The Style History of Visual Kei

Categorised as STUFF., STYLE.

For the uninitiated, Visual Kei is a Japanese music genre that blends together punk, glam metal, speed metal and potentially the most ridiculous clothing to ever be worn onstage. It’s the kind of thing Criss Angel might blast from diamante-encrusted speakers, as he and Vince Neil circle-jerk over all the sweet gothic poon they picked up during Angel’s latest street magic tour of Osaka.

While the music itself isn’t quite the liquid diarrhoea stain on humanity that my last sentence suggests, the clothes mostly are. Forget Lady Gaga’s twee attempt at looking weird, this takes the “dressing like a fucking tool” thing to a whole new level, by taking outfit inspiration from gothic lolita, emo, steampunk, glam, and anything else that makes you recoil and throw up in your mouth a little bit.

Most musical subcultures hold strong in their aesthetic — look how little mods have changed in the last 50 years, if you need any proof — but, throughout its existence, the Visual Kei look has stolen bits and pieces of whatever the mainstream is wearing and amalgamated it all into their bizarre style of dress, which is virtually unheard of in the style dictatorship world of musical subcultures. Here’s a condensed sartorial history of the genre, so you can decide which generation of wardrobe idiocy suits you best.

X JAPAN (1985)

This, people, is where it all began; somewhere between Izzy Stradlin, Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique and pre-escort-imprisonment Boy George. Punk was giving way to hair metal as the definitive genre of its era, and X Japan got stuck somewhere in this awkward purgatory between the two. To their credit, they did manage to take the worst bits from each one — tattoos of snakes wrapped around roses, stratospheric hair, etc — and somehow set a precedent for what would evolve into the most bizarre, evolving clothing subculture in history.

MALICE MIZER (1991)

Was the Elizabethan geisha-pirate look a big deal in the early 90s? I know it’s the decade of the moment, but I suppose I was just too busy crawling around aimlessly and shitting myself in public to notice any of this going on back then. Thank God I was at the age where they were my top two pastimes. Better that than joining albino court jester bands in a depressingly misguided bid to pick up girls.

BAISER (1994)

I guess you could call this grunge-influenced, right? The whole grunge aesthetic was based on not giving a shit about what you looked like, and going on the premise that there’s no way any one these guys owned a mirror, it’s safe to say they were all about the Seattle vibes. Plus, I can totally imagine Layne Staley making out with that chick/dude on the left.

BY-SEXUAL (1996)

Punk In Drublic, …And Out Come The Wolves and Everything Sucks had all just been released, and dying your hair with Kool-Aid, maintaining low personal hygiene and being punk rawk were about the hippest things to do when you weren’t drinking brown bagged-beers and pretending you could skate. Granted, the Visual Kei guys who picked up on it were doing it in a kind of art-housey Talking Heads way, but they’d have still been right at home on the front cover of Maximumrocknroll.

BLAM HONEY (1998)

I think this might be the point where Visual Kei reached its cosmic level of stupidity. Industrial metal was terrifying the new breed of WASP mums throughout the USA, and actually doing some pretty cool things in terms of stage outfits (back when Marilyn Manson masturbated on security guards, rather than wearing aviators indoors). Of course, the creepy goth look was too much like good taste for Visual Kei bands, so they gravitated over to the other dependable style of an industrial fan: steampunk. I think the clothes in this picture let me off from explaining how inexcusably lame that all was.

AN CAFE (2004)

It’s grotesque how many teenagers’ futures emo has destroyed. Imagine, in 20 years, flicking through the interactive picture library being projected from your knife-block, and trying to explain half a decade’s worth of photos of you looking like Hot Topic threw up trilbies and pink, studded wristbands all over a skunk :(.

AYABIE (2006)

Visual Kei did new-rave in the way they’ve done every other subculture they’ve picked up on; by throwing ruffles and hair-dye at it, and making themselves look like anime characters who are desperately lost in their search for any semblance of self-awareness.

X JAPAN (AGAIN) (2012)

All the original Visual Kei bands are doing what any broke, out-of-work ex-rockstars are doing nowadays, and reforming to sell out worldwide stadium shows. I have absolutely no problem with that – a man has to support his hairspray addiction somehow – but the fact that they all look like they’ve been styled by Bono and an edgy banker at a Queen gig is massively disappointing. Literally anything beats this, even the geisha-pirate thing. R.I.P, sweet Visual Kei stupidity. You will not be forgotten.

Jamie Clifton

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