I think one of the first things every new Otaku discovers is the seifuku or Japanese schoolgirl sailor uniforms. Heck, I think some people may become Otaku because they discovered the seifuku. There are some less savoury and fetishized aspects of it but generally speaking, I find sailor uniforms absolutely adorable.
So for today’s post, I propose a walk down memory runway (cause it’s fashion!) and look at the history of this now-iconic uniform. I actually decided to stick to the actual real-world history rather than the use of seifuku in anime. But I found that real-life changes and events are often reflected in anime styles so that’s cool!
First of all, for some reason, I never thought that sailor uniforms actually had anything to do with sailors… I’m not sure why but I decided that Japan had simply come up with a design and because they vaguely reminded Europeans and Americans of sailors, they just started calling them sailor school uniforms and it caught on.
But I was wrong. Seifuku really are sailor uniforms. Or rather they were always specifically designed after European-style naval uniforms that the Japanese started seeing in the 19th century. Even more specifically, they are meant to be a scaled-down version of the sailor suits worn by children coming from royal European families. Oh lala!
It should be noted that before the introduction of Seifuku, girls wore kimonos to school. In comparison, these uniforms were much easier and much cheaper to both make and wear so they caught on pretty quickly. And for a while, they were worn by all grades from primary to high school. Eventually, Western Catholic styles were introduced and some schools switched to blouses and blazers rather than the military-inspired seifuku and gakuran but these are still common, especially for the younger grades that may have issues with ties.
So the classic Japanese uniform was in fact a fairly straightforward adaptation of the European naval uniform. And I have to admit that I like military fashion in general so it’s not surprising that I would prefer these to the blazer styles (which I had to wear through high school so that could also be part of it).
To me, the more interesting part was the adjustment and transformations the seifuku has gone through. Originally seifuku were loose and often one piece instead of an actual skit and shirt. They could be worn a bit like a shift dress which falls straight from the shoulders. The two-piece style naturally had a bit more of a waistline but the shirts were still meant to be worn outside of the skirts with a straight loose hem that hit at the waist so that the silhouette was never quite an hourglass.
The style was in many ways a product of the times and a practical choice. The silhouette made clothes easy to had down from one generation to the next more or less regardless of differences in people’s frames and weight. They were easier to clean and repair as well.
Throughout the years though, as manufacturing evolved and so did fashion, the uniforms started changing a bit. Quickly they all became separates from one. Even though in many respects that shift style is quite comfortable, it always looked more frumpy.
Also, in time girls started wanting to update their style a little. They started modifying their uniforms a little. For one, when sizes were off, they would make them a bit more fitted. Skirt lengths occasionally went up, and sometimes down depending on what effect a girl was going for. Apparently, there was this belief (and still is) that big collars make the person’s head look smaller. Also, for some reason, a small head was a good thing? I’m not sure why. In any case, that means those sailor collars were highly desirable and got bigger and more defined with broderie and decorations to call attention to them.
Some of these trends were popular enough that they essentially made it into the official manufacture designs as well. It should be noted that it’s not uncommon for students to choose which school they will attend based on the uniforms. At the very least, if a family is hesitating between two schools that are very similar in most respects, then the student liking the uniform of one school over the other can be the deciding factor.
As such, the school administration has an interest in adopting uniforms that will appeal to potential students. Common modifications that are tasteful and in line with the image the school wants to project, are sometimes adopted as part of the marketing strategy for the school. Personally, I think they should let kids dye their hair or wear makeup but I guess that’s a bit too far. What can I say, I like colours!
This is also one of the big reasons why sailor-style uniforms get much less popular in middle and high schools. Since children have to wear them in grade school, they feel childish and uncool so teenagers tend to want to get away from them. This can also be seen more in anime as older students are more often shown to wear skirts and blazers.
However, throughout the years, seifuku have gotten a bit “sexier” at least by our standards. Shorter skirts, tighter shirts – you know the Sailor Moon treatment. But the funny part was that this is not exactly how the change was viewed by everyone in Japan. Apparently, in 2012 one of the biggest national newspapers, The Asahi Shimbun, ran a story on how the seifuku had changed throughout the years and this is the quote Wikipedia gave me: “The sailor suit is changing from adorable and cute, a look that ‘appeals to the boys,’ to a uniform that ‘girls like to wear for themselves.‘”
I’m not sure if the seifuku was ever really meant to “appeal to the boys” or that was simply a byproduct cause that’s what the girls were wearing. It’s a little funny when the US seems to be drastically banning anything that could “appeal to the boys” in schools while Japan had it as a feature for over a century. And there’s something strangely empowering about the notion that shorter, tighter uniforms exist because girls like to wear them for themselves. I hope they do!
This said, it seems anime has always favoured the uniforms girls like to wear for themselves with tiny skirts and really defined waistlines. Who knows, maybe some boys like those as well 🙂