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!

this is a random wall paper so I couldn’t find the artist

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.

really pushing the military aspect

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!

why isn’t he wearing a gakuran?

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 🙂

15 thoughts

  1. I always really enjoy your posts on the various aspects of Japanese culture that westerners notice in their anime. I’m old enough that there is a photo of me somewhere at the age of five wearing a brown sailor suit dress – with my hair all curled up to look like Shirley Temple no less. (It was a brief bizarre bid from my mother to get my new paternal step grandmother to like me, since she thought all little girls should look like Shirley Temple, and as a little Indian looking ((native american now)) Tomboy she thought I was a scandal) I remember hating the dress, hating the hair, hating every moment of the process. LOL. Growing up in the midwest, almost no schools had uniforms so it is quite different to see it shown as a normal part of life. I can certainly see that it would be a much easier solution than a kimono for daily wear for a little girl.

    Of course, now I really want someone to do an article on the miko…

    1. Well I NEED to see that picture. I have been picturing it in my head of course and it’s the most adorable thing.

  2. That was a fun read! The part where seifuku are seen by older students as childish reminds me of how khaki shorts – a typical elementary uniform – are seen as childish in my country, so the middle and high school students “graduate” to black pants. It never occurred to me that there’s a stigma like that with Japanese children and their uniforms, too. I guess it’s a universal thing related to the idea of growing up!

  3. Not that my two-pence worth matters but whilst they look cute in anime (because of the character designs) in real life less so for me. I realise I am in the minority as usual, and I don’t know what it is but I think they are an odd designs for a school uniform. Probably because I did know they were based on western sailor suits.

    But it’s part of the unique Japanese culture so if it works for them, fair play to them.

    1. well they are based on naval academy uniforms so I do think the original designs were meant to be worn in schools as well. IThis said, I know they are popular in Japan because that’s where schoolgirls actually wear them but I’m not sure how Europeans see them. You might actually have the popular opinion here!

  4. I must admit, I always thought they looked adorable too. For a long time ,they were one of the things I associated most with Japan, thanks largely to anime.

  5. Just my own two cents here. I dont know of any elementary schools that have uniforms, at least in Nagano and Saitama from personal experience and friends who teach in elementary schools. Maybe some private ones have them, but I’m not sure if many public ones do.

    Other than that, junior high school skirts tend to be fairly long, like closer to the shins, whereas high school is closer to the knees. In my area, the junior high schools have the sailor uniforms for girls with the standard white shirt + black pants / jacket (like Mob’s in Mob Psycho 100) for boys. They hardly wear them though because at my two schools everyone just wears their gym clothes all day upon arriving to school. Kind of a shame because the uniforms do look nice I think.

    The high schools here have plaid skirts for girls and plaid pants for guys, that and they wear ties. I can’t speak for other areas though. I actually can’t remember what some of the uniforms in Tokyo were like, other than the fact that the girls’ skirts seemed way shorter there than my area.

    Uniforms aside, I think the fashion in Japan is pretty interesting in general. Like women tend to wear really baggy clothing compared to the West for example.

    1. Oversized is getting to be a very big trend everywhere but it definetly started out more in Asian countries. I like it a lot. Especially when it gets warmer cause it’s just so unpleasant to have your clothes sticking to you.

  6. This is great. I love how seifuku uniforms look, too, though they have somewhat of a troublesome saturation of fetish material in pop-culture. Learning about the history of Japanese fashion staples is incredibly interesting, I have been meaning to do extracuricular reading on the shine maiden’s origination in their attire, as well. 🧐 Wonderful article! Very informative!

    1. I’m so glad you liked it. I actually just read an article about the backgrounds of Miko and their pretty drastic change in status. I look forward to reading yours as well!

      1. I will probably not write one myself, it is just going to be an independant research study. I really like the miko trope in fantasy settings, but I am not as well-versed in historical timelines. 😅

        1. I will probably not write one myself, it is just going to be an *independent research study. I really like the miko trope in fantasy settings, but I am not as well-versed in historical timelines. 😅
          *sorry, I’m a bit sleepy

Leave me a comment and make my day!