How does one get inside a girl’s head? This rueful question must have occurred to many people recently on hearing reports of the death of a 25-year-old woman in Kanagawa Prefecture after she tripped and fell while wearing sandals with 10-cm-high cork soles. To observers of the elevated-shoe fad over the past year or two, the news comes as no surprise. All those young women tottering about on platforms high enough to park a train at are accidents waiting to happen — and accidents ranging from minor scrapes and bruises to serious fractures evidently do happen every day. This may have been the first death associated with the trend. It is, however, the last straw. What, it is time to ask, are these fashion victims thinking?
In the first place, they are thinking (if that is the right word for it) that they look gorgeous. This is not something that can be debated rationally. Older, wiser people may not see a pair of skinny legs wobbling along a slick pavement atop 20-cm-high sandals as a thing of beauty. They are more likely to react to the sight with a mixture of mirth and alarm. Yet look at the expressions on the wearers’ faces. These girls positively beam with pride and self-satisfaction, especially if they are sporting not just platform-sole shoes — the higher the better — but the contemporary full dress uniform: ash-gray or sulfur-yellow dyed hair, orange tan, tattoo jewelry, a skimpy dress and a teeny little backpack. And who is going to persuade them that they do not look gorgeous? Fashion, after all, was ever thus — strictly in the eye of the beholder.
But there is more to this sheeplike behavior than mere aesthetics. Even more important to the young than the illusion of beauty is the solace of conformity, the imprimatur of their peers. There is nothing more nerve-racking to the unformed personality than the awful obligation of deciding how to present oneself to the world, and what the world sees first is the outer shell: the hair, the clothes, the shoes, the bag. What to do? Look as much as possible like everyone else, obviously. Then one can blend into the crowd, relieved and happy, all thought and individuality suspended. If the crowd, for some mysterious reason, is wearing small skyscrapers on its feet this year, considerations of comfort and safety will be brushed aside in the rush to join it on the heights. And if the crowd declares that such monstrosities are beautiful, then for a season or two, they are beautiful. The crowd rules, OK.
It is easy to mock the folly of young conformists in such instances of extreme irrationality as platform-sole shoes and nipple rings. Yet a moment’s thought shows the extent to which we are all enslaved by fashion, broadly considered as custom. Women might be thought worse off than men. Fashionable shoes still squeeze and contort their feet; high heels continue to wreak havoc on feet and backs; stockings, invented by misogynists, are still “de rigueur.” And it is surely only custom that makes pierced ears seem less of a mutilation than a pierced tongue.
But men are tyrannized by petty fashion conventions, too. That useless article of clothing, the tie, maintains its stranglehold on male necks, requiring buttoned collars even in the hottest weather. The suit itself, with its jacket and long pants, is a ludicrous outfit for summer. Yet we all go along with the crowd, almost as heedless of comfort or common sense as those teenagers we write off as mentally challenged.
“Contagion,” as the wise Frenchman Michel de Montaigne remarked long ago in a context far removed from that of modern Shibuya, “is very dangerous in a throng. . . . Who does not willingly chop and counterchange his health, his ease, even his life, for glory and for reputation?” Last month’s sad and needless accident in Kanagawa reminds us that these truths can apply to even the most apparently frivolous aspects of our lives — and apply more broadly than we like to think.
As for what Montaigne had to say about clothes, he is on record as wondering why we human beings wear any at all, since we come into the world without them. It can hardly be just to fend off the cold or we would take pains to cover our most delicate parts — eyes, mouths, noses and ears. The alternative to clothes, he says naughtily, is not unthinkable: “We can easily see that it is custom which makes some things impossible for us which are not really so.” Now there’s something for the fashion queens of Shibuya to think about next summer.
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