An Illustrated Style Guide to Tokyo

Scene I: Tokyo. Girl stands in front of metro turnstyle.  It’s Wednesday morning, 8:30am.  She wears a red dress and watches, stunned, as everyone flies beside her onto the platform just ahead.  Everyone is decked in a white button down and black slacks, such that their figures create an unbroken blur of black & white.

Carl stands ahead of me (the girl), just beyond the turnstyle, giving me a raised eyebrow and waiting for me to join him. A mere twenty-five seconds must have passed since we arrived on the scene, but already I can spot a metro employee making his way towards me.  Turns out you need to tap the key rather than insert it (then why is the insertion slot the same size as the card itself, Tokyo?), but less than 12 hours in the country I’ve learned a valuable lesson: It’s hard to blend in wearing red.




I was hesitant to visit Japan initially.  It always seemed to me like a certain kind of person bucket listed the country, and I considered myself not to be that kind of person.  I don’t gobble up anime, in no way understand the lure of the Japanese game show, and merely viewing Lost In Translation gives me mild social anxiety, watching as the film’s protagonists weave in and out of neon crowds.  I do, however, love people watching, particularly style-watching, and me oh my what style you’ll find in Tokyo.

Media had saturated my mind with Sailor Moon schoolgirl jumpers and Gwen Stefani managed to get “Harajuku Girls” stuck in my head one-too-many times in my youth; so I half-wondered if stepping off the plane I’d be met with heavily eyelashed and ruffley-socked teens.

The style of the city is much more subdued than your average Harajuku street.  It won’t be all 80’s prom queens and goth royalty.  After spending a week in Tokyo I gathered a feel for the general garb of the city, and can make a few observations and packing recommendations; if I had to sum up the look of the city in three words, they’d be: Feminine. Immaculate. Neutral.

Neutral you may ask? Yes, most definitely. One of the first things that struck me on the streets was how few patterns there were, and how few colors.  Sure you’ll see an occasional polka dot or gingham, but otherwise you’re met with solids.  Colorwise the palette is pretty straightforward.  During working hours you’re met with black and white, and outside of that the palette strecthes to welcome nude, latte, light blue and navy, with baby pink or peach making the occasional appearance.


I love packing for trips.  Prior to leaving I go into basic bitch mode, and ask myself what I think the average Tokyoite, New Yorker, San Franciscan, etc., would wear (my imagination grabs inspiration from television and record covers, or the visions conjured up by classic novels).  After blindly packing I see how true-to-life my musings were and give myself a pat on the back, or deem my closet grossly inadequate for moving to said location.

For Japan I’d give myself a B. Certain pieces, like a navy ruffled top and high-waisted bowed shorts were A+.  While others, like before mentioned red printed dress, were less than perfect. The following articles made it overseas with me, and I’d consider them to be primarily on point.pants II.jpgNo jewel tones can be seen in a crowd (and you’re always part of a crowd).  So keep your reds and turquoises at home and bring with you only the most muted shades.  We visited in August, and if your suitcase is full of cream and navy you’ll blend right in.

Make no mistake though, navy doesn’t mean denim. Jeans are not a popular choice.  Most opt for a menswear trouser, a fitted slack or a wispy silk pant.  When jeans do make an appearance, they’re immaculate.  There better be zero muffin top, either a very fitted or very full-legged cut, no stains and no tears (unless they’re brand new and came pre-torn).  If you can’t bring denim perfection, stick to a skirt.  Denim sightings were frequently shirts tied at the waist, so unlike the U.S., jeans aren’t necessarily a fashion staple but an accessory.

For skirts, keep it A-line — the fuller the better.  Get volume, get a swish when you walk and keep it just above the knee or right at the ankle.  Teeny tiny minis are uncommon, and when spotted they’re usually paired with knee high socks or opaque tights.  You won’t find a lot of exposed skin, even during the summer months. Play it coy, cowboy.

And on top? Sweet-as-can-be blouses with peter pan collars or ruffles, oversized sweaters with comic book or Looney Tunes characters, or tees advertising other cities, particularly Brooklyn. I spent a week in Tokyo total and saw Brooklyn named on tee-shirts, backpacks and sweaters.  Tokyoites cannot get enough of this borough.

shirts IIThe feetsies are adorably adorned as well.  Stilletos are few and far between, replaced instead with cute as a button flats paired with socks, kitten heels with peep toes (which peep in on a stockinged foot) or wedge platforms.  When platforms make an entrance they kick the door down; I’m talking adding 4-5 inches onto the wearer of said shoe. If Tokyo had a shoe motto, it’d be “keep it low, or make it sky high”.

accessories.jpgJapan is the land of separates: it’s all about a trouser or a puffy skirt, less dress focused.  If you’re a dress-kinda-gal though, don’t pack anything super skimpy or mega-tight. You won’t find strapless dresses on the streets. Instead, if a dress can be spotted, you’ll see loose and flowing dresses hitting the knee or a sundress fitted perfectly at the waist, with thick straps and a pencil skirt.

dresses II

Two styles seemed to dominate: hyper-feminine or menswear chic. The former you’ll find donning shades of baby blue and pink, wearing ruffles, tiered skirts, sheer shirts, polka dots, bows, white-white socks, pigtails, rounded collars and skirts fitting right at the waist. The later comes into play with baggy trousers, bowler hats, penny loafers, boxy blazers, double breasted jackets, short bobbed hair and oversized leather clutches or attaché cases.

To simplify things, do you want to be cute? Or cool?

General rules to consider as you’re trying to cram everything into your suitcase:

  • Neutral colors. Pack shades of blue and ivory and you’ll do fine.
  • Feminine pieces. Think bows and rounded collars.
  • Slacks. Wear trousers in lieu of denim.
  • Socks and tights. Keep those toes covered in public.  Also, when entering attractions like shrines, temples and palaces taking off your shoes can be a requirement, so if wearing sandals, throw a pair of socks in your bag to change into.  Otherwise, you may be putting communal slippers on your bare feet at your next stop.


  • Anything pilled, holey or stained. Fabrics should be in perfect condition.
  • A lot of cleavage. Stick to a more modest neckline.
  • Bold patterns. Keep the Zebra print in your closet.
  • Ripped denim. If you’re packing jeans go skinny or full-legged, but ill fitting/torn/”sloppy” denim is a no-no.
  • Bright colors.  Kelly greens and scarlets will make you stick out like a sore thumb on the metro.
  • Tons of makeup. Faces in Japan are more modest.  Glowing and youthful skin is more sought after than a smokey eye and dark lip.  Think less vampy and more girlish.  If you want to enhance one feature, make it the eyelashes. Feel free to get those puppies as full and tall as you want, but pair them with a champagne eyeshadow.  A full-on smokey eye is uncommon.

Happy packing!


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