Subcultures of Kawaii Fashion

Kaytalie Shang, Staff Writer

Kawaii culture is a movement that began in the 1970s in Japan and is centered around self-expression through cuteness, as “kawaii” can be translated into “cute” in Japanese. It first stemmed from school girls writing in an overly-cute and childish way and the marketing of fancy goods and things in the shoujo genre, like manga and art. Kawaii culture has since developed a fashion style, which, like many other fashions, has forked and divided over time. Which brings us to today, where there is a healthy handful of fashions either directly referencing it or simply influenced by it.
Despite the fashion being rather recognizable, it is a tad bit confusing to define, since many other fashions and aesthetics have since borrowed bits and pieces from it, which is especially true of Harajuku street fashions. I’ll be listing both the subcultures that very clearly state “kawaii” in its name, alongside those that heavily contain characteristics of it, or is based on cutesy elements, but may not call themselves “kawaii”.
Lolita is the most expensive subculture on this list since it’s not strictly kawaii and thus has a very broad definition and aesthetic (mostly because it has subgenres of its own). It might have a bad reputation due to it sharing the same name as a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, which carries themes of pedophilia, which lead to a popular misbelief that Lolita fashion was about the sexualization of young girls. Lolita is simply a fashion style heavily inspired by Victorian-Era dress, coupled with elements from the kawaii culture prominent at the time of its emergence. The fashion stems directly from the style “doll-kei”, and because of this, it has many similar elements, such as the doll aesthetic. It’s generally hyper-feminine and rather modest, with wide skirts, crinolines/petticoats, and various accessories that are decorated with things such as lace and bows. Many Lolitas participate in the dress as a form of self-expression. As stated before, this fashion isn’t exactly part of kawaii culture and thus has subgenres of its own, the most popular ones being sweet, gothic, and classic.
Sweet Lolita is the most feminine and childish of these three, with its emphasis on cuteness and pastels. It still uses the dress of typical Lolita, though the aesthetic now revolves around things like sweets and fantasy tropes. It can utilize darker colors, but only minimally, as that pushes the boundary into Bittersweet Lolita.
Classic Lolita places emphasis on elegance rather than cuteness and is inspired more so than the other substyles on Victorian fashion. It has more neutral shades and isn’t as extravagant as some other styles, so it doesn’t stand out as starkly. Lolitas wearing this style may mix traits from other substyles.
Gothic Lolita uses darker shades and tones than the other styles, though it doesn’t need to be black. It carries themes and symbols relating to death (skulls, coffins), castles, and religion (crosses), and uses dark colors like maroon and royal blue, but rarely solely black and white. Some consider it the most popular out of all the types of Lolita.
Short for “decoration”, Decora is mainly defined by its childish, innocent, and playful aesthetic. It places a huge emphasis on an overabundance of accessories, which serves as one of its core concepts, and many Decora people will pile on copious amounts of hair clips, necklaces, bracelets, and other such pieces. It’s rather lax on the other requirements of its fashion, but consistent elements include cartoon characters from the 80s (Hello Kitty, Care Bears, etc.) and bright, pop, neon colors. It peaked in the mid-2000s and has developed three subgenres of its own, which, overall, stay rather similar to the main style. Dark Decora refers to decora fashions that take on a darker color palette, making use of black, in contrast to the usual bright schemes. Punk elements, like studded clothing and skull patterns, are sometimes used. Pink Decora is just normal decora, but with an entirely pink getup. Decora Lolita, or Decololi, is a combination of both Lolita and Decora elements (so technically, it can also be filed under Lolita). It usually mixes the cuter Lolita fashions (like Sweet Lolita) with the main aspect of Decora: its multitude of accessories.
Yume Kawaii
Its name can be translated into “dreamy cute” or “cute like a dream”, since “yume” means “dream” in Japanese. Its aesthetic is just that, with themes of unicorns, cotton candy, and rainbows; things that are dreamlike and picturesque. Color schemes are light and fluffy, featuring mainly pastels, with an occasional darker hue. Patterned fabric with things like polka dots and clouds are uncommon but still exist. “It’s so pastel. It’s so bright,” commented freshman Kyrsten Tao.
Yami Kawaii
Yami Kawaii is a strain of Yume Kawaii that has since developed to become a new subculture (also because some people who participate in Yume Kawaii have disowned it). Because of this, it shares many elements with its “parent”, such as the pastel color palettes and the dream-like cuteness, but distinguishes itself with the “Yami” portion. “Yami” is translated into “sick”, so the name basically means “sick cute”. Now, this fashion has a bit of a different social standing than the rest, since it’s not an act of rebellion or self-expression. In Japan, mental illness is regarded as taboo, and, as a result, people tend to treat it as if it doesn’t exist. Those that suffer from mental illness are pressured to bottle it up and are thus reluctant to seek out psychiatric treatment and aid. This fashion was created as a way to speak about mental illness, alongside a way for participants to express their own issues. It’s bringing this topic that has been buried by culture to light whilst also fighting against its negative connotations, all wrapped up in a little bundle of sickly cute. The fashion carries a very medical theme, with images of bandages, syringes, and pills, which coexists with its frequent references to death and sickness via images and phrases (both typically depicting suicide). The people who participate in it commonly decorate themselves to look sickly, injured, and fragile, commonly using makeup to draw on things like wounds and eyebags. A “mascot” of this fashion is a cartoon girl named Menhera-chan, a magical girl who has mental health issues. Her name comes from the term “menhera”, which is slang for those with mental illnesses.
Kimo Kawaii
To counteract the fashions that have stayed relatively close to the typical criteria of cute, here’s “Kimo-Kawaii”, a mashup of the words “kimochi warui”, which means creepy or gross, and “kawaii”, making it a subculture centered around things that balance on the boundary between “disturbing” and “cute”. It’s not particularly active as a fashion, instead, being popularized mainly by the characters and plushies that fit its criteria. Kobito Dukan, a set of characters that look like little plant gnomes but sport strangely human faces, is widely considered to be Kimo-Kawaii. Freshman Michelle Li said that the creatures were “creepy and disgusting” when the gnomes shown to her. This subculture is definitely more of an acquired taste!
Shibu Kawaii
This subculture is the most subdued kawaii fashion, even when including styles that are not on this list. Since it’s so subdued, there isn’t much information on it, but its core concept is cuteness in the everyday. It’s not extravagant or decorated like Lolita, and it doesn’t carry any particular concept or message, so it’s rather easy to participate in. Just wear a couple of cute accessories and you’re set! It’s quite casual and can easily blend in when in a crowd.
Fairy Kei
Like its name suggests, this style projects the aura and image of friendly, romanticized ones (fae). Oftentimes, it’s confused with other fashions, like Sweet Lolita, Decora and Yume Kawaii, since they all include pastel pallets and similar imagery. The difference comes in the fact that Fairy Kei is strictly pastel, with colors like lavender and mint; black is basically banned, and white is only to be used sparingly. Clothes are typically loose and light, with oversized shirts and jackets. Like Decora, it also includes images of 80s characters. Unlike Yume Kawaii, patterns and prints of subjects like moons, candies, and hearts are common. Overall, it’s very light and airy with that ever-prevalent note of childish cuteness.
There are definitely more than just these seven subcultures, but if I were to cover more, this article would grow much too long! Kawaii fashion is about self-expression, after all, and there’s plenty of ways to do it adorably!