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Anime Fashion: An Illustrated Guide

Updated on April 26, 2013

What are they wearing, and why?

Most often it's easy to understand anime fashion, afterall, mainstream fashion tends to be shared all around the world.

But on the odd occasion, when watching your favourite shows or reading your favourite manga, you'll find something that doesn't quite make sense.

Perhaps you've come across a teenage girl with apparently demure tastes, but an iron-fisted approach to life?

Or maybe a man who looks like a cross between a biker and an Elvis impersonator?

Curious as to what it all means or where it comes from? Read on!

Cute, yet deadly, in a scool uniform
Cute, yet deadly, in a scool uniform

School Uniform

The sailor outfit, and more...

So many anime are set in highschools that it's impossible to ignore this one! If you live in a country with the same system of uniforms (england, australia, china) japanese school uniforms will make some sense. If you come from a country where school uniform is rare or inexistant, the whole concept in itself is going to be foreign to you.

So the first thing you need to know, is uniforms are used to promiote social equality. Rich kids can't show off fashion, and poor kids can't be picked on for being poor- so you'll only see a little rich-kid vs poor-kid drama in anime compared to what you'd see in US teen drama.

The second thing is that, uniforms are very difficult to express or be fashionable with, so differences tend to focus on how items are worn, or what accessories they're worn with.

The uniforms I'll describe are worn by middle and highschool students. Younger children in Japan do sometimes wear uniform, but it's very varied. They do all wear brightly colored (usually yellow) hats when going to and from school, and boys usually wear black backpacks, while girls wear red backpacks. Even younger children in care-groups also wear colored hats, as a sort of uniform.

The highest rated high-school anime!

Sailor Uniform

The sailor uniform is based on British Naval uniforms (thus the 'sailor'). Sailor uniforms are popular uniforms throughout East Asia. In Japan, they are used specifically for girls, and are the traditional school uniform that is most associated with Japan.

Sailor uniforms in real life are usually dark blue, black, or white, with blue, black, white or red stripes on the collar, and sometimes on the sleeves or skirt. In anime they vary through many different colors and extravagant designs. 1, 2 or 3 stripes are all popular.

Sailor uniforms are less popular in real life. They used to be worn by all ages, but now are mostly worn by middle-school students.

In summer, girls usually wear a shirt with no sweater.

The little necktie that goes around the neck of the shirt is simply called a 'ribbon' in Japan. It can be a simple tie, or more stringy, or tied in a bow. A girl might give her necktie to a boy she likes.

Girls wearing sailor uniform have the option of extra sweaters. The long-sleeved sweater is for winter.

Girl's Western Style Uniform

Western style uniforms in anime used to show that a student was from an expensive school, but as sailor uniforms are falling out of fashion amongst high schools in real life, these western style uniforms are becoming more popular, especially amongst older high school students.

The blazer is the top layer for a schoolgirl's outfit. It is the smartest part of the uniform, so when all the characters in anime are wearing their blazers, buttoned up, it probably means it's a formal occasion, (that, or they're just very clean, neat people!)

The overall design is similar to an adult suit, with a white dress shirt and either a plain skirt or tartan skirt. Uniforms for girls include may a bow, string bow, or a necktie. A sweater may be worn in colder weather, or by shyer anime characters.

Schoolgirl Poll

Which do you prefer? Sailor uniforms, or western style uniforms?

See results

Girl's School Swimsuit

In anime you'll often see a girl wear her school swimsuit. This is a normal piece of student clothing- a blue swimsuit with a nametag on it. Those I've seen have been swimsuits for children in their early teens. It's odd for someone to wear them outside of school, and when they do this in anime, (which is very often) it's usually a poor or very studious character who does it. Anime sometimes has these uniform swimsuits in white, and worn by much older characters.

Gakuran

The 'gakuran' is based on Prussian army uniforms. The name means something like, 'western style study uniform' (gaku = study, and ran = west).

The color is black, or dark blue.

The feature which stands out the most is the stiff, almost chinese-style collar, and the way the buttons fasten down the front. The gakuran's jacket is the only real difference between japanese and western style uniforms for boys.

On gakuran, buttons are decorated with the school's emblem. Sometimes the buttons are replaced with a zip. Gakuran are sometimes worn with additional school pins at the collar, to show which school and class they go to. (I've seen anime where the girls wear pins, with the same meanings, on western style uniform)

The second button down is may be given to the girl that a boy likes,

The gakuran was traditionaly worn along with a matching cap. When you see this in anime, it usually means that the student, or the school he attends, is very old fashioned or rich. In modern Japan, this cap is very rare, though it is worn quite often by boys in grade school.

Boy's Western Style Uniform

A boy's western uniform is not much different to a gakuran. He wears a blazer as his jacket, and a tie. His school crest goes on the blazer pocket, and western uniforms vary a lot more in color than gakuran so the different school's uniforms are much more easily recognised.

It is quite popular to have a pair of pants in a different color to the blazer, such as tan or grey.

This goes beneath either a gakuran or a western style blazer. Boys like to leave their shirts untucked and their ties loose to try to be rebelious. Some will wear a brightly colored shirt that shoes through under their white dress shirt.

Under-Layers

Schoolboy Poll

Which boy's uniform do you like the most?

See results

Students' Opinions

Modified Uniforms

Everyone in uniform is meant to look the same... so when there is a difference, it is important! These are the odd things you might notice about a uniform, and what they mean.

By the way, if a character just wears their uniform messily... it's because they're messy. I don't think stuff like that needs explaining, does it?

With a set uniform and limited ways to express themselves, Japanese schoolgirls will resort to adjusting the length of their skirt and socks, and the lengths that are popular will vary over time.

However, skirts in anime don't always copy real life trends, and are more likely to be of a length which meets the tastes of the anime's target audience.

A girl with socks or a skirt that are of a different length to the rest of her class may very well be an unpopular or unfashionable student.

If her socks are neatly ruffled, she might be a 'Ko-gal'. A Ko-gal is a fashion-orientated girl, similar to an american prep. She's probably popular in some way, and she might get into trouble by trying too hard to be cool.

Thigh high socks are usually held in place by a built-in, small silicone band, which works amazingly. Socks without silocone, such as ruffled socks, are held in place by sock glue- a weak glue of similar strength to a glue stick.

The student president is recognisable by his or her red arm band, which has kanji on it. They like to follow the rules, so will wear their uniform correctly and neatly.

In Japan, student presidents actually have a lot of power, and get to decide which school clubs receive funding. In anime, the student president is often shown as a villain who abuses this power and causes trouble for other students.

Shoes

Shoes are the least strict part of a japanese school uniform.

The japanese do not wear shoes indoors, so schools all have special indoors shoes, which are white, soft, and very cheap. These shoes sometimes have a band of color on them, to show which class the wearer is in.

The most formal shoes that can be worn are black, leather, shoes- but white sneakers are incredibly popular, and allowed.

Student President

Crazy for Cute!

Japan loves cute! It is part of Japan's national identity, and there is a lot of focus on cute styles and brands. This is because childhood in Japan is very, very treasured, as it is a time in life where japanese people have the most free time. Adults often like to dress slightly cute and wear cute accessories, as it is an easy way to behave childishly that is not rebelious. This still happens in other countries- so you'll find it easy to understand, but it is more common in Japan.

Gang Girl 'Sukeban'

'Sukeban' means 'female boss'.

A female leader of an all-female gang, that, although no longer common in real life, is still a popular character type in anime and manga.

'Sukeban' (and their subordinates) modify their school uniforms by lengthening their skirts or rolling up their sleeves, and adding embroidery or odd colored accessories.

They may dye their hair, or emulate traits of other types of gangs. 'Sukeban' tends to be a cool, positive character in boy's anime.

The skirt's in anime are way longer than those that were worn in real life. I think this is to resemble 'hakama'. Hakama are a type of japanese skirt that used to be worn by men, it was long and pleated and in plain colors. In essence, if a japanese person sees the above character- because the skirt looks sort of like hakama, she actually looks more manly.

Lolita Fashion

The favoured fashion of female fans!

Lolita fashion is easily recognized by being a short dress with a distinctive bell-like shape.

Long examples exist, as do less puffy versions, but short and puffy is the norm (especially in anime).

The overall appearance of most wearers of Lolita fashion is doll-like, and some of the girls who dress in this fashion will very often aim directly for the appearance for a porcelain doll, including hair accessories, hats and parasols.

There are many sub genres, as Lolita compliments almost every other style. The most commonly seen in anime are 'Classic', 'Sweet', 'Princess' and 'Gothic' Lolita.

There's no real meaning for Lolita fashion in real life. Lolitas don't do certain jobs, or act a certain way. It's just a fashion, and that is reflected in most anime.

Skirts and Dresses

In the west, for hundreds of years, girls and women were expected to wear dresses, and pants were for men. Because of this, a lot of western women feel dresses are not a nice thing to wear.

This is not the same in Japan. There is no negative thoughts about skirts and dresses, as they haven't had them for long, they aren't consiered 'demure' or 'old fashioned', they're just look very cute on girl's! So, they're worn a lot more frequently in Japan than in the west, including in anime. Japanese girls will even wear them in cold weather, because it is good character not to complain about the cold (those poor girls!)

Gothic Lolita, the most popular form of the fashion
Gothic Lolita, the most popular form of the fashion

Lolita Poll

Do you think lolita dresses are cute, or scary?

See results
She's cleaning up... dead people. That means she can wear this cute outfit!
She's cleaning up... dead people. That means she can wear this cute outfit!

Maid Dresses

The Japanese version of the 'French Maid' outfit. The shape of the Japanese version tends to follow the shape of a Lolita dress, but will often have a shorter skirt.

The maid outfit is often the uniform of themed 'maid cafés', which are very popular with male anime or game fans.

The maid outfit is a common form of fan-service in anime, and it can be worn by a maid café employee, an 'authentic' maid, or just as a costume. It's also a popular form of punishment for characters who hate dresses!

Marvellous maid-themed anime and manga

Maid Poll

What do you think of japanese maid dresses?

See results

With one of the densest populatons in the world, it is very easy to spead colds in Japan, so anyone who has a cold, or is afraid of catching one, will wear a mask to try and stop it from being caught. Masks are everywhere!

Of course, some people wear them now just for the fashion, or because they are shy or want to hide their face. Plain white is the standard kind of mask, but ones with printed designs are available. This is why masks are so common in anime, and aren't treated as very weird at all.

AKB48's 'Majisuka(Are you for real?) Rock N' Roll'

Sailor uniforms, gakuran, gang girls, ko-gals.... and there's even some maids in this school classroom!

Cosplay ('costume play', dress up)

On occasion, you'll be watching a particularly hip anime series and the characters will start to play dress up.

They might dress up as something easily recognized like a ghost, a witch or a marshmallow, or they might be so bold as to dress up as (or resembling) another anime character from a different show.

This is only truly confusing when it's done but it's left to the audience to recognize the reference themselves.

Cosplay is a real life pastime for many anime fans worldwide, and both in Japan and the west it is considered very geeky. Howevern it is a LOT more popular and slightly less geeky in Japan. Even so, its appearance in anime is disproportionately large, and is often fan-service for the audience.

When a character cosplays, it doesn't always mean they are a geek. It might be a costume competition, or their normal clothes might' have been 'mislayed' by a devious friend.

Masks

Mask Poll

Are masks a good idea?

See results

Gang Fashions

Bosozoku and Yanki:

These are biker gangs that are no longer in fashion, but are quite frequently seen in anime and manga.

Bosozoku are characterised as wearing jumpsuits, military overcoats or leather jackets, often worn open with bandages wrapped around their torsos. They tend to have a quite biker-ish look about them.

They're most easily recognised by the kanji or rising sun designs (similar to the Japanese flag) on their coats or shirts and their often extravagant hairstyles, which vary from a slight Elvis-quiffs to punch-perms (see 'hair', below)

They also wear long boots, and ride modified bikes or scooters. There are females members, and a female version called Yanki who share a similar fashion.

They carry non-classified weapons, such as metal pipes or 'boken' (especially strong wooden swords that are used for martial arts training). In anime they are most often shown as villains, but sometimes will be a cool, tough protagonist; and it is not uncommon for a protagonist to temporarily join this sort of gang.

Today, bosozoku are a lot rarer and less extravagent, but they are still popular in their original form as villains in anime.

Tattoos

Tattoos have an entirely different meaning in Japan, because tattoos in Japan are very deeply associated with Yakuza, and were actually outlawed for nearly 100 years up until 1948.

An anime character with a tattoo, whether that character is a foreigner or not, is likely to at least have a tough personality or some conflict with society.

If the tattoo covers a lot of the body, it's even more likely to be an actual yakuza member.

In anime, tatoos will sometimes appear or change magically, and often imply some sort of curse or evil possession.

Characters with tattoos may simply be a tough nice guy, or a nasty villain.

More You're Curious About?

I've explained those japanese fashions found most often in anime- but, obviously, I haven't watched -every- anime. So if you've found a fashion in one that you watch that you don't understand, feel free to leave a comment, and I'll do my best to help you find your answers!

By the way, I have more images on the way! But I'm drawing them myself, so give me a little time <3

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    • craftycollector profile image
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      craftycollector 4 years ago

      @artmarks: Thanks so much for visiting, and I hope you enjoyed the artwork. More anime coming as soon as I have spare time from drawing it for other people!

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      artmarks 4 years ago

      Awesome lens for anime fans :)

    • craftycollector profile image
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      craftycollector 4 years ago

      @gail4c8: Thanks for looking. ABove all, Manga is cheerful and great fun. Thanks for your comment

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      gail4c8 4 years ago

      What an interesting lens, I am of a generation that knows little about manga and anime, but I found these descriptions fascinating. Now, when my manga artist niece is talking to me and showing me her latest work, I'll know a bit more about it.. Beautiful artwork too.