Be inspired by bold and eccentric “fashion tribes” in 10 very different countries.
Fashion subcultures around the globe express themselves in astonishingly creative ways, from Burmese punk rockers to Mexican pointy boots. These counterculture “tribes” are united by their passion for experimental styling, which visually demonstrates their rejection of social norms.
Members of style tribes wear outlandish outfits to express empowerment, rather than—as “normcore” dressers may assume—for the shock factor. Some, like Bolivia’s indigenous cholita or China’s rural shamate, dress flamboyantly to stand up to social oppression. Others, like Japan’s Victorian dollies and Congo’s dandies, draw upon past aesthetics to build a novel style that reflects their values.
Take a look beyond the sartorial surfaces, and unravel the meaning behind 10 of the world’s most imaginative fashion subcultures.
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Harajuku Style Tribes
WHERE: Tokyo, Japan
For decades, Tokyo’s Harajuku district has been the epicenter of wild street fashion. Although the area has now grown more mainstream, Harajuku remains one of the best places in the world to see youths dressed in over-the-top outfits. Trends move quickly here, and “style tribes” are constantly evolving. However, you’ll likely come across Gothic Lolitas, or living Alice in Wonderland dolls in bell skirts and lace parasols. You might spot teens wearing Fairy Kei (1980s pastel childhood nostalgia), or Decora (rainbow hair covered in dozens of cute-faced clips). In a country with rigid social expectations, Harajuku provides a space for Japanese youths to meet up, play, and pose.
WHERE: Yangon, Myanmar
Yangon-based punk rockers Rebel Riot are known for their hard-edged songs that rail against political corruption. The musicians and their friends wear dyed mohawks with studded and torn DIY clothing and are covered in piercings and tattoos. Despite their hardcore looks, Burma’s punks are a compassionate cadre. Between rocking out at concerts, they run nonprofits that help children and the homeless, including in Rakhine State. Anyone is welcome to join the spiky-haired crew and volunteer in the community, such as by distributing food to the hungry and collecting school supplies for rural schools.
WHERE: Brazzaville, Republic of Congo
Take a stroll through Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, and you may be surprised to see locals dressed in fine French suits and fedoras, posing like rock stars amid their surroundings. These fashionistas, known as “sapeurs” and “sapeuses,” emerged in the Roaring Twenties when locals began imitating the dress of French colonists. Today, sapeurs continue to take pride in dressing up in tailored suits with matching silk handkerchiefs, which they wear with swagger. In addition to showcasing their big personalities, Congo’s dandies are taking control of their country’s identity and leading it towards a more affluent and cosmopolitan future.
INSIDER TIPBrazzaville’s sapeurs and sapeuses tend to dress in French couture by designers like Pierre Cardin and Jean Paul Gaultier. In Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the styling is more eclectic and spans everything from Japanese layering to neons and tartans.
WHERE: Marrakesh, Morocco
Motorcycles have become the most popular way for residents to get around Marrakesh. Groups of women have taken to riding motorbikes together, dressed in traditional garments with a vivacious twist. Moroccan culture still encourages a conservative dress code for local women. In a gesture of rebellion, these “easy riders” wear djellaba (a long North African robe with full sleeves) in head-turning prints like zebra stripes and rainbow polka dots. Some of the motorcycle ladies wear a niqāb, or Muslim face covering, but pair it with funky sunglasses. It’s a delight to see these brave, fashionable women zipping through the medina gates, and spreading their wings in Morocco’s evolving society.
WHERE: Seoul, South Korea
In Korea, it’s common to see couples on a date wearing identical outfits—a sartorial choice that seems odd in a Westerner’s eyes. Partners can even visit “twinning” clothing stores and choose outfits with coordinated fabrics, cut, or accessories. The phenomenon of matching couples may have stemmed from Korea’s strong focus on romance culture. Young people love to watch heart-wrenching K-dramas and celebrate relationship milestones, such as the 100-day mark from when they started dating. Korean culture also shies away from public displays of affection, so matching looks are a way for lovers to show that they belong together.
WHERE: United Kingdom
Steampunk fashionistas dress as if they’re living in a futuristic version of 19th century England, filled with fantastical clockwork inventions powered with steam. At events like Asylum Steampunk Festival in Lincoln, you can marvel at neo-Victorian ladies in bustle skirts and striped stockings, and gentlemen in waistcoats and top hats. This sci-fi subculture produces a lot of “mad scientists” that create their own intricate accessories, such as brass goggles and pocket watches.
WHERE: Gaborone, Botswana
Heavy metal music has fans worldwide, but Botswana has an unexpectedly diehard scene. Before a concert, locals spend hours dressing up as if they were preparing for the apocalypse. Their all-black outfits may include skin-tight pants strung with metal chains, and leather jackets decked out in studs and fringe. In a departure from the Western style, Botswana’s metalheads complete their look with black cowboy hats, since many of them work at ranches during the day. They may also wear animal horns and hunting knives as a nod to their African heritage. Botswana’s cowboys often band together and take photos with hands raised in the devil horns sign, before raising hell at a death metal show.
INSIDER TIPMetalheads also flock to the town of Maun, nicknamed “Maun Rock City.” Every winter, headbangers gather at Metal Mania music festival, which takes place in the middle of the Kalahari Desert.
WHERE: El Alto, Bolivia
Ever since the Spanish colonized Bolivia in the 16th century, the Aymara and Quechua people have suffered mistreatment. Today, the indigenous women are fighting back—quite literally, as lucha libre-style wrestlers. Cholita fashion exudes sass and confidence: colorful skirts with big petticoats, embroidered shawls, and two long braids under a bowler hat. These women perform theatrical body slams and acrobatics in the ring, to the wild cheers of the crowd. As successful professional wrestlers, the Cholitas are setting a strong example as independent women, as well as taking a stand against classism and domestic violence in Bolivia.
INSIDER TIPCholita wrestling matches take place several times a week in El Alto. Travelers are encouraged to book transportation and tickets through a tour company, for ease and safety.
WHERE: Mainland China
China has experienced unprecedented prosperity in recent decades, but not everyone is sharing in the good times. In rural areas, many young people have remained impoverished and stagnant. Some have moved to the cities, but instead of a better life, they’ve found low-level work and been marginalization by elites. These disgruntled youths bonded on the internet over “shamate” style (pronounced like “smart”), which can be described as emo meets glam rock. Shamate dye their hair bold colors and tease it into anime-style spikes. To intensify their look, they add dark eye makeup and J-rock Goth clothing. For young migrant workers, shamate fashion is a visual middle finger to those who diminished them. It also gives them a way to express their identities and feel less alone.
Mexican Pointy Boots
WHERE: Mexico City, Mexico
A new genre of electronic music, called tribal guarachero, has been making waves in Mexico City nightclubs. The sound fuses elements of hard techno, cumbia, and pre-Columbian instrumentation. At one of these parties, you’ll likely see dancers in pointy cowboy boots, some with tips extending 10 inches or more. All-male dance troupes popularized this unusual footwear during their frenetic dance-offs. Many glammed up their elongated shoes with sequins and flashing lights and completed the look with skinny jeans, button-down shirts, and cowboy hats. Somehow, Mexico’s “pointy boots” can execute high-energy choreographed dance moves without tripping over their toes.