In Japanese manga and anime, dramas and films, schoolgirls in sailor-style uniforms are an ubiquitous cliche.
According to Japan’s largest uniform manufacturer, Tombow Co., about 50 percent of junior high schools choose sailor-style uniforms, but only 20 percent of high schools do so. Those familiar navy blue, skirted sailor suits are no longer the majority.
The decline of the sailor suit began in the early 1980s when troubled teens caused havoc at schools, giving rise to the “sukeban (female gang)” style. Sukeban aficionados shortened the tops of the uniforms, and wore their skirts extra-long creating a tough look. Weary of these modifications, many schools switched to blazers, which were simpler in construction, and harder to dress down.
So, how did the sailor suit—a uniform originally worn by seamen from Western nations—become a standard schoolgirls’ uniform in Japan?
“In Europe, (scaled down sailor suits) were worn by children of royal families," said a Tombow official. "In Japan, they were probably seen as adorable Western-style children’s outfits, rather than navy gear.”
The easy-to-sew design, with straight lines for the distinct collar and the sides similar to Japanese style dressmaking, helped make sailor-style suits popular in Japan. Students attending girls’ schools were regularly given assignments to sew sailor suits in their home economics classes up to the 1950s. Young girls would sew sailor outfits for little children in their neighborhoods.
Sailor suits have evolved since then. In the latest styles, the bodice is more constructed. It has a front closure with a zipper or snaps. The form is snug to enhance the figure--the small collar helps the head look smaller, for better balance. The sailor suit is changing from adorable and cute, a look that “appeals to the boys,” to a uniform that “girls like to wear for themselves.”
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