Over the last six months, there has been a precipitous increase in the number of young Japanese women wearing giant, thick-rimmed glasses with no lenses. These are somewhere between your garden-variety, Woody Allen ironic hipster glasses and toy spectacles worn by kindergartners in school plays. Just to make sure you understand what’s going on here, let me repeat: These glasses do not have fake lenses, they have no lenses. You can see them on women here and here although I observe them normally in the gyaru variety seen here and here (scroll down for myriad examples).
The lens-less frames are apparently an Asia-wide trend, and I have been in a few Twitter spats with people assuring me that everything must have started in Taiwan or Korea. I personally am fine with a theoretical non-Japanese origin for Asian fashion trends, but I remain skeptical. Young Japanese women have basically zero opportunity to get information from the Taiwanese or Korean fashion media nor even see many images of Taiwanese or Korean women beyond K-Pop idols. (And at least in the post-war period, the Japanese have never really considered Taiwanese and Korean women to be style icons in any institutionalized way.) Meanwhile both Koreans and Taiwanese are avid readers of Japanese media (a few Japanese magazines are republished in Chinese), and based on this alone, I would guess the trend started in Japan and spread out from there.
But to make sure, I went back and looked at photos from my MEKAS. trend-spotting days, and the earliest visual record I have of these fake glasses is in late 2007, worn by an incredibly colorful CUTiE-esque shop staff girl at a party (click on the Photo Gallery icon). The article’s main conjecture — that Harajuku cutie style and hardcore Shibuya gyaru style were starting to blend — has held up to be relatively accurate, and over the last few years, we have seen a lot of trend overlap between these once rival subcultures. The giant lens-less glasses definitely look more like a prop from the crazy Harajuku wardrobe, and I assume that they drifted slowly over to mainstream Shibuya style, likely through the magazine PopSister, which is solely dedicated to building a bridge between the two adjacent Tokyo neighborhoods.
Even Japanese fashion insiders, however, have been stunned by these women’s bold rejection of cures for myopia. One of my favorite Japanese fashion bloggers Dale at Elastic did a piece last October about his “culture shock” at seeing gyaru mag Jelly state “It’s common sense to take the lenses out of your fake glasses.” Jelly claims two reasons for this practice. First, lenses tend to smash against gyaru’s enormous fake eyelashes. Second, the reflection from the actual glass in the frames ruins photographs. This may sound familiar: The editors’ logic is explained identically in the Michael Jackson video for “Bad,” where the goofy guy in Wesley Snipes’ gang says that his giant fashion glasses have no lenses because he won’t have to worry about the reflection from the flash when paparazzi snaps him. Needless to say, the guy’s explanation does not feel particularly convincing — at least to Michael Jackson’s character “Daryl.”
Whatever the exact origin, these lens-less glasses are interesting in that they illustrate a core principle to Japanese women’s style: Fashion in Japan is explicitly costume. We’ve read enough FRUiTS over the years to know this to be true in the deep backstreets of Harajuku, where the history of fashion signifiers frolic and intermingle in a mostly meaningless lysergic whirlpool of color and pattern. Yet even with the gyaru — who wear a uniform of sorts based in working class delinquent subculture — everything about the style is allowed to be obvious play as long as the adherents use approved symbols (leopard print, heavy makeup, dyed hair, general gaudiness). Extreme costume, rather than natural aspect of their daily lives, marks the affiliation.
Compare this to the implicit rules of Western fashionistas, where clothing, outfits, and accessories must all be worn with plausible deniability. If someone were to comment, “I like that dress,” the fashionable individual must reply, “Oh this? This is my mom’s. I found it in the attic.” No matter how immaculately coordinated the look, the trendy wearer must make it sound like the entire thing was lying on her floor when she woke up and her random and lazy assembly of garments that day just happened to all work out for the best. The fundamental philosophy here is that (1) the individual is naturally blessed with excellent taste and that (2) the individual is not trying to look fashionable because trying to look fashionable is not cool.
For these very reasons, lensless glasses don’t work in the Western cultural milieu. Giant hipster glasses with lenses can be explained away under a variety of reasons: medical need, hand-me-downs from parents, “the glasses I wore when I was thirteen,” “I found them in a living room drawer under my dad’s college ribbons,” economic expediency, etc. Giant hipster glasses with no lenses are so clearly beyond the pale, so clearly for costume that no excuse would sound remotely plausible. The wearer absolutely, positively woke up that morning and said, today I will wear a pair of giant glasses with no lenses to be fashionable because I am trying to be fashionable.
This is, of course, completely a fine statement for gyaru because the entire point of getting dressed in the morning is playful allegiance to a certain subculture and peer group. And it’s fine for zany Harajuku girls because their entire concept of fashion is “wearing the most insane things possible before taking on the dull responsibilities of adulthood.” More importantly, Japanese society has not been affected by the “cool” concept: the slightly poisonous value set where effort itself is suspect. The primary way to succeed in Japan is to try very hard, and the secondary way is to look like you are trying very hard. Allegiance in Japan requires effort. Affectation is a dirty word in English, but the idea of going the extra mile in fashion — perhaps through glasses with no lenses — is a perfectly correct move for the Japanese subcultural woman.