Japanese Fashion's Love Affair With Militarized Garments
Japanese Fashion's Love Affair With Militarized Garments
- Words Rocky Li
- Date July 24, 2017
Military uniforms have been a ubiquitous source of inspiration for menswear designers across the board. While runway designers may try to obscure the militaristic associations of these garments, a subset of Japanese streetwear labels have gone the opposite route, and made their militaristic influences the most prominent aspect of their clothing. The 90’s urahara scene in particular, embraced the M-65 and aviator jacket in a way few genres had prior, with designers like NIGO and WTAPS’ Tetsu Nishiyama frequenting Army surplus as often as vintage and thrift stores. Since the advent of Japanese streetwear, military garb has played a pivotal role in aesthetics and construction. Below, we explore how deep that connection runs.
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If you follow brands like Neighborhood, Engineered Garments or WTAPS you’ll start to notice that certain styles re-appear from season to season. One piece that tends to stay on shop shelves is the BDU shirt. Often fabricated in different camo patterns and made of rip-stop nylon or heavy cotton, the BDU—or Battle Dress Uniform—is designed to suit the needs of soldiers during combat, and often paired with matching cargo pants or shorts.
It’s interesting to see how different labels approach the shirt, altering specific details to fit in with each brand’s DNA. For example, compare the graphic-heavy WTAPS BDUs versus the more pared down approach Visvim pursues. Newer imprints like Cav Empt have also offered their own take, injecting cyberpunk inspired graphics into the mix. A quick survey of these various BDUs provides solid insight into how each label builds off of military garments, and in turn repurposes them for their own use.
The BDU is just one of many military styles that streetwear has adopted. Frequent examples include the M-51, M-65, ECWS Parka, MA-1 Bomber and the G-1 leather bomber jacket. While all were initially designed for purely utilitarian purposes, their inherent style resonates to this day, and strikes a chord with the stylish yet functional niche streetwear occupies. There are also military themed garments not specifically designed for combat that rose to popularity. Items like the souvenir jacket (sukajan)--commonplace throughout Asia following World War II and U.S. occupation—and coveralls for off-duty officers have both been a popular reference point for streetwear designers.
More than simply silhouette, the Japanese riff heavily on specialized fabrics developed by military forces around the globe, the most obvious being camouflage. WTAPS parasmock, for instance, borrows a desert camo DPM pattern used by the British special forces. Engineered Garments makes extensive use of both ripstop and nylon, both of which have their origins in combat gear. Perhaps the most famous example of Japanese streetwear appropriating military style is BAPE’s signature ape-head camo. The know infamous pattern is but one example of how NIGO crafted the brand’s identity by referencing American pop culture and vintage style.
Lookbooks and Imagery
Beyond style and fabric, many brands have produced lookbooks that have directly used military imagery in their campaign photos and editorials. Some examples include the Neighborhood F/W 2011 “Gimme Shelter” collection, influenced by events during the Vietnam War era. Similarly, Early WTAPS catalogues and editorials were even more military-centric than their current offering, with Japanese magazines like the defunct Asayan covering this sort of military surplus style of dressing on a regular basis.
Astute followers of the genre will see little nods to military style among countless lookbooks and brand imagery. At the height of their influence in Japan, NIGO and Jun Takahashi frequently adapted stock military garments for their own use--old catalog photos of the duo during their NOWHERE days show how long the designer’s have used military garments as inspiration. In fact, the juxtaposition of army clothes spliced with a punk DIY ethos continues to play a major role in the aesthetic of labels such Undercover and Bounty Hunter.
Labels, Branding and Culture
One of the key ways that military style has crept up into streetwear is through label designs and branding. Any cursory study of brand tags from will show the clear influence of army regulation care instructions. In terms of detailing, a distinction can also be made between the strict military reproduction brands like Buzz Rickson's in comparison to the homages produced by streetwear labels. Japanese military reproduction brands are inherently more focused on recreating the genuine article with full respect to its military heritage. They tend to avoid creative liberties when it comes to adapting fit, style and hardware for the needs of current consumers.
Aside from the garments themselves, it is important to note the impact that military culture and its pop-culture representation have made their way into the presentation of Japanese streetwear. Items such as Neighborhood incense chambers reference the Japanese ceramic exports during the period of U.S occupation following World War II. Similarly, WTAPS founder Tetsu Nishiyama also started the line FPAR (Forty Percent Against Rights) that references philosophy, propaganda and guerilla media tactics--all common themes in modern war movies and literature.
Everything from the patches of special forces units to the types of personalized lighters that US Marines carried during the Vietnam War have been referenced in the form of streetwear graphics. In this way Japanese streetwear offers a subversive tongue-in-cheek nod to the grim reality of military life. Beyond simply referencing pieces, Japanese designers have mined military pop culture for inspiration, with films such as Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Jarhead cited as frequent points of reference.
It’s clear that military style has been revered amongst the OGs of Japanese streetwear. In the process of creating their respective brands, significant attention was paid to all elements of military culture. Not simply a trend, military style has become entrenched into the DNA of streetwear in the country and beyond.