How low will they go? Plunging necklines meet social mores in Japan
Unless you’re living in a nudist colony, putting on clothes everyday is an inescapable ritual. We might feel embarrassed, or inappropriate when we expose too much skin, but also when we cover too much. The rules dictating what should or should not be revealed are deeply grounded in a socio-cultural context. The clothed body symbolizes our backgrounds, and communicates not only our preferences, but also our culture’s aesthetic ideologies.
But cultural norms are always in flux. On a global scale, we’ve already witnessed a number of political movements that used body exposure to convey their messages. #freethenipple, or SlutWalk, for example, pushed spectators to revisit their conceptions on the relationship between gender and dress codes. In Japan, however, body exposure is closely tied to the social setting, and how much should be covered is judged on a “TPO” (Time, Place, Occasion) scale. ‘Movements’ in Japan are not as politically charged, or confrontational, as their Western counterparts, but they nevertheless offer interesting views on uncovering body parts. Rizap and Crossfit, for instance, are two popular training regiments that openly encourage displaying the body as proof of one’s effort and commitment, regardless of gender or age.
Japanese perceptions of ideal body shapes are also in transition. Elle Japon proposes “まろやかシェイプ” (Maroyaka sheipu – mellow/round shaped), while Vivi magazine talks of “肉感” (Nikukan - meatiness), “ほてり感” (Hoteri-kan – glow) and “メリハリ感” (Meri-hari-kan – well-balanced) as the essential requirements for exposure-worthy bodies. Although this seemingly growing tolerance for rounder bodies may not be visible on the streets yet, it is already blurring the distinction between public, and private parts. In Japan, it used to be acceptable to only show skinny parts, but today, revealing more becomes a way to showcase one’s achievements and communicate a healthier and happier self.
These off-center perceptions on body exposure are also vividly reflected in fashion trends. Every season, Japanese women explore different ways of revealing parts of their bodies, be it a see-through skirt, open back top or crop top.. This year, they are being a bit more adventurous – with a top that daringly reveals their neckline to the shoulders. It seems to more of them have moved away from the traditional “コンサバ系” (Konsaba-kei, conservative style) look of high-collar top, mini-skirt and heels.
But does this trend genuinely indicate acceptance toward revealing more? Or is it simply a passing fad related to adaptation of Western fashion styles? To find out, we hit the streets of Shibuya and Shinjuku, and talked to a few girls rocking off-shoulder tops, in different styles. We asked them what they like about their tops, and how they feel about wearing it. We found that there is a conflict between what they find attractive and what’s accepted by their surrounding culture and society, and that they are finding unique methods to negotiate these conflicting views.
Rina, a 25-year-old PR specialist, said off-shoulder tops allow her to hide her arms, which she doesn’t like to show, while still feeling sexy.
“Off-shoulder top is feminine because it shows my bare shoulders and neck, without being too sexy or revealing.”
“Off shoulder tops hide my least favorite body part – my big arms. On the one hand, I think that letting my shoulder show is not that different from exposing my legs and arms. It’s not as provocative as showing my cleavage, for example. On the other hand, some people have very beautiful arms or legs, and some don’t. So people might be hesitative about showing arms and legs, but shoulders, not so much. I feel like everyone can feel confident about their shoulders.”
“I think more girls feel comfortable showing their body than ever before, and so do I, But when I see a girl wearing a deep slit skirt, which was quite popular a few years ago, I feel like “wow!” since it has become quite rare to expose legs like that today. I think there are certain trends that indicate what to show, and when it is not in fashion, it feels a little too revealing.”
Riho, a 24-year-old university employee, said that while she enjoys the new ways of baring her upper body as fashion, she also has to be aware of what people around her think.
“I have to think about who I’m meeting when I wear off-shoulder tops.”
“I like that it looks sexy but in a very subtle way. I think it‘s a new kind of eroticism that was introduced by makeup artist Shinobu Igari that’s been very popular in many magazines recently. Her makeup matches well with clothes that are a bit revealing, without being ostentatious or vulgar. It’s the eroticism that comes from inside, and it appeals to girls as well as boys."
"However, my sister told me I looked too promiscuous when I was wearing this top... so I guess this type of clothing is still a bit too revealing for some people. I wear it when I’m going shopping alone, or when I’m going out with my friends who also wear this type of clothes, and don’t judge me for being a bit showy. I also can’t wear this when I go out with my boyfriend, because he finds it too sexy.”
The rules of what to expose are constantly changing, and we are seeing a general relaxation in how much skin to flash. Yet, it seems like “TPO” still plays a dominant role in Japan, and people are carefully negotiating the social gaze when choosing what to wear, and what to show.
- Article by Ikumi Taneya and Yuri Okada