If you are familiar with any aspect of Japanese fashion and subcultures, there is a high chance that you have seen or heard of the gyaru (ギャル) style before (although not necessarily in person, as the appearance of this fashion style has severely declined in recent years, even in Japan).
Gyaru, a derivation of the word "gal," is a blanket term describing a particular fashion subculture in Japan which has since seen many evolutions, changes, and break-offs into subgroups since the 1980s, when the term was coined. In general, the term gyaru refers to girls with lightly dyed hair, heavy make-up, provocative clothing, and an attitude to match. However, when exactly this style became an actual "thing" is something of a mystery.
The Vague History of Gyaru
There is no record indicating when the gyaru subculture officially emerged, though it is believed to have been between 1991 and 1993 under the influence and gradual evolution of several other already-existing fashion subcultures at the time. Many believe the gyaru fashion statement came from "totally out of nowhere." However, it was undoubtedly in the early 1990s that people became more aware of the droves of high school girls with lightened hair, shortened uniform skirts, and tanned skin, toting around expensive brand-name bags while wearing expensive brand-name clothes. These girls would eventually become known as kogyaru (コギャル), which is the version of "gyaru" that is most widely known today. (But for the sake of the article, we will continue to refer to these girls as ‘gyaru’ hereinafter).
As with most fashion-related, youth-centered subculture groups, the gyaru movement was believed to have started as a form of teenage rebellion. However, unlike many of those groups (such as the punk movement which we may be more familiar with), rather than arising from the voices of the oppressed, it came about more as a reaction against the traditional ideals of beauty seen within the more affluent upper class.
(JP) Link: A Summary of Gyaru History, from the 1990s to Today
1990年から現代まで、ギャルファッションの歴史まとめ - NAVER まとめ
You Can’t Sit With Us! A Fashion That Defines Status
While many fashion trends tend to gain popularity due to exposure on the media, the gyaru style gained its momentum completely on its own, developing and changing only in accordance with the ones who started it - namely, young girls from wealthy families who attended only the top private schools. With many of their upper-class peers jumping on board the latest celebrity trends, these girls established gyaru fashion as their own way of giving a giant middle finger to the traditional style and beauty demands of the wealthy class, and at the expectation for their generation to conform.
However, still coming from rather privileged backgrounds, they simply chose to squander their money in other ways, such as throwing lavish parties and splurging on luxury brands of their own choice, which they would then wear and carry around in a completely casual way, as opposed to taking a more "classy" approach as was expected of them by their fancy-pants parents and family members. It was as if they were saying, "Yes, I have money, but so what? I’ll do with it what I want."
Because of the strong materialistic focus of this subculture of youth, to be gyaru meant to be wealthy, as one had to be able to afford these expensive items of clothing in order to be considered "in." As the style caught on, however, it trickled into the sphere of influence of the lower-class youth cultures, and "gyaru" was broken down into yet more subcategories to accommodate less affluent girls. This created a highly class-based nature of the subculture that was expressed by a widening variety of styles within the subcategory, making it easier for girls of different backgrounds and social classes to participate.
It’s All About That Face, ‘Bout That Face...
Despite the eventual branching off of the style, there still remained several key elements that were found within practically all versions. The most strikingly obvious is the appearance and presentation of the face, characterized by heavily tanned skin (level of tan varying according to subcategory) and contrasting bright, dramatic makeup. Hair was also often bleached, again varying in lightness, from brown to blonde, depending on the subcategory.
Among the different variations, the most dramatic in appearance would be ganguro, a subcategory that stemmed from opposition to the original gyaru style. This took the tanning to another level, as girls’ faces became much darker to the point of looking burnt, and the makeup became much brighter, creating an even more extreme contrasted look.
One issue with the growing gyaru movement was that, as the style expanded, unfortunately, so did the sexualized view of these young girls by lecherous older men. It was in response to these inappropriate reactions that some girls took the rebellion further by adopting the ganguro look in an attempt to shut out and turn off men, almost as if to say "Oh yeah, whose sexy now?!" Their focus shifted to their fellow female peers, and the fashion statement became more of a way to gain acceptance into those "gal circles" rather than to attract men.
(JP) Link: Ganguro Talks About Unique Face Coloring
The Rise of Shibuya
Right before the growth of the gyaru fashion trend, Harajuku was the go-to shopping haven for youth and subcultures since around the 1970s. However, the booming trend and a change in interests amongst the new generation in terms of fashion and what was "in" also created a shift in where people preferred to shop.
Shibuya rose to fame, not just as the origin of the gyaru style, but as the ultimate shopping paradise for its devotees. When Harajuku was at its peak, it was also well-known as the hotspot for the latest fashion trends - the place where where the wealthy could find all their favorite expensive brands. But some argue that gyaru - who preferred to spend differently, and who were drawn to a more casual look - naturally gravitated towards Shibuya. There you could still find trendy items, minus the snooty upper-class atmosphere from which they were trying so hard to escape.
Shibuya 109, a shopping center in a tower-shaped building, was the main attraction of the city, and the shopper’s paradise for anyone even slightly interested in the gyaru fashion. It still exists today as a popular shopping center, though not so much as a center for gyaru, as the fashion style barely exists today.
Party Party and Para-Para
If there’s one thing gyaru followers were known for besides their dramatic looks, it was their affinity for nightlife and parties. In fact, it is believed that one of the catalysts for the rise of this subculture was the party scene of the previous decade, where upper-class youth known as "chiima," or "teamers," held ridiculously expensive parties for their peers. The style perhaps originated amongst the girlfriends of these young, party-throwing boys. Even after the chiima movement died down, the party culture was carried on by the succeeding groups of girls.
(JP) Link: The Para-Para Boom
An important part of these parties, and within gyaru circles in general, was a type of dance called "para-para," an upbeat, synchronized dance done in groups, usually to Eurobeat, new wave, and synthpop music. The movements consist mostly of upper body and hand gestures, done quickly and in sync with the music, and is sometimes likened to the movements of a cheer squad. Because there were no recordings of the dance moves, and they were usually taught in person by choreographers to specific groups, it was considered a very exclusive thing to gal circles, and sometimes these circles would even have dance competitions against each other.
(JP) Link: Ganguro Girls Dancing Para-Para at Ganguro Cafe
Reports of Gyaru's Death Have Been (Only Barely) Exaggerated
If you were anything like me when I first visited Japan many years ago, you probably wandered around Shibuya at one point and wondered, holding on to a slight dash of hope, that you might bump into someone wearing gyaru fashion so you could see it for yourself. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but as the fashion has indeed evolved with the times, if you do happen to come across a modern-day gyaru, chances are you won't even notice it.
Gyaru (and ganguro) as it was known in the ‘90s is pretty much gone with the times. Styles have changed, as have preferences, so even followers of the fashion have turned to more modern looks. Pale skin is now considered the "in" thing, so many have said goodbye to tans. And instead of the extreme makeup and crazy, wild attitudes, girls have taken a more...well, "girly" approach to fashion, opting for a super-feminine look instead.
Aside from the obvious indications of the decline such as just plain not seeing people donning the fashion anymore in the streets, another is the downfall of the infamous gyaru magazine egg, which ended publication in 2014. It only recently made a reappearance as an online-only magazine, serving more as a memorial of the fashion more than an up-to-date fashion guide as it was in the past.
(JP) Link: What is Gyaru Like Today? Dissecting the History of Gyaru
今のギャルってどんな感じ？ギャルの歴史を大解剖 | 小悪魔agehaweb
But if you are a fan of this style, don’t fret! It's not completely extinct, as gyaru subculture still plays a role in the influence of Japan's modern fashion economy. There are still places, although few and far between, where girls who still follow the fashion trend still exist.
Should you ever happen to find yourself in Shibuya and revive the memory of the popular fashion trend that used to be, take a trip to the Ganguro Café, a small Shibuya café hosted by actual gyaru girls who still practice and follow the style every day.
If you really want to be adventurous, you can even try out their "ganguro experience" package, where the girls give you a real makeover, transforming you into an actual ganguro yourself! I actually had the honor of playing a small role in introducing this café on Japanese national TV where I was given a complete makeover and allowed to hang out with the girls in Shibuya for a day! You can get an idea of what went down below. (That's me in the green hair.)
Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.
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