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Wednesday, March 21, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Confessions of an outsize fashion cretin


If it is true that clothes make the man, then I confess to being poorly constructed.

Most garb hangs on me like tree moss. Shirts skew, slacks droop, belts bulge, neckties wag more than the tails of hyper-wound dogs. Colors clash with eye-aching disharmony.

It's enough to make Regis Philbin weep, or prompt Calvin Klein to surrender his business and invest his time in some other life mission, one a little less impossible.

I gather the only reason I haven't appeared on the world's worst dressed list is that nobody knows me. Dressed the way I am, it seems no one wants to know me.

Not that I mind. We fashion cretins tend not to care how we look. Yet in my case, I also have a valid excuse.

You see, I am a foreigner living in Japan . . . where gaijin-size apparel is as mythical as Big Foot -- very rarely sighted and always by other people, not me.

Still, at least Sasquatch can fill out his wardrobe with hair. In my case, I stand at the narrow mercy of Japanese clothing racks.

A funny thing, too, as I am not especially large. A plink above the average local resident and a plunk below the typical Western male. This means very few things fit. Either the sleeves are perfect but the collar crushes my windpipe or the collar is perfect and the sleeves stretch on to the next train station.

I am thus limited to a meager selection of goods, which conversely serves to expand my taste in styles. Sweaters the color of someone's recent sinus attack. Shirts printed with patterns of writhing fly larvae. Jackets adorned with English slogans penned by dyslexic dropouts.

My Japanese wife claims these things look good on me. That I was born to wear them. Of course, she often bites her lip when she says this and then dashes to the toilet, locks herself in and laughs like a loon.

For my part, I never have to worry about items matching up, since all conceivable combinations look equally odd, a conundrum that in Japan seems somehow natural. Just as hawks and sparrows have their distinctive feathering, so it goes with hunks and geeks.

Still, this is one gaijin geek who believes there must be a better way.

Logic, for example, says anything can be bought, and this should be especially true in retail-mad Japan. Given enough time, given enough money, I just know appropriate clothes are out there, in the same way Heinrich Schliemann believed doggedly in the existence of ancient Troy. But in Japan, who has time and money, except high school girls?

Logic, by the way, also says people have to eat. Should I buy that imported jersey at the sportswear shop or feed my family for a week? The natural compromise is to buy the jersey and then eat it.

The next step in the quest for finer duddery is to request good ol' mom to ship items from the States. My mother responds at once to such requests, with the catch being that I then have to wear whatever she chooses. And my mom, age 70, equates high fashion with Dennis Rodman.

So, like most foreigners lost in this land of chic, on each trip home I intake new clothes the way a fish swallows water. Pants, shirts, suits, socks, undies and shoes: I buy so much that whenever I think of America, the first image that comes to mind is always that of a clothing store.

With some chipmunk clerk gazing at me as if he had just discovered the nut of his dreams, I buy so many clothes the man begins to mumble about extending his house, unaware that if he were charging Japanese prices he'd have scored enough loot to move to Tahiti.

Once I lug everything back, the trick comes in trying to make the garments last. I own sports coats older than my teenage sons. More respectful, too. Shorts that have spent more time next to my body than my long-departed hair. Pajamas I have kept for so many years that the feet have worn completely through.

I keep all my assorted threads for so long that when a faithful T-shirt ends up in our rag drawer or an aged shoe finally kicks the bucket, I feel like I have lost a friend.

Flipping through a photo album bears this out. As my wife marvels at how young we look, I instead fight to hold back tears.

"I remember that shirt! I used to wear it to work each and every Monday! True blue to the very end -- even with ketchup stains!"

Online shopping now promises to end all such hassles. Prognosticators even say the day is growing near when scanned images of shoppers will be digitized on screen, allowing those shoppers to view themselves dressed in any available ensemble from an international warehouse of goods.

Which means I will no longer be able to blame Japan for my mismatched, ill-fitting wardrobe.

So I guess I'll just blame the computer. As far as excuses go, what a perfect fit for these high-tech times!



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