Is “kawaii” fashion popular in France, too?

March 17, 2017

Is “kawaii” fashion popular in France, too?

Kyoko Koma
Associate Professor, School of Information and Communication,
Meiji University
 
Japanese manga and anime have gained international recognition for some time now. In addition, the Japanese media often report that “kawaii,” or cute fashion that originated in Japan, is also popular overseas now. This concept was also a feature of Japan’s “Cool Japan” strategy. However, is Japan’s “kawaii” fashion really recognized as the mainstream in France where the term “kawaii” has been adopted by the French media?
Formation and transmission of fashion altered by digital media

My area of study has been the formation and transmission of fashion in the Japanese and French media. As viewed from that perspective, we see that the way fashion (clothing trends) is formed and transmitted has undergone much change with the changes occurring in digital media in recent years, including advancement of the Internet, smartphones, and the advent of the Social Networking Service. First, we notice the “diversification in formation and transmission of fashion.” In Japan, from after the War until the 1960s, it was fairly common for people to gain knowledge of the fashion trends communicated by French haute couture (exclusive tailored clothing) designers through mass media. Mainly mass media and the companies that had access to media were ones able to transmit the fashion news. Such fashion styles were admired by all women who attempted to follow them. At the same time, in addition to fashion trends transmitted by mass media, there was a street style fashion that could be seen on the street. Since the 1970s pret-a-porter (luxury ready-made clothing) appeared on the fashion scene, leading to the diversification of fashion styles. However, there had not been a significant change in the flow of information in which mass media formed and transmitted fashion ideas, and individuals received those ideas. However, due to rapid development in digital media since the 2000s, individuals are able to transmit their own fashion styles and, therefore, multiple local fashion trends have gained popularity through these new media channels rather than by mass media. This phenomenon has been observed more worldwide than fashions transmitted from the street. Fashion culture in the present day using digital media appears to have several layers: Some designers offer fashion using SNS as their communication tools; some major fashion brands offer designs inspired by fashion posted by individuals on SNS; and some major fashion magazines introduce fashion posted on SNS such as Instagram as “digital fashion.”

When I consider fashion, it seems that fashion is a means by which individuals form an identity. Identity formation requires the involvement of others, and a person’s notion of “others” appears to be different with the advancement of digital media. We used to imitate others who were unapproachable, but whom we admired. Today, however, due to the advancement of digital media, we can transform ourselves into someone who is different from our normal self, and someone we admire by changing our appearance or modifying our image. And to gain recognition, we can bring our transformed ideal self to the eyes of many and unspecified others who did not exist before, and are still not present “in front of us,” either. As just described, the formation of identity by following fashion trends has also changed with changes in the media. After the War, the “New Look,” a fashion style created by Christian Dior, made waves across the world. Magazines featured the “Parisienne” in this New Look as examples to show how to wear long skirts. Although Japanese fashion magazines still use many Western fashion models, at that time they were beyond the reach of Japanese people. Nevertheless, some Japanese people tried to be like those they admired by imitating their fashion styles. We can call this a kind of desire for self-fulfillment. However, information on fashion has become more diverse through the advancement of digital media. And now, because many magazines use their readers to model for their magazines – an approach that would not be able to be found in France – magazine models are now within reach of those who are passionate about reaching out to them. Also, with the help of the technological development of the means for self-fulfillment, people’s personal desires appear to have grown stronger.

“Kawaii” fashion which was a hit with some groups of young French people

The advancement of digital media, on the other hand, has caused the spread of information that senders never expected. Although digital media can help form transnational fashion, it may also create a gap in intercultural understanding. One example is Japan’s “kawaii” fashion. In the 1970s and 1980s, some Japanese girls started using the word “kawaii” in various scenes. The original meaning of “kawaii” has changed significantly over time. Now, this word is used to express people’s feelings for a person or object they feel close to, regardless of any hierarchical relationship. Since 2006, especially, the Japanese media started to use the word “kawaii” for fashion observed on the streets in Harajuku, which is popular throughout the world. And the fashion has come to be called “the world-dominating kawaii.” In contrast, in 1998, the “kawaii” fashion was introduced for the first time in a French newspaper. The article called it “a little geeky fashion.” In 2014, when Harajuku Street Fashion was featured again in the same paper, it was introduced as “Japoniaiserie (meaning “Japanese dork”).” This term was created by mimicking the term “Japonaiserie (meaning ‘Japanese taste’),” which had an influence on European art in the 19th century. The article also asserted that this fashion would never be appreciated in Europe. Originally, France has been known for its “satire,” a humorous spirit of criticism. However, at the 4-day “Japan Expo,” a convention on Japanese culture in Paris which attracts more than 200,000 visitors, there are lots of fans who are dressed in the “kawaii” fashion. There is a difference of views between the appreciation by some young French fans at the Expo and public opinion formed satirically by the French newspaper. In 2011, when the “kawaii” style was featured prominently in the “Dictionnaire du Look” compiled for the younger generation, it was defined as “the children’s world; the world of kawaii the fans of Japanese culture and manga dream of.” According to this definition, the “kawaii” fashion is limited to a specific group of people and children. Similarly, the mass media does not perceive the “kawaii” fashion in a positive light, and views it rather critically and satirically. However, young people have direct access to fashions transmitted by Japanese youth via digital media, and have taken notice. Having overserved these behaviors of young people, the editor of the “Dictionnaire du Look” provided her own subjective interpretation of the “kawaii” style in her book.

Separately from public opinion formed by the mass media, it appears that some Japanese fashion is transmitted to others who do not share the language culture, and through that fashion, they come to understand Japanese culture. However, I think this may not be necessarily true. Rather, the “kawaii” fashion is interpreted, accepted, and transformed in the context of a different language culture, taking on a whole new meaning. And for that reason, a perception gap may develop between different cultures. The young French people I interviewed seemed to have entirely accepted the “kawaii” fashion, but most of them said they would not wear such fashion to work. They would wear the “kawaii” fashion on weekends, or for posting pictures on SNS. They tend to wear unusual forms of the “kawaii” fashion, which do not meet the French dress code or social norms, only in limited and protected spaces. When I asked them why they wear the “kawaii” fashion, many of them responded that they can just be themselves in that fashion. For them, the Japanese term “kawaii” has a completely different new meaning, apart from the original meaning. Véronique Magali , a French researcher, analyzed the discourses on others made by 19th-century French writers. In her analysis, she suggests that a behavior of “occupying” others in order to create and transmit their own new culture is a kind of oriental-stereotype behavior. I do not think young people in the “kawaii” fashion have an intention to “occupy” others, or to practice “oriental-stereotype” views that will generate inequality. The reason behind the popularity of the “kawaii” fashion is that it is a “sub”culture and can bring about changes that cannot be found in mainstream or normative fashions. The “kawaii” fashion is accepted because it is not the mainstream or normative fashion. This view gives us a picture: The “kawaii” accepted by some French young people has been recognized as the “world-dominating kawaii.” When this concept, quite different from the original meaning of “kawaii,” is accepted as another culture by the Japanese people, the definition of the Japanese term, “kawaii” will also change.
 

For the formation of culture liberated from Eurocentric views

The acceptance of such Japanese fashion in France is nothing new. The kimono, which gained popularity in the 19th century, was also adopted amid the tide of Orientalism shaped by Eurocentrism and the attempt to “appropriate” others. Likewise, in “Madame Chrysanthème,” a novel by Pierre Loti, Japanese women were called “mousumé” and depicted as “kawaii” and “small.” The “kawaii” fashion may also be considered to be one of these images of Japanese women even more than a century later. All these things considered, France has a history of bringing in Japanese as well as a variety of other cross-cultural fashions, and forming and transmitting them as their own to influence other nations. For example, as I noted earlier, the “kawaii” fashion was once critically and sarcastically introduced as “Japoniaiserie (meaning “Japanese dork”)” by one French newspaper. However, once it becomes adopted as a design source, and offered as new collection by a well-established French brand, the same journalist who wrote the article may affirmatively feature the “kawaii” fashion as a design source of legitimate French fashion. This type of representational behavior implies that certain types of representations of the Orient are still occurring.

In spite of the mass media’s critical and sarcastic view of the “kawaii” fashion, young people have shown a favorable response to the fashion as received through the use of digital media. I sense this is the beginning of a new trend. It does not mean the opportunity to transmit the right meaning of “kawaii.” You cannot force our culture to be accepted. Culture is said to be something that is passed down, or disseminated. Street fashion is replaced by mainstream digital media, and no longer creates trends that are different from what the mass media or major companies would offer. As I mentioned before, in a time of globalization, everyone followed the same fashion trends transmitted from the Western world, especially fashion trends transmitted from France. Unlike this, the formation and transmission of fashion are achieved by individual persons’ desire for self-fulfillment, or sometimes by transnational diverse stakeholders. The same can be said for the formation and transmission of culture. Currently, our government’s “Cool Japan” strategy focuses on how to attract the attention of foreigners in order to sell Japanese products. The modern version of the Japonism movement is also becoming a boom again. From a long-term point of view, it is important that we think about how we can form the Japanese culture, apart from the Eurocentric view and the view from Orientalism, and then communicate it overseas. In this regard, the manner in which the “kawaii” fashion has been disseminated gives us important clues. It is often seen in the attitude exploring the “post-kawaii” fashion accompanied by the Japanese aesthetic sense, to capture the interest of young foreigners. In so doing, we should not make the “kawaii” style a short-lived culture. Rather, just like the “kawaii” fashion that has been accepted by young French people, the new “kawaii” fashion should also be something desired by the younger generation, a generation that has no intention to “occupy others.” Once a fashion idea, along with its aesthetic sense, is reshaped, we need to take an approach by which we recognize it as our new “culture,” and patiently watch over it – I believe these efforts are necessary to increase international mutual understanding in the age to come.


* The contents of articles on M's Opinion are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.


Profile

Kyoko Koma
Associate Professor, School of Information and Communication, Meiji University

Research fields:
Regional Culture, Transnational Culture, Language Culturology, Discourse Analysis, Cultural Semiotics, Intercultural Communication

Research themes:

Reflections on the Formation and the Communication of Fashions in French and Japanese Media, Formation of “Culture” in Transnational Communication, Kawaii Cultural Notions, “Furansu to Ritoania niokeru shakaikihan toshiteno josei sei keisei no hikaku kenkyu” (Comparative Study of Women’s Sexuality Formation as Societal Norms in France and Lithuania) (Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (C): 2016-2019)
[Key words] Representation analysis, media discourse analysis, comparison of Japanese and French culture

Main books and papers:
◆“<Kawaii> no arukeoroji” (Archeology of “Kawaii”) (Authored by Kyoko Koma; forthcoming by Akashi Shoten)
◆“Dai 9-sho: Shojo – furansu josei dokusha no aidentiti keisei to kyarakuta no yakuwari” (Chapter 9: Girls – Identity Formation of French Female Readers and Roles of Characters) in “Anime/manga de rombun/repoto o kaku – suki o gakumon ni suru tameni” (Writing Papers and Reports Using Anime and Manga to Make Your “Favorite” Thing Your Studies) (co-author; edited by Shoji Yamada; forthcoming by Minerba Shobo)
◆“Sosho semiotoposu 9 go: Kiru-koto to nugu-koto no kigoron (Semiotopos Vol. 9: Semiotics of Taking on-and-off of Clothes) (multi-authored; Shin-yo-sha Publishing Ltd., 2014)
◆“Dai 276 kai nichibunken foramu: Megurikuru nihon bunka” (276th Nichibunken Form: The Japanese Cultural Merry-go-round) (co-author; International Research Center for Japanese Studies, 2014)
 

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