Tokyo Adorned

Museums at the Scale of One Body

    The efficiencies of ordinary dress are tied to the work of the wearer, to social conventions of the casual or the formal, and to the weather. People everywhere dress for the day, or for the evening, with an eye toward the expectations of beholders as well as pure comfort, or its opposing discomfort, as a means of fitting in. Outward appearance, then, is understood collectively as mediation between inner self-regard and outer social convention. What constitutes convention, or, rather, whose conventions constitute the social, is an important subject of this book.

    In 2012 Thomas Card spent time in Japan in order to document the many looks of the Japanese street fashion scene as intermutual modes of self-expression as empowerment. His photographs of street fashion explore an informal society of dress-up, whose members—mostly female—explore some rather exotic reaches of the wardrobe as an expression of identity. The Japanese term, kawaii, basically means “cute,” but as used within the identity groups based on clothing attitude that make up Kawaii Fashion, it can also mean hip, cool, and adorable. “Cuteness” is inflected here toward ero-kawaii (erotic and cute), kowa-kawaii (scary and cute), or a wide range of references to “Lolita Fashion.” 

    It is a commonplace of youth culture to aspire to coolness, to being hip in dress and attitude, but the members of the various fashion tribes have accomplished a collective outrageousness of garb more like costumery than any broader concept of fashion. The street fashion, which Thomas now playfully refers to as “Kawaii Fashion,” shares certain attributes with cosplay, another Japanese-originated category of role-playing dress. Elaborate costuming, masking, and arrays of thematically linked accessories are common features, but Kawaii Fashion has much less of the sexual fetishism of cosplayers. Even the Lolita Fashion aspect of kawaii turns away from the overtly seductive, aiming instead for a kind of historicist modesty that is hyperfeminine rather than girlish in aspect. There is a subtly museological aspect to street fashion. Its extravagances of dress make far reaching reference to literature or art as well as contemporary pop culture while its trappings make wearers into walking museums at the scale of a single body.

    The women and men whom Thomas has photographed have each crafted visually compelling identities manifested in the wardrobes they have acquired through arduous shopping and sewing. “Ardor” is an appropriate way to characterize the efforts they have made to tie together every aspect of themselves, from garments and makeup through gestures and comportment, to the wearing of such prostheses as artificially colored contact lenses, in service to their ideal fashion iconography. This attention to detail extends to their domestic environments, and Thomas has made several of these photographs in the living spaces of his subjects. His interest is not in recording their fantasies as they imagine them but rather the expressive pleasure they are getting from projecting those identities.

    The format of the Tokyo Adorned images evokes those of Richard Avedon’s In the American West, and leafing through Avedon’s 1985 book (a copy of which is in Thomas’s Chelsea studio), one sees how much care Avedon took to record the circumstances of marginal American types in such manner as to preserve their inner dignity and resolve. So too with Thomas’s treatment of subjects who have chosen to live their lives at self-made margins. Indeed, just like Avedon, Thomas has photographed almost all of them at slightly above eye level. 

    Thomas has noted the dramatic effect of street fashion on passersby: “When you see these people on the street all you want to do is stare, but social convention forces us to look away.” In front of his camera, however, Thomas captures the confidence his subjects have in the identities they have crafted. None of them show any sign of embarrassment about their dress, nor is any defensiveness to be seen in their demeanor. The looks directed toward the camera show much inner satisfaction with the documentary moment. They don’t merely permit but demand your stare. Analyzing these images, you observe clear, informed decisions about camera angle, lighting, and retouching (or not), but Thomas’s great skill is in ensuring that viewers focus on the subjects rather than the photographer’s technique. You feel the joy and ease of these people facing his lens, their pride in the personae they’ve made and, looking into their eyes, you find connection with their humanity.


Buzz Spector