When I was young, it was unusual for a female university graduate to do the same job as a man. And of course women didn’t earn the same. I rebelled against that… I never lose my ability to rebel, I get angry and that anger becomes my energy…
Rei Kawakubo's World
Rei Kawakubo grew up in the aftermath of thekuraitanithe Valley of Darkness—the name for a period of protracted economic crisis in Japan that extended through the 40s. In this time, Japan was restructuring itself in the wake of war and identities, assumptions, and aesthetics were open to reinterpretation. Old political lodestones like nationalism were beginning to give. And women, who had always been second-class citizens in the traditional Japanese society, were finding new paths towards emancipation
It is difficult to overstate the immense odds Kawakubo was up against in her attempt to push forward truly groundbreaking designs in a culture where she would have been traditionally relegated to a housewife.
After the American occupation, Japanese women were given the right to vote, but this kind of political participation was only a small part of the battle to come. As the feminist movement blossomed in the 70s and 80s, Japan was transformed. What began as a movement to raise consciousness in individual women evolved into a push to transform Japan’s fundamental social institutions and make them more inclusive. While the economic and political dimensions of this history have been well-covered, the place of fashion in this story is less discussed.
Commes des Garçons and Gender `
Kawakubo’s work has always been an ongoing commentary on sex, gender, and the status of women in society. Commes Des Garçon’s name gestures to one of Kawakubo’s primary innovations. Against the Western trend of highly sexualized, gendered garments, Kawakubo advanced a repertoire of garments that playfully transgressed the traditional markers of men’s and women’s clothing. Kawakubo’s success was enabled by the feminist movement in Japan, but it should also be seen as a crucial element of it: the aesthetic corollary to political emancipation.
At the same time, Kawakubo’s project should not just be seen as an attempt to undermine traditions and instill a new aesthetic order. On the contrary, designers like Kawakukbo and Yohji Yamamoto were reacting against the shamelessness of the American designs that had pervaded Japan in the post-war era.
While feminist history is often narrated through the lens of political activism and economic struggle, Kawakubo’s story shows how central aesthetic change is to social emancipation, and how design is a part of the history of social change. Design is the physical incarnation of society’s morality, the substance of our cultural attitudes. And in Kawakubo’s clothing, design bows to no man
Keep up with the Gone Library in the weeks to come for more deep dives on Kawakubo, CDG, and Japanese fashion.