If you watch any fashion show around people who are not into clothing, you are bound to hear a variation of the following sentence: “Nobody would wear that!” They usually refer to the fact that people wouldn’t wear such clothes in a day-to-day context, go to work on them, use them in the supermarket, etc. Their mind starts wandering towards the utilitarian aspect of clothing: they should cover your body. They should fit your body. They should fit “the situation”. If you’re feeling especially casual, maybe they should tell people what band you like or what’s your favorite game. Are you going to a concert? Good opportunity to wear that Metallica one. Are you going to a gaming event? Well, you know the drill. Their function is systematic.
They should “fit”.
There is some resistance to clothing as a conscious artistic expression. And by artistic expression, I mean something beyond “personal” expression. Clothes do not necessarily need to say something about you. They can just say something. Creating a specific aesthetic sensation, showing a creative combination, etc. Those things can say something about your personality, of course, and they do, but they can be a piece in itself, and your body is just treated as the installation or the canvas — a part of the art, and not the art itself.
When talking about character design, utilitarianism still permeates the collective unconscious. You know, a character design should say something about the character! It’s so important because it contributes to surface-level semiotics: that big guy in heavy armor is a gentle protector or a sergeant type, and the scantily clad lady in black holding knives doesn’t get attached to anyone because, you know, she dresses like a ninja and therefore she’s mysterious and hard to get.
However, the expression of self is not exclusively unconscious. It doesn’t necessarily bloom from a character’s deepest traumas and it doesn’t automatically show his will and courage, because the character is usually not aware of said traits. No matter how simple, expression is also very conscious — especially when talking about clothing. It’s a decision you have to make. People usually have more than one article to wear, and there are just so many ways a suit can show your gaping insecurities. Sometimes it’s just because your boss asked you to wear a suit to that meeting. It’s not externalized phrenology — it can be, but it’s not a requirement. Characters thinking a weird shirt is pretty can be as meaningful as a shirt with a hole in its left side because the character’s heart was broken three years ago.
You know how streetwear was suddenly popular at the turn of the millennium? Baggy pants, scratched denim, caps, extravagant colors. It wasn’t just a natural expression of the times because suddenly everyone started thinking it was cool. It was caused by a specific socioeconomic phenomena.
Global logistics and international relations made the rise of imitation brands possible. Poor people could go to open-air markets and buy a fake version of a high-fashion piece of clothing, made by someone on the opposite side of the world, for a fraction of the price. Fast fashion was also becoming a thing, where department stores would sell clothes influenced by famous brands but in a much more affordable (and low-quality) way. Lower-class people wanted to look a little richer, and brands were more and more ingrained in their heads as a way of showing/attaining this fake social status.
At the same time and on the other side of the spectrum, due to widespread social criticism from numerous different sources, the wealthy wanted to pass off as a little poorer as a way of showing class conscience. They wanted to approach class struggle in a “we’re all equal, so we can wear the same styles of clothes” way. The early 2000s were also a time when hip-hop was gaining traction in the mainstream.
Cue Christian Dior’s (amazing) 2001 Spring/Fall campaign:
Although named "Ready-To-Wear", the runway models were of course overproduced. They were a statement: rich people can also dress in rags and things that are smaller or bigger than their bodies. It's cool. You can mix metals and baggy clothes, you can tear denin, and you can mix leather with military prints. It's fine. You can "not care about mixing and matching" in a very careful way.
For a moment, there, people were trying to actively be what they weren't through clothing. They wanted to convey the opposite of their "character traits", and they were able to do it because clothes are attachable, accessories, an appendix to anyone's actual existence. They aren't the existence itself. They can be changed, manipulated. "Character design" is deterministic in a way that can ardently hurt the expression of human emotion.
Although during that same timeframe, Japan's fashion trends weren't about masking your wealth, they were going through similar "using fashion to actively hide your identity" trends regarding gender (visual kei is a very clear example). Nonetheless, the basis of the argument is the same.
Bringing all this around to gaming, the usual critique of legendary artist/director Tetsuya Nomura's "nonsensical" design and his overreliance on "belts and zippers" ignores the fact that it's very clear that Nomura is much more influenced by high fashion than he is by conventional character design (although with good faith you can see that his designs are very purposeful narrative-wise as well). His characters wear clothes as people who care about clothes would design them for a runway: with many accessories, things that don't serve a proper function other than to look cool, and without necessarily preparing for catastrophic things happening in their way. They don't need to say something about a character's flaw or strength, but they serve a colorful purpose of showing a character's taste, something that won't be relevant in a story but will be relevant when thinking about them after the story is done.
The Bouncer, a game whose characters were designed by Nomura, is very much a story about people hiding things from each other through clothing. It was also not coincidentally released between 2000 and 2001 (December in Japan, January in North America) and was, among a lot of other things, about people from lower classes having to "earn" the right to live alongside the higher class, and people from said high class cluelessly living with (and enjoying) lower class culture.
Spies are able to infiltrate lower-class jobs (like, uh, being a bouncer) just by wearing fake tattoos and dressing like they would. Robots that look like robots are stuck in industrialized mechanical zones doing menial tasks and suffering from random acts of vandalism, while robots that look like people can own bars and make friends. Energy is more relevant than money because people can fake money, but they can't fake other resources needed to live.
You, as a player, can also choose whoever you want to inhabit in any scene. It's a very simple game: you punch and kick people in a 3D environment and gain experience points for the character you were controlling if you manage to land the killing blow (also an important feature: although the three main characters are friends, they are also competing for resources [in this case, EXP]). When the fight ends, you can spend the EXP on new skills and then you select the character you want to control in the next scene. You do that for the next hour and a half and the game ends, urging you to play it again, controlling different characters this time, because they go through a couple of different missions. The scenes themselves also vary by the character you choose to control, having more or fewer lines in any given cinematic and even some secret bosses depending on what scenes you choose to participate in or avoid.
A couple of characters even get alternate clothes as you keep repeating New Game + cycles! The soundtrack, composed by Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi (Final Fantasy X-2!), is also full of synths, guitars, and hip-hop beats, making it impossible to describe apart from maybe "very 2000s" in the sense that it is a melting pot of purposefully undefined concepts, leading you with classical motifs before dropping city-pop-esque notes with metals out of nowhere.
Is the game a beat'em up? A cinematic adventure? An RPG, with clearly defined character progression? A fighting game? Why are the most important story beats given during loading screens on which you have no control over the duration?
The gameplay itself depends on that era: although it's perfectly possible to beat the game through modern means, if you want to perform a weak attack, you need to be playing it using a DualShock 2 Controller in an original PlayStation 2, as it's one of the few games that actually uses that joystick's pressure sensitive buttons, something that is not industry standard anymore. There are surplus buttons that they could have used, and they still chose to do it in that specific way instead of assigning certain actions to more than one combination. It's another accessory, another decision that someone actively made and we can only interpret.
And at the end, the game doesn't even tell you that you should "be yourself" instead of "faking it". No, most characters keep living their lies because that's what they have to do, that's what society expects of them, and after a couple of generations they wouldn't even know that those are lies. It's just life. It becomes not what society expects of them anymore, just what they expect of themselves. After a couple of years, a mask is indeed a personality.
Fashion as art is something that is on the rise again. The pandemic, Instagram, and TikTok were all very influential in current trends, and both big and small brands can capitalize on that. People are also much more conscious about the environment, learning how to re-purpose clothing instead of just throwing them away, motivating thrift shopping just as much as spending money on designer brands (that last much longer, too). On top of that, new generations are becoming more and more open to each other's appearances, expanding the scope of what is acceptable and aesthetically pleasing, clothing and body-wise.
Couture in the 2000s was used to emulate specific trends in order to appeal to both a more class-conscious world and to make fun of it, presenting people with drastically different lives as if they belonged to another social group, while everyone kind of knew that they didn't. Those clothes are now being repurposed, twenty years later, and they can actually make people connect through their hobbies and interests, their appearance being just another accessory and not their defining trait. Fighting or conforming are not things you express by what you wear anymore — you can inhabit one and show the other, and the contrast is the art itself. The "yourself" part of expression is just a trinket that you can choose to wear.
To see the influences of 2000's fashion in today's culture is very easy and un-anachronical. The concepts today are a direct evolution that is able to resignify old ones instead of denying them, gathering what sticks and improving on their basis.
Similarly, The Bouncer is very much a 2000s game, and its relevancy today is a direct result of that. It doesn't matter if no one today would wear those clothes: the next generation might do it, and proudly.
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