If you’re familiar with Japanese fashion and subcultures, you’ve likely heard of the gyaru (ギャル).
Gyaru, a derivation of the word “gal,” is a blanket term describing a particular fashion subculture in Japan. The style has seen many evolutions, changes, and break-offs into subgroups since the 1980s when the term was first coined. In general, the term gyaru refers to girls with lightly dyed hair, heavy make-up, provocative clothing, and matching attitude.
However, when exactly this style became an actual “thing” is something of a mystery.
The Vague History of Gyaru
There is no record indicating when the gyaru subculture officially emerged. However, many fans place its origins between 1991 and 1993. Gyaru rose due to the influence and gradual evolution of several other already-existing fashion subcultures at the time.
Many believe the gyaru fashion statement came from “totally out of nowhere”. However, it was in the early 1990s that awareness spread of droves of high school girls with lightened hair, shortened uniform skirts, and tanned skin, toting around expensive brand-name bags while wearing expensive brand-name clothes. These girls would eventually become known as kogyaru (コギャル) – the version of “gyaru” most people know today. (For the sake of the article, we will continue to refer to these girls as “gyaru” hereinafter).
As with most youth-centered subculture groups, many see the gyaru movement’s origins in teenage rebellion. However, many of those groups (such as punk) arose from the voices of the oppressed. By contrast, gyaru was more a reaction against the traditional ideals of beauty within the more affluent upper class.
What Is Gyaru Culture?
Many fashion trends tend to gain popularity due to exposure on the media. But the gyaru style gained its momentum completely on its own. It developed and changed only in accordance with the ones who started it. In other words, young girls from wealthy families who attended only the top private schools.
With many of their upper-class peers jumping on board the latest celebrity trends, these girls established gyaru fashion. It was their way of raising a middle finger to the traditional style and beauty demands of the wealthy class. It was also a rebellion against the expectation for their generation to conform.
However, coming from rather privileged backgrounds, they simply chose to spend their money in other ways. These included throwing lavish parties and splurging on luxury brands of their own choice. Gyaru wore their wears openly and casually, as opposed to taking the more “classy” approach their elders demanded. It was as if they all said, “Yes, I have money, but so what? I’ll do with it what I want.”
Because of the strong materialistic focus of the subculture of youth, gyaru equaled wealth. One had to be able to afford these expensive items of clothing for others to deem you “in”.
As the style caught on, however, it trickled into the sphere of influence of the lower-class youth cultures. “Gyaru” splintered into more subcategories to accommodate less affluent girls. This created a highly class-based nature of the subculture that was expressed by a widening variety of styles. This diversity made it easier for girls of different backgrounds and social classes to participate.
It’s All About That Face, ‘Bout That Face…
Despite this splintering, several key elements remained in all variants. The most strikingly obvious is the appearance and presentation of the face. The gyaru face is characterized by heavily tanned skin (level of tan varying by subcategory) and contrasting bright, dramatic makeup. Gyaru also bleached their hair from brown to blonde, depending on the subcategory.
Among the variations, the most dramatic in appearance is ganguro, which arose in opposition to the original gyaru style. This took the tan gyaru look to another level. Girls’ faces became much darker to the point of looking burnt. The ganguro makeup was much brighter, creating an even more extreme contrasted look.
As the look evolved over time, so did the culture associated with it. Models such as Tsubasa Masukawa rose to fame as “gyaru models” in popular fashion magazines centered on Shibuya and Harajuku styles.
Sadly, as the style expanded, so did the sexualized view of these young girls by lecherous older men. In response, some girls took the rebellion further. They adopted the ganguro look in an attempt to shut out and turn off men. It was almost as if to say “Oh yeah, whose sexy now?!” Their focus shifted to their fellow female peers. The fashion statement became more of a way to gain acceptance into these “gal circles” rather than to attract men.
The Rise of Shibuya
Before the growth gyaru, Harajuku had been the go-to shopping haven for youth and subcultures since the 1970s. However, the booming trend and changing notions of what was “in” caused a shift in shopping preferences.
Thus Shibuya rose to fame. It wasn’t just the origin of the gyaru style; it was the ultimate shopping paradise for its devotees. When Harajuku was at its peak, it was also well-known as the hotspot for the latest fashion trends. It was the place where the wealthy could find all their favorite expensive brands. But some say the gyaru – who preferred to spend differently and dress more casually – naturally gravitated towards Shibuya. There you could still find trendy items, minus the snooty upper-class atmosphere that they yearned to escape.
Shibuya 109, a shopping center in a tower-shaped building, was the city’s main attraction. It represented a shopper’s paradise for anyone even slightly interested in gyaru fashion. It still exists today (though not so much as a center for gyaru, which now barely exists).
Party Party and Para-Para
If there’s one thing gyaru were known for besides their dramatic looks, it was their affinity for nightlife and parties. In fact, some say one catalyst for the subculture’s rise was the party scene of the previous decade. Upper-class youth known as “chiima,” or “teamers,” held ridiculously expensive parties for their peers. The style perhaps originated amongst the girlfriends of these young, party-throwing boys. Even after the chiima movement died down, the party culture was carried on by the succeeding groups of girls.
An important part of these parties, and within gyaru circles in general, was a type of dance called “para-para” . Para-para was an upbeat, synchronized dance done in groups, usually to Eurobeat, new wave, and synthpop music. The movements consist mostly of upper body and hand gestures, done quickly and in sync with the music. Some liken it to the movements of a cheer squad. Because there were no recordings of the moves, and they were usually taught in person, it was considered the exclusive province of the gyaru. Sometimes, gyaru circles would even have dance competitions against each other.
Do Gyaru Still Exist?
If you were anything like me when I first visited Japan many years ago, you probably wandered around Shibuya at one point and wondered, holding on to a slight dash of hope, that you might bump into someone wearing gyaru fashion so you could see it for yourself. Well, I’m here to burst your bubble. The fashion has evolved with the times. If you do happen to come across a modern-day gyaru, chances are you won’t even notice it.
Gyaru (and ganguro) as it was known in the ‘90s is pretty much gone with the times. The gyaru style has changed, as have preferences, so even followers of the fashion have turned to more modern looks. Pale skin is now considered the “in” thing, so many have said goodbye to the tan gyaru look. And instead of the extreme ganguro makeup and crazy, wild attitudes, girls have taken a more…well, “girly” approach to fashion, opting for a super-feminine look instead.
Another factor in gyaru’s demise is the downfall of the infamous gyaru magazine egg, which ended publication in 2014. In good news, however, it recently made a reappearance as an online magazine . It publishes a physical magazine now on a reduced schedule (four times a year). There are also several other active publications, including Koakuma Ageha  and Ane Ageha .
Where to Find Gyaru Today
But if you’re a fan of this style, don’t fret! It’s not completely extinct, as gyaru subculture still plays a role in the influence of Japan’s modern fashion economy. There are still places, although few and far between, where girls who still follow the fashion trend still exist.
When I did this, I took a trip to the Ganguro Café. It was a small Shibuya café hosted by actual gyaru girls who still practice and follow the style every day. The adventurous could try out their “ganguro experience” package. The girls gave you a real makeover, transforming you into an actual ganguro yourself! I actually had the honor of playing a small role in introducing this café on Japanese national TV. I got a complete makeover and allowed to hang out with the girls in Shibuya for a day! You can get an idea of what went down below. (That’s me in the green hair.)
Sadly, Ganuro Cafe no longer appears to be operational. However, you can get a similar experience at GAL Café 10sion .
Big thanks to The Name I Love for corrections and updates to this article (December 1st, 2021).
 egg. https://eggegg.jp/
 小悪魔. https://agehaageha.jp/
 GAL Café 10sion. https://www.galcafe.tokyo/
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