In Praise of Sheer Perfection: Ballet, Clothing and Japanese Culture

Yale University Press
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Dance and Fashion, 2014, pp. 309 - 351 (42)
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Classical ballet has been an icon of romantic imagination in Japanese culture since the end of Second World War. This is particularly owing to the popularity of shōjo manga (girls’ comics). Its unofficial (sub)genre “ballet manga,” both shaped and reflected social and historical reality – from sparkling as a symbol of glamour and romantic dream in the precarious times of the after-war period to mediating the challenges of addressing feminine independence and psychological complexity in the 1970s onwards. This notably “feminine” emphasis of the art form, which corresponds with the female dominance in ballet learning in the country, poses a number of questions relating to ballet, fashion, and gender. What aspects of ballet have made it so admired in Japanese girls’ and women’s cultures? Does the art form infiltrate Japanese men’s and boys’ culture, too? If so, how? This chapter will attempt to answer these questions. I argue that not only fairy tale-like romantic narratives of ballet, but also conventional ballet costumes for females, which can be described as “the long white, bell-shaped dress made of layers of muslin, or a variety of muslin called tarlatan,” appeal to girls and women in contemporary Japan. The increasing attention paid to male learning of ballet, which coincides with emerging young ballet boys who achieve international fame, both corresponds with and problematizes a recent tendency in Anglophone culture to “masculinize” ballet in order to lure boys into learning the art form. Japanese stars of competitive figure skating, a close and sporty cousin of ballet with its combination of decorative outfits, artistry, and high level of athleticism, in turn, challenges the accusation that elegance “feminizes” and by implication devalues the seriousness and athleticism of the sport.
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