Friday, April 19, 2013

What is the fashion equivalent of a FRUITCAKE?

They were having more fun than it appears, or so we like to think.
First we were in Japan, then I was exhausted, now I am trying to remember how to write a blog post.

We chose Japan for our vacation because it looked like an easy flight from San Francisco. Eleven hours in the back of an aged United jet is not easy. It is hellish. But it was the hellish with the payoff of a fantastic vacation.

Impressions of Japan, in brief: Everything you might have read about Japanese good manners is true, as is everything you might have read about Japanese toilets. Also true: the Japanese really do eat a lot of raw fish. We ate a lot of raw fish, we ate a lot of noodles, we ate a lot of sticky rice, and Mark took Isabel to TGI Friday's the first time they escaped my clutches. Although few Japanese people speak English, it is easy to communicate with smiles, rapid nodding, and a calculator. The Japanese are agreeable and deferential with strangers, as am I, so I felt right at home. Kyoto was lovely, especially the Nishiki Market, where we bought sashimi-on-a-stick, and the Fushimi-Inari Shrine. Tokyo was flat-out thrilling. We stayed in a hotel overlooking the incredible Shibuya Crossing. None of us wanted to leave.

I think I've already told you everything we ate: fish, noodles, rice. That was about it. Here is my one moderately interesting and nominally food-related story:

In Tokyo, Isabel and I visited a mall that was populated almost exclusively by girls between the ages of 15 and 20. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of girls. I didn't have my camera and would have felt creepy taking pictures of these particular girls, anyway. I've scoured the internet for photos, but have found none. Get with it, fashion bloggers! Meanwhile, I'll have to use my words.

A typical girl in this mall (a Japanese girl, remember) had long red or blond tresses carefully worked over with a curling iron to resemble Jessica Chastain's hairdo at the Oscars. She had blue eyes, thanks to tinted contact lenses (see the girl on the right? like that), and wore false eyelashes, a lot of rouge, towering platform shoes, bare legs, and either a tiny flouncy skirt or short shorts. Really short shorts. Shorter than the shorts Jodie Foster wore in Taxi Driver, which is what I thought of.

But on top a girl might wear a pink blazer, which was part of the contradiction in the whole get-up. Short shorts, platform shoes, and a pink blazer? The look would have been straight-ahead streetwalker, except the girls favored blazers and infantile, innocent colors and accessories: pink, pale green, lace, bows, pearl buttons. Also, all these girls were immaculately turned out, not a false eyelash out of place. It was as if they had been airbrushed en masse. By contrast, Isabel, no slouch in the grooming department, looked like she was heading out to dig some ditches.

Later, I found myself standing in front of a Japanese bakery looking at the desserts. The Japanese love delicate, fussy European baked goods: napoleons, mont blanc cakes, tarts, cream puffs. You would be hard pressed to find a chocolate chip cookie in a Japanese bakery and if you did it would look all wrong, so brown and lumpy and coarse. Their desserts are pink or pale green, adorned with perfect rosettes of whipped cream, strawberries, melon balls, candied flowers, translucent gels. They are seductive and dainty. They are unabashedly artificial, precisely decorated, and every detail is impeccable.

You see what I saw, don't you? The desserts were edible versions of the outfits. The outfits were wearable versions of the desserts.

(I should note here that most women in Tokyo don't dress like those girls in the mall, but they do dress very, very neatly and well, with far more polish and flair than American women.)

I got to thinking about the baked goods-fashion connection. Here in Northern California, where we still live under the long shadow of the hippies, the rustic pastry remains in favor. We like a free-form galette, a flourless chocolate cake, a chocolate chip cookie. There are exceptions to this, like the cupcake, but rustic is the general flavor. Foods should appear natural and unaffected; too much artifice is untrustworthy; a little disarray and imperfection are considered charming.

And of course you also see this in the way we dress. Or, to compare apples to apples, the way teenaged girls dress. They wear jeans and t-shirts, shorts (though not as short as the Japanese shorts!) and Ugg boots. Makeup, but they spend an hour making it look natural. They want a few rough edges. Intentional imperfections. "Matchy-matchy" is an insult. You could say the teen look is the sartorial equivalent of scones and chocolate chip cookies, with a few cupcakes thrown in for diversity. Pleasant. Maybe a little drab.

I'm not saying that one way of dressing, baking, or being is better than the other. I don't have an opinion on that, though I'm definitely more comfortable with what I'm used to. If you hadn't already guessed, I wasn't so keen on the sexy baby doll look, but there are teenaged girls in this town who wear pajama bottoms to school, which is a serious downer. That is beyond scone. That is the clothing equivalent of a misshapen vegan muffin. Gluten-free and raw and sweetened with grated beets.

Feel free to tell me I'm full of baloney. Isabel already has.


I'm not cooking from just one book right now as it makes me monomaniacal. In a few weeks I'll get back to that, but for now I'm cooking whatever looks good from whatever book I pick up. I made meatballs with fava beans (we have several tons growing in the backyard right now) from Jerusalem the other night and they were passable. I would not make them again. I said to Owen: "What do you think of the meatballs? Say something about the meatballs."

Owen: "Something about the meatballs."

That was another thing about the trip to Japan: a solid week of 12-year-old boy humor.


  1. I took a Japanese literature course in college that included film, culture, food, and literature. Then I had a boss that lived in Japan for several years. Above all things, it seems that the Japanese love order, and it was explained to me that it is a natural consequence of overcrowding on a small island. I would guess that the sexy baby doll look is the orderly version of our teenage slut look. I bet it was fascinating! Since I don't love regimentation and overcrowding, I have never been drawn to Japan. Just hearing about the pushers for the trains gave me the willies. However, I do admire all the beauty and perfection that results from their culture of order. Glad you had a wonderful vacation! You were missed.

  2. Welcome back, finally! I think you are on to something re: the food and fashion connection. Those shibuya girls in the pic you linked to look like Jersey crossed with Provo. Utah is full of fake hair, fake eyelashes, hard makeup, and the sexy baby lifeway. Repugnant.

  3. The Cult of the Girl in Japan is also referred to as "Lolita". The first time I saw girls dressed in these outfits I thought they must be on their way to do a musical performance, but I was told they were just ordinary school girls. The getup is part little girl and part woman and sometimes very creepy. I haven't been to Japan in many years, but I'm not surprised it's still going on. Have you ever seen a place so clean and orderly? It made Switzerland look like a college frat town. You are totally correct about the food and what American girls look like when they leave the house.

  4. I'm from Southern California, but have been living in the Bay Area for 4 years. The look is definitely frumpy up here - people go out for coffee with unbrushed hair and wearing slobby clothes. A North Face fleece seems to be part of the uniform. I've worn things out of the house here that I'd NEVER wear out down there, which I've forced myself to stop doing. It's not appealing.

  5. Check out this book, and others like it, for awesome Japanese street style. The girls, in particular, really take it to the limit.

  6. My girls went to a charter school where they were REQUIRED to wear pajama bottoms and T-shirts. High-necked, crew-collared T-shirts. Except when they went on a field trip; then they were required to wear black, top and bottom, as a kind of uniform to distinguish them from other kids. Teachers called the students "scholars." Sounds terrible, but it was kind of awesome.

  7. so glad you're back. I've needed you to make me smile lately. This post did the trick.

  8. woops, I guess I needed to tell you 3 times.

  9. Yes, pajama bottoms for street wear, my favorite rant. Nothing else says "I've given up" like that. Yesterday at Meijer I saw a middle age, overweight woman/mom wearing not only pajama pants but they were red,fleece, with Minnie Mouse on them! OMG...

  10. "That is beyond scone. That is the clothing equivalent of a misshapen vegan muffin. Gluten-free and raw and sweetened with grated beets." SIDESPLITTING.

  11. Ms. Reese! You're so right - I've never made the connection between the fashion and food but I live in Japan and trust me, I know exactly what you're talking about. Imagine my surprise and subsequent dismay as I (of the American size 4) was gently informed by Japanese storeclerks that they only carry "S or M" and that I am "L or Double L." Or when I stepped out into the stickiness of Tokyo in August and realized that I was the only woman visibly sweating in her dress-suit - which was clearly off-the-rack and unbearably unfashionable.

    As far as food goes, it may still be 1955. Japan has not yet had its "natural whole grain revolution" and yes, values food that looks not only artificial, but is pointedly intended to be. I may just scream the next time a well-meaning Japanese friend offers a sugar-spun white whiff of roll cake covered in "nama cream." It's been 8 months since I've had a crusty roll or a slice of whole grain bread.

    You're right when you say that thi is a consequence of the need for order, and out of that order comes an emphasis on femininity (for women) and "kawaii" (cute) culture. And I guess out of hyper-femininity comes . . . strawberry shortcake? (Iced strawberry sponge cake, by the way, is known as "Christmas cake" here because, along with KFC, it is imagined to be the traditional Western Christmas treat. Nobody's heard of gingerbread or eggnog.)

    The good thing is, living here has encouraged me to make more of my own food. I have a blog about it: Cheers/kanpai.

  12. Jen:

    You may enjoy this clip from Portlandia on Japanese urban teens:

  13. Cute kids! Owen is quite handsome, and Isabel is gooooooorgeous!

  14. Interesting post. My family is more the slightly-crunchy Bay Area style for food and clothing. I just came across amazing latte art photos from Japan on NPR's website that go along with the beautifully styled food idea.