I’ve been down a bit of a rabbit hole of watching videos analyzing fashion in movies. It’s one of the very few things I prefer in live-action. The way costumes can be used as part of the cinematic language, character development and narrative evolution. I’m not just talking about the big showy period pieces either. At its best, costume design is subtle, even unremarkable but it gives you this huge amount of information about a character at a glance. And if their wardrobe changes throughout the story, it can tell you a lot about their evolving state of mind as well.
I’m not saying that clothes and costumes can’t be used in the same way in animation. But it’s less frequent. Heck, a lot of animated characters wear the same thing every single day even if it’s not a uniform. Especially in western cartoons. But in anime, a huge percentage of the time the characters are in a school uniform and everyone is wearing the same thing.
This is probably why I haven’t been paying attention to those costumes enough. Let’s change that.
On the most basic level, the anime school uniform can tell you something about the school itself. Your basic uniform if you will, you know, blazers, neutral colours, ties for boys and bows for girls, tells you that this is an average school. The type you would see all the time and potentially attended if you happen to have been a Japanese student.
High-class schools will usually reflect their status through their uniform. Adornments and shiny emblazoned school badges are a frequent addition. Unusual colours like pastel blues or pinks or even bright purples can be added as traditionally these fabrics were more expensive and therefore still give the idea of wealth.
Alternatively, I’ve often seen gakuran in schools that have a noted delinquent problem. On the flip side sailor outfits for girls are fairly universal. Finally, magical or futuristic schools will usually have appropriately bonkers and crazy uniforms. There are exceptions of course but this is a general rule of thumb.
So already, you can tell a bit about a character’s circumstances and environment based on their uniform. But it doesn’t stop at that. Anime characters establish their identity through the personalization of uniforms. I’m pretty sure that’s an anime thing that wouldn’t actually fly in real Japanese schools. And that fact itself is important. It means it is adde3d in by the storyteller to tell us something.
I’m not going to go into the different hairstyles as those aren’t clothes. I know, you learn something new every day! But I do realize that 50 to 75% of the personalization is usually made through hair colour, hairstyle and accessories. Maybe I can write about that some other time.
My first image of changing the uniform is simply wearing the shirt open over a t-shirt. That’s pretty universally another delinquent trait. For girls, ironically, it’s wearing a really long skirt. Like Amish ladies. I’m guessing that has something to do with the idea of rejecting societal norms of dressing in attractive or desirable ways and is therefore counter-culture. Don’t quote me on it. I have not done the research but I do that there’s a strong cultural push among the youth in Japan, especially the ladies, to dress in ways that are completely unsexualized compared to previous fashions.
Because wearing your uniform correctly, buttoned up all the way to the top, socks taunt and jacket pressed, is usually meant to show us that a character is particularly square and uptight, the average character is just a touch sloppy. Maybe the top button is undone or the socks are slouchy. Shirts may have a wrinkle or two.
Let’s take this image of Kokoro connect and see if I can make any wild uniform assumptions:
I’m going to pretend I have never seen the show. First the uniform since pretty standard. Neutral and common colours and nothing out of the ordinary to report. I’m going to say they go to an average school like many others out there.
Already the boy and the centre and the girl to his right (my left) are both wearing relaxed vests (or sweaters) under their blazers so they are probably more relaxed and approachable characters. While the two most right characters are all done up and prim. So they are probably the serious types. (I know this is wrong and Aoki, the one on the far right, is actually a huge goofball but I wouldn’t have guessed it from his uniform. Maybe he comes from a strict family)
The girl on the far left has her sweater tied around her waist. She’s the only one without a blazer and she’s giving off a more casual and self-assured vibe. Also maybe a bit of don’t mess with me. On the other hand, her shirt is really loose. Like too big for her or something. It makes her look small and vulnerable. The clash between the two elements gives the impression of a girl still trying to figure herself out and trying on a few things. Girls often experiment with their view of themselves through their clothes so it’s fairly common to see them try out all sorts of different elements.
Out of everyone, the boy in the middle is the only one with different shoes. And sneakers at that. Plain white ones, nothing to standoffish. These are shoes for comfort and action. He is probably better suited to run after someone than any of the other students pictured here. And it’s obviously not shoes chosen for their appearance. He isn’t showing off with those, he just wants to be comfortable and have a good range of motion. It also further gives him that hyper relaxed every man look.
See, that’s a whole lot of information that a character is not going to have to sit down and explain to me now. I can start off the show already having an idea of what is going on. And if I’m wrong about anything, it’s going to become apparent soon enough.
Sometimes showrunners don’t really think about all these things when they are designing uniforms. They go purely by aesthetics. That’s why you will occasionally see a character that is super shy and prefers not to get any attention wearing flashy accessories and the tightest possible shirt available. Or a snobbish show off with the most boring shoes possible. But certain creators and certain studios do go that extra mile. They don’t just come up with a design that looks good and is easy to emulate, they try to create outfits the characters really would wear. And as such, that means those clothes can tell us something about the wearers.
This post was just me dipping my toes into analyzing anime fashion. There are tons out there and I think we can have fun trying to learn what these animated clothes have to say. At the very least, I like staring at clothes even if they are drawings. So if you enjoyed this post and would like me to do more, please let me know in the comments. Although I love learning and writing about this stuff, I do feel like I’m the only one. Also if there is a particular fashion trend or show you would like me to look into, I would love to know about it!
Have you noticed special touches in anime uniforms? Do they tell you anything about your favourite characters? Do they always wear a hoodie over their uniform cause they’re sporty or want to pretend to be? Do they have a super expensive watch when everything else is old hand-me-downs? I used to wear strappy tank tops under my school shirts. Cause I liked them…