The Non-Politics of Keffiyeh and Bohemians

The big meta-trend for Japanese fashion this spring/summer is “bohemian,” which mainly manifests in loose white cotton tunics and flower-print dresses. Opposed to being a homegrown trend, this new interest in hippie aesthetics is a global fashion industry directive imported into Japan. This year boys got “American/British Trad” and girls got “Bohemian.” As a result, the young Japanese bohemians of 2008 reflect none of the “unorthodox or anti-establishment political or social viewpoints” inherent to historical Bohemianism (Wikipedia). The trend is purely visual — a relaxed look using loose natural fabrics, ethnic patterns, and Native American headbands. Dropping any sort of philosophical depth has thus allowed the look to fit equally in the pages of serious high-fashion mag Spur and office-lady-friendly CanCam. In fact, there is an inverse proportion at work: the greatest adopters of the bohemian look tend to be the least likely to have an interest in arty things.

Slightly related to the bohemian trend is the prominent use of keffiyeh amongst both Japanese men and women. The traditional Middle Eastern patterned scarves have been popular in hipster circles overseas as well, but the fashion information complex in Japan has once again been able to mainstream a global look to a degree seen nowhere else.

In the West, the keffiyeh have sparked a debate over perceived pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel meanings. In the past, Leftist-types intentionally embraced the keffiyeh as a symbol of Palestinian solidarity. Recently Urban Outfitters tried to sell the scarves as simple accessories, but complaints forced them to pull them (before quietly bringing them back in non-traditional colors and a new name: “desert scarves.”) The Japanese industry will not have to worry about such political debates; just as bohemianism is only a visual aesthetic, a keffiyeh is just something that looks cute with a sleeveless t-shirt and work-pants. Moreover, Japanese retailers aren’t even calling them keffiyeh (クーフィーヤ) but “afghan stoles” (アフガンストール), based apparently on the “afghan”-style in which they are worn. (An internet search for the word “keffiyeh” in Japanese points to its historical definition rather than a shop list.)

With the item’s name redefined to point miles away from the Palestinian conflict and the patterns reformed to embrace trendy houndstooth-check, Japanese shoppers have few reference points to connect their fashion choices back to a global political context. Many argue that all Japanese culture inherently detaches the signifier from the signified, but this is not entirely true. Japanese punks may not be delinquent enough in behavior, but they are clearly attracted to the aesthetics of punk anger and rebellion. In a similar way, keffiyeh were very popular around 2001 amongst Ura-Harajuku street fashion boys, who found a tough militaristic meaning in the scarves to match their camouflage pants. They may have not known specifics about the PLO, but the context of armed struggle played into the item’s styling.

The keffiyeh used in this year’s fashion, however, are completely politics-free, primarily a result of the process of importation and mediation. Fashion magazines and retailers could easily explain or reference the historical backdrops to both bohemianism and keffiyeh, but they intentionally do not. Why? The broader cultural context would only make these trends’ adoptions more difficult for consumers. If the item is specifically shown to signify a philosophy or political position, the consumer would then be making a “statement” in choosing to wear it. CanCam girls would suddenly have to worry about whether they are “bohemians” instead of “in style.”

In general, Japanese fashion is not about statements: it’s about following a set of seasonally-changing rules within a chosen subculture. So the industry is best off pretending like these fashion items are just trends, eliminating all possible barriers for consumers. Depth and context are minefields for selling Japanese fashion.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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8 Responses to “The Non-Politics of Keffiyeh and Bohemians”

  1. Matt Says:

    Is the “Folklore” thing a subset of Bohemia? Seeing this term used to mean “anything embroidered” is what I have enjoyed most about fashion journalism so far this year.

  2. Jared Says:

    Of course, you could look at this as the ultimate subversion, getting Office Ladies to unknowingly side with the PLO. Don’t things have a secret history beyond whatever meanings their users give them (or don’t give them, as the case may be)? In the American context, what fashion revolution had more impact than the mass adoption of blue jeans? And how many people still associate them with the working class?

  3. W. David Marx Says:

    Folklore was a big descriptor for Japan Fashion Week this Spring too. It encompasses a wide range of motifs.

    getting Office Ladies to unknowingly side with the PLO.

    I have a hard time believing that a purple-and-yellow hounds-tooth check keffiyah-esque “afghan stole” has anything to do with the P.L.O.

  4. marisa Says:

    ah, the politics of fashion… or the impolitic of it at least. I don’t know whether it is a good thing or a bad thing to make objects have no meaning at all, except the rudimentary and quasi-degrading meaning of ‘being in style’. Which just means that you are not really adopting the fashion polemics of the subculture but merely adhering to the common rule of the corporations that tell you what and how to wear your clothes.

    Here’s to hoping that someday people will finally have some sense in wearing things that mean something to them.

    Rgrds,

    Me

  5. sly Says:

    “Does Dunkin’ Donuts really think its customers could mistake Rachael Ray for a terrorist sympathizer? The Canton-based company has abruptly canceled an ad in which the domestic diva wears a scarf that looks like a keffiyeh, a traditional headdress worn by Arab men.” … Peep it: http://www.boston.com/ae/celebrity/articles/2008/05/28/dunkin_donuts_yanks_rachael_ray_ad/

  6. W. David Marx Says:

    Glad you posted that. Japan is at least spared from hyperventilating on the sight of a keffiyeh.

  7. a Says:

    The palestine scarves are a highly popular youth trend in Euorpe. Not some small circle thing. The design is usually streched pretty far from the original checkers though with pretty unpolitical flower patterns and such.

    I happen to have the exactly same scarf the ladies in the news link are wearing and so does my neighbour and his girlfriend. It gets embarassing standing at the bus stop at the same time with so many people wearing those.

  8. Rob Jones Says:

    Apathy pisses me off. Now, I can’t avoid looking like a hipster. Might not seem to bad for those who don’t stand for anything (most people), but it’s irritating for actual leftists to have our symbols deprived of meaning. It’s a lot like gentrification.

    “Why can’t people just wear what they want?” Easy for someone who doesn’t have anything relevant to symbolize to say. SOme of us do have things we want to communicate, and we don’t like being muffled in consumerism and meaninglessness.