J-Pop fashion show photos by Caitlin Donohue. Click on any image to expand
In late July, San Francisco’s Japantown Peace Plaza becomes this country’s ground zero for kawaii culture. J-Pop Summit Festival is the reason of the season, a be-teddied, be-ribboned amalgamation of what’s haute in Japan that brings fans from around the region for Harajuku pop-up shopping, Vocaloid dance contests, guest talks by Japanese film greats, and the occasional Pocky eating contest.
This year, fashion took a particularly central role. Pop sensation Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (you must know her) brought her tropical femme explosion to the heart of SF in a psychotic Union Square performance. A runway show in the Peace Plaza featured six Harajuku brands sent local fans and professional Japanese models down the runway in stained glass motif Lolita babydolls, neo-punk tartan-and-pizza print ensembles, and in the case of kawaii cult brand 6%DOKIDOKI, skipping and leaping wildly in rainbow tulle layers and unicorn prints, occasionally pausing for exuberant, coordinated dance routines.
Her experience at the fest — and front row post-up with model and costume shop goddess Hannah Birch Carl for Kyary’s Union Square appearance — inspired Australian queer fashion icon/Etsy seller Femme As Fuck, a.k.a. Lexi Laphor, to reflect on how she uses kawaii-cute and other kinds of femme accessories as tools for expressing radical thought. Read on.
Am I Queer Enough For You? ~By Lexi Laphor~
Femme means different things to different people. It can be an identity, a politic, a fashion, or an attitude. But though there are so many differing representations of femininity within society, it is defined and interpreted via its relationship to masculinity. Femme is often perceived within a heteronormative context, rendering it reliant on and responsive to not just masculinity, but a hegemonic notion of what masculinity is. This means that femmeness can be experienced by people not as something that is powerful and strong within itself and on its own, but rather something that needs accompaniment.
Our mermaid author at J-Pop 2013. From left, with Hannah Birch Carl, PERSON WITH BLACK HAIR, and Atoki
I try to challenge this through my fashion, to increase femme visibility. To me, femme is strong and independent and can stand alone. I often dress colorfully and use kawaii elements like pastels, bows, hair extensions, platforms and frills. My expression of fierce femmeness through personal presentation can even feel performative at times.
It was inspiring to be at the J-Pop Summit, surrounded by so many creative femmes. Many elements of costumes were handcrafted and self-designed — exciting to experience such powerful self-expression. I like to represent girliness in a queer and feministic context, so it was fantastic to be surrounded by hundreds of fellow pastel-wearing femmes. It was nice to enjoy the fashion show and musical performances in this kind of environment, it doesn’t happen frequently enough!
Expressions of femmeness through performance and fashion are often subjugated and sexualised as specific to others. The way I dress is interpreted so varyingly. Often people will make assumptions about who or what I am based on what I’m wearing and attempt to regulate my behavior to comply with these expectations.
This is most apparent when I wear girly or kawaii elements of fashion. I’m often interpreted as straight and people gender my behaviour assuming I’ll behave sweetly or passively. This is sexism! Femme is radical. My femmeness is for me. My buffalo platforms, pastel jumpsuits and my dark blue lipstick are for me. Don’t tell me I’m simply a product of society denying me any agency, this is also sexism. I am a loud and proud femme. My pastels are not producing the patriarchy.
Contradicting assumptions and stereotypes around desire, behavior and fashion empowers me. Confronting people with a complicated representation of femininity challenges them to reconsider their preconceived ideas and brings more visibility to the diversity and importance of femme.
Femme is powerful. It can stand on its own. My expression of femmeness is not targeted to male desire, it is not in need of butch affirmation and it certainly needs no androgynous approval. It’s not only marginalized in a heteronormative context, but in queer communities.
Am I queer enough for you? When I’m wearing my “girls rule” baby barrettes, many queer-identified people would suggest not. So often my sexuality is linked to heterosexuality or even desexualized. I constantly hear “I’m just not attracted to femmes,” a statement which further encourages the devaluation of femmeness. When called out it’s often defended as a personal preference or biological state of desire, “I have femme friends I just don’t want to fuck femmes.” We might not want to fuck you either! The language that takes up so much space within queer scenes around femmes doesn’t seem radical or queer to me, yet is so dominating. I often hear “dressing slutty is not political,” which further apoliticizes femmeness.
Femme can be queer, it can be political and it is certainly powerful. Resistance to marginalization and invisibility is expressed in many forms. I’ll keep wearing my ‘girls rule’ hair clip, you can keep your misogyny to yourself.