itself, and is hence to be celebrated or deplored. In any event, it is to be emulated until the ensemble of the week successfully adorns just everyone — at which time the outfit is no longer fashionable.

Past fads, however, leave visible trails and these may be subsumed to indicate a history, a geological deposit, the layers of which specify something about the recent past. That is accomplished in this popularly written “greatest hits of Japanese schoolgirl culture and fashion.”

From the early 1960s through the mid-’90s to the present, the iconographic outfits are illustrated and discussed. Many of us can still remember an early manifestation — the colorful, baggy-trousered Takenokozoku kids of Harajuku (circa 1979, named after a Shibuya boutique), some 5,000 of whom gathered every Sunday to dance their lives away.

No longer. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government stopped the merry-making by deciding that Sunday-only “Pedestrian Paradises” (where the dancing occurred) were counterproductive. With cars back on the street, youngsters were forced elsewhere. Many went down the hill to Shibuya to mull new fashions.

The most notorious examples of cutting-edge teen fashion then occurred. Who could forget the way school uniforms were “customized,” socks ever longer, skirts ever higher? Memory still preserves the “Kogals,” who combined loose socks with super-mini school-skirts, wore brown contact lenses in their artificially tanned faces, sported PHS phones, and had a penchant for “enjo kosai,” which the press gingerly translated as “compensated dating.”

Even more memorable were the later “Gonguro,” who carried fashion statement to a new nadir. As the authors here state: “If the Kogals looked tanned, then the Gonguro looked burnt beyond all recognition.” In addition, contact lenses went sky-blue, skirt hems went stratospheric, footwear became gargantuan and felt pens were used for eye-liner.

The Gonguro look attracted such media attention that the following fashions began to look feeble. There was the Mamba (name derived from Yamamba, a folklore Mountain Hag) epithet of the Gonguro. These went crazy for Hello Kitty and liked pink hair extensions. Also they accessorized their features (the only space left on their bodies) with stickers of stars, rainbows and smiley faces.

Such creatures are still around, as are the “Gothic Lolitas,” the “French Maids,” and the “Shroud Girls.” All, however, have been more or less eclipsed by the “Material Girls.” These are a product (like everything else teen-fashionable) of the Shibuya 109 shopping complex, a place where designers in the lairs churn out this stuff.

The Material Girl with a bow to Madonna has turned herself overt rather than covert shopper and makes consumerism itself a fashion statement. In so doing she may have lowered the character of teen fashion (the authors think so), but she has also plainly indicated the commercial base of these cultural (even anthropological) manifestations.

The outfits exist to be purchased. Once purchased, they are to be noticed. To be noticed is the aim of the customer. The authors spell it out. “Back home they are faceless nobodies. Being plucked out of the street to have a picture taken for a magazine held the promise of an ‘I am somebody’ moment of redemption. The rush had to be obtained any price.”

Mix in that need for membership and solidarity that so many feel, with the illusion of being somewhere on the cutting edge, and a powerful commercial appeal is generated. It is the successive waves of this enterprise that are chronicled in this book.

Informative and lively (“the result is a uniquely Japanese look, somewhere between a sushi chef and a patriotic auto mechanic”), this book presents the shards of our fashionable past with panache and a very real affection. What it all indicates regarding the state of society is up to you.

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