Analyzing Anime Fashion: School Uniforms

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.

let’s concentrate!

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.

see what I mean?

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.

maybe it’s just so they can squat like that

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.

and some good old fashion goofs

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.

oh wow, look at that classic fashion! Rei in overalls!

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…

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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25 Responses

  1. therebelfae says:

    I really like the idea of analyzing anime school clothing. You actually do learn a lot from just looking at it. For example, the UA uniforms from My Hero Academia. By just looking at them you can tell theres prestige, yet a relaxed like nature thanks to the colors. And although the personalities of the characters aren’t easily seen, you can make a pretty decent guessitamite.

  2. Maica says:

    When I read your posts, I realize that I just don’t pay enough attention! But that goes the same for real life. I find fashion fascinating, but I don’t really think about what I wear other than what allows me to get work done comfortably, or if there is something I love (I can’t get enough of Mad Max clothing- heheh)

    I am not sure if you already follow them… but Rachel and Jun have had a Youtube channel for about a decade now. When I am stressed or I am traveling and feeling homesick, I often play his cooking channel on repeat (Jun’s Kitchen). I know it’s odd, but I find watching him chop up food soothing and comforting.

    Anyway, they have a couple of vids where Jun interviews his sister asking about anime vs highschool life. She didn’t say anything about long skirts, but that she would often wear sweat pants under her skirt- even though they were prohibited- due to the cold weather in Japan.

    allofthefujoshiunite’s post makes a lot of sense- that the long skirt was a statement made once upon a time, and still has repercussions today. However, I could imagine doing the exact same thing in school both as a statement and for comfort.
    It is funny to think of covering up as a sign of rebelling though. XD

  3. The long skirts you mentioned was a movement within the girl gangs in 70’s, they are called Sukeban. They were a very interesting bunch, and very violent too, apparently haha.

    https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/28261/1/remembering-japans-badass-70s-schoolgirl-gangs

    • Maica says:

      Thanks for sharing that article! That was really interesting.

    • Irina says:

      Great article, I did know about the Sukeban but I just never found out why the long skirt was particularly adopted, instead of shorts, pants or an ultrashort skirt for instance. All of which are more associated with rebellion in the west.
      I learned about Sukeban from Fruits Basket (the manga)…. They do have a pretty nice retrospective of the movement if you haven’t read it!

      • I guess I thought of ‘keeping the uniform’ as a way of claiming it, but it was just my two cents rather than an actual research.

        And I didn’t know about that! I’ve only seen a couple of episodes from Fruits Basket, always heard it was good. Now I’m totally inclined to read the manga. Thank you!

  4. crazyidiot78 says:

    A very interesting post, but it’s not the first time I have seen something like this, and the place where I saw it might just surprise you. it was a high school art project of all things. This particular student was doing what you did breaking down how the clothing the characters where wearing (Sailor Moon of all things) and how that informed the viewer about their personalities.

    • Irina says:

      Great, I hope they publish it some day, it sounds really interesting. There are in fact a lot of published books and essays on the subject if you are interested. Clothing in media is a very rich field.

  5. foovay says:

    Good thoughtful post and very observant. It’s interesting to see the subtle differences and show of personality in the uniform – which is supposed to be, you know, uniform. Now I want a post on traditional styles. I love it when everyone breaks out into kimono for Summer Festival, or someone dresses for the traditional archery. I admit to a bit of amusement over characters who only seem to have one set of clothes they wear day in and day out for every occasion. Short cut for the artists, and I think also something of a visual flag for watchers. So and so looks like this – period. I mean, Charlie Brown only owned one shirt, why should anime characters be any different? Also, the two brothers from Blue Exorcist are terrific examples of different ways to wear the same uniform.

    • Irina says:

      Ohh traditional Japanese clothing is so beautiful and has so much ritual tied to it. Hmm, maybe I could review the Kyudogi in Tsurune.

    • therebelfae says:

      Ooh definitely! Between Rin and his brother its plain as day to see the difference in characters. I love that example!

  6. Pinkie says:

    I think a lot of anime shy girls are actually dressed pretty flash… but I think it implies their mother dresses them still, much in a way you cutifty a doll! We see them later grow into more comfortable attires and more self established ones.

    The clothes wearing underneath is actually a thing that happens a lot with sporty girls. Since Japan doesn’t have locker rooms girls often wear their gym/sports outfits underneath. So a girl with undergarments under her uniform is most likely a sporty girl.

    The outfit customising actually does happen in Japan, though often prohibited people do try it to make their outfit more unique. Depending on how strict the school is, they will allow it or not. As for the shoes, a lot of shoes are prohibited inside in Japan, hence they always have the school locker. So I think people don’t make a huge fuzz out of not wearing the correct shoes (unless you go on a field trip or something).

    I know a lot of girls shorten their Fuku but not sure why delinquents lengthen their skirt.. you might be right with a objecting gender culture… personally I think it’s for another reason. These girls are usually very muscular in build, very chiseled and all, so drawing their legs in each Manga panel would actually be a huge issues, so the long dresses might be a time saver. Perhaps they have hairy legs and the writer thinks it’s gross.

    I do think a lot of the customisation happens for a similar reason, while in colour we can establish the difference between girl 1 and 2 very easily in black and white and in panels that is much harder to do.. so if one wears a badge and one doesn’t we can easily distinguish them. So might as well make these quirks distinguish their character traits as well. Since most their designs originated in Manga I think a lot of the elements of deviation stem from the limitations of that medium?!

    • Irina says:

      Wait, Japan doesn’t have locker rooms? You mean anime isn’t 100% accurate.!?!

      • Pinkie says:

        Often they dont or at least no non mixed once, not as we know it at least

        • Irina says:

          Actually I went to an all girls school and we just changed in the bathroom now that I think of it.

          • Pinkie says:

            Our showers broke and they never fixed them, we had lockers rooms but we could only redress.

            School tried to schedule as gym as late as possible so they could skip fixing the showers!
            I was often carried out gym class injured…

            But yeah its kind of a thing for Japan girls to wear a gym outfit under their uniform, you see it on jock girls at times, but I still think a lot of it is based in manga design as well

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