Welcome to the first part of my otona kawaii guide. This guide will be broken into multiple parts, and exists to provide some insight into: what otona kawaii is, it’s history, and how you can adapt it into your own life. You might be surprised to learn that it already suits a lot of what you like!
What is otona kawaii?
Simply put, otona kawaii means “adult cute” and is most often written as 大人かわいい or 大人可愛い. Generally, this means any woman that has reached adulthood and puts a significant amount of effort into appearing cute, but still professional. Though adulthood is technically 18, the style appeals most to women in their mid-20s to mid-40s, and it is not unusual for women into their 50s to consider their look otona kawaii.
History of otona kawaii
To understand otona kawaii first requires an understanding of Japanese fashion trends. Tokyo is an internationally-renowned hub for being on the cutting edge of fashion, and to this day tourists still flock to Harajuku hoping to see lolita and gyaru styles made popular by the Western world’s pop culture portrayals.
In the West, we tend to consider fashion trends sectioned by decade or even by item. 80s fashion came and went, and with it so did its leg warmers, scrunchies, and saccharine color palettes. Tokyo’s fashion scene doesn’t quite operate the same way; instead, there are “subcultures” of style that come into popularity, and when the designers and street models championing this style move on, the subculture struggles and fades out. As a result, in 2018 you’re highly unlikely to spot anyone sporting the wild and eclectic Harajuku style that was so prevalent in the 90’s and up to the early 2000’s.
The death of louder subcultures can partially be contributed to the rise of more natural-looking styles. Cue the introduction of Sweet magazine, which launched in 1999. Sweet was unique from its competing magazines in that it approached adult women’s fashion as something that could still be fun and fresh, and rarely ran features on office wear. Instead, Sweet inspired its readers to continue to have confidence outside of workplace fashion and dress to please themselves, eventually launching the otona kawaii movement. Sweet turned out to be a big success: it’s still published today, and routinely sells over a million copies per month.
According to Sweet, otona kawaii meant wearing clothes that were casual but feminine, and a happy balance between youthful, cute, and sexy, without leaning too far in either direction. Due to the popularity of the publication, in no time otona kawaii became a major fashion movement in Japan.
Spotting otona kawaii
From head to toe, otona kawaii fashion can be described as feminine, classic, and cute. Make-up and hair styling is just as important as the outfit in question. Similar to the “no make-up make-up” movement in the Western world, otona kawaii looks like you’re hardly wearing anything at all. In reality, enough is used to cover up blemishes and even skin tone, a light pink blush is standard, and neutral colors in eye make-up helps bring focus to your natural features. Lips range from pink to coral to maintain a youthful appearance (red and darker will make you look older!).
Hairstyles, while a bit more diverse, are still somewhat uniform. With Japanese women, lightening up to a medium brown is a popular choice, as are products that will provide some wave and volume. A fringe is a popular choice for making the face appear smaller – a hallmark of Asian beauty – but there are just as many instances where women choose to opt out of bangs.
With clothing, trends still occur season to season within the fashion subculture. Generally speaking, you can expect a ‘business casual’ look that fits well, compliments the silhouette, and looks neat. Clothing is usually more muted colors (natural colors, pinks, navy), but pops of color are welcome to drive home the youthfulness/cuteness of the style. The most common items you’ll see are dresses, pretty blouses, straight-legged trousers (not denim), and skirts of all kinds. In 2018 specifically, patterns are becoming less popular (polka dots, floral, etc) in exchange for solid-colored items that make one appear thinner. Likewise, flowy ankle-length skirts are currently all the rage.