The biggest fashion mistake you could possibly ever make as a foreign woman in Japan is one that would probably never cross your mind. This is why I’ve come up with “What (Not) To Wear in Japan: A Guide For Professional Women.”
This post is part reference, part entertainment and based on several fashion mistakes that I’ve made during the course of my life in Japan.
And, I’m not talking about adhering to outdated J-fashion genres or treating life as a 24/7 anime and cosplay convention. I’m talking about going to a formal event dressed like you just came from a funeral!
What (Not) To Wear in Japan: A Guide For Professional Women
Take a look this outfit:
She’s got the “no makeup” makeup look going on which matches her understated attire. She’s obviously trying to make a “great impression” at her new company or her child’s school entrance ceremony. A knee-length black dress with a flattering neckline is classy. There’s no way anyone could find her outfit offensive…right?
Right, except the outfit above is mofuku (喪服) or standard funeral attire in Japan.
(You might also notice that Japanese celebrities wear similarly somber outfits when making a public apology or court appearance.)
Learning how to tell the difference between mourning wear (moufuku // 喪服) and formal wear (礼服 // reifuku) will save you a world of embarrassment when it comes to attending social functions in Japan.
Let’s get started!
What (Not) To Wear in Japan: All About Formal Attire
Formal attire is worn at one of 4 ceremonial occasions, collectively called kankonsousai (冠婚葬祭 // かんこんそうさい).
It covers everything from Japanese funerals, weddings, entrance and graduation ceremonies.
Here’s how it breaks down:
冠 : Events dating back to the Nara Period where you wear a ceremonial headpiece (kanmuri // 冠) during special events to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. In modern times, these events are Shichi-Go-San, Coming of Age Day and school graduation ceremonies.
婚 : 結婚式 // kekkon// weddings
葬: 葬式 // soushiki // funerals
祭: 祭 // matsuri//seasonal celebrations
You’re probably thinking about neighborhood festivals, and to some extent there’s a connection because these festivals have Buddhist/Shinto origins.
However, when it comes to formal wear, the events you’re most likely to be involved with are Ohigan (お彼岸), Obon (お盆), and Houji (法事), memorial services for deceased family members.
Ideally, you’ll want to have the following kankonsousai outfits in your closet:
Entrance ceremonies & weddings: cream (or pastel) outfit
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Entrance ceremonies and weddings signal a new beginning so celebrate with light colors.
The mood you’re looking for is hanayaka (華やか // light, joyful) but that does NOT mean excessive floral prints and bright colors. (Look, I don’t write the rules, I’m just trying to help.)
By the way, this tweed J Crew sheath dress is my personal “go to” outfit! I’ve worn it on numerous occasions, including our Shichi-Go-San shrine visit/family photo shoot and again for the start of the year school ceremony.
School interviews, Omiyamairi, Shichi-Go-San & graduation ceremonies: black, navy, or (dark) gray outfit
Why muted colors like navy and black? Aren’t graduations supposed to be celebrated? Yes, but it’s your kid’s special day, not yours. (Sorry to be blunt, but again, I don’t write the rules.)
Funerals and wakes: black mourning outfit
Now, if you’re wondering what makes a mourning dress/suit different from any other black dress/suit, the key difference is the fabric.
The black fabric of mourning clothes will have little to no sheen or luster to it. When shopping online or in-store, look/ask specifically for 喪服 (mofuku).
Likewise, your heels and handbag should be made of a material that’s not shiny or flashy.
What (Not)To Wear in Japan: Formal Wear On a Budget
What if you’re on a budget or don’t want to make unnecessary purchases for a one-time event? Here are few ways you can dress up a basic black or navy suit to create an appropriate outfit:
A white pearl necklace is a safe choice, whether you’re attending a funeral, wedding, entrance ceremony, or graduation ceremony. When it comes to earrings, stick to classic types like diamond/pearl studs, dainty hoops, and tear drops.
As masks are still a large part of daily life in Japan, why not match your mask to your outfit?
For funerals, you’ll naturally want a black mask, but choose one made from non-reflective materials. You might want to consider a wireless mask made from flexible fabrics to keep you comfortable throughout the ceremony.
For festive occasions, have some fun with frills and pastels.
Color, Details & Fabric
Coordinate your black or navy suit with a chiffon or lace blouse, in cream or pastel color.
Details like ruching, ruffles, pleats and scalloped hems/necklines can soften an all-black outfit
You can also play around with the material of your shoes, which is very useful if you don’t want to wear high heels, but still want a formal appearance.
Tweed and embossed (p)leather are great choices. However, you want to avoid (faux) suede, fur, and animal print at a wedding as these materials represent the loss of life (殺生 // sesshou).
If you don’t like the look of nude tights (or if “nude” ins’t your color,) opt for sheer tights in black, navy, or brown.
Sheer tights with simple rhinestone embellishments on the ankle are a great way to make a statement if your shoes are “simple.”
Finally, finish your look with a smokey eye in shades of brown and neutral lip. Or, go for coral lips with soft pink/nude eyeshadows. Check out this post for makeup tips: Where To Buy Makeup In Japan.
What (Not)To Wear in Japan – Tips
Before I end this post, I want to share a few tips that have helped me tremendously throughout my years of shopping for women’s clothes and shoes in Japan.
Dress For Your Body Type Rather Than What’s Trendy
This isn’t a Japan-specific shopping tip, but I think it’s incredibly important to keep in mind that the fashion industry is all about trends. Now, trends can be cyclical, but are often transitory. Trends change fast, and it’s not always easy to know how to adapt them to your body shape.
This doesn’t mean that you should avoid all fashion trends and ignore what’s popular. But, your purchases will go a long way if you invest in clothes that flatter your body type and play up your features.
For more information on dressing your body type, check out this super-handy post on Stitch Fix: https://www.stitchfix.com/women/blog/fashion-tips/find-fit-for-your-body-type/
Don’t Get Caught Up In Size Labels
I know this is a classic example of “easier said than done” in a country where M or “free size” is the default. However, don’t let sizes discourage you from shopping for clothes and shoes in Japan! After all, no one is going to see the label inside of clothing, so why does it matter what it says?
For what it’s worth, I have a denim and lace jacket that I bought in China that has XL on the label. It’s one of my favorite Spring pieces and it makes me laugh every time I pull it out of the closet.
Splurge on Alterations, Dry Cleaning & Shoe Repair
The three best things you can do for your wardrobe are getting your clothes tailored, seasonal dry cleaning, and keeping your shoes in great shape.
Once you’ve invested in quality pieces, you’ll save money in the long run by not needing to replace items frequently. As a bonus, you’ll be able to buy more quality secondhand items and breathe new life into with a few simple repairs, alterations, or dry cleaning.
Replace the insoles of your shoes frequently, and get your shoes re-heeled before the nub shows!
For most mid-rage shoes, a place like Mister Minit (often found inside train stations) will do the job. But, if you have high-end shoes or need difficult repairs, your best bet is their atelier services.
What (Not) To Wear in Japan: A Guide For Professional Women – Final Thoughts
It’s important to keep in mind that Japan leans conservatively, especially when it comes to fashion trends outside major cities. With that said, it’s all up to your personal preferences when stepping out in Japan. I hope this post will serve as a great guideline for your next formal engagement!