Dressed to Kill la Kill: The overlooked power of fashion’s rebellious history

By: Vrai Kaiser March 5, 20210 Comments
Ryuko fending off her leering shirtless teacher by flipping up her blade with her foot

Spoilers for Kill la Kill

Content Warning: Discussion of sexualization of minors

Nobody can say that Kill la Kill wasn’t an ambitious show. The internet is littered with hot takes regarding the show’s approach to capitalism, fascism, and sexuality, each with their own stance on how well the show executed its contentious themes—AniFem itself even has one. But the longer I sit with it, the most overwhelming feeling I’m left with is one of disappointment. While Kill la Kill was all about clothes and the way commodification objectifies bodies, it missed the opportunity to talk about the rich history of rebellion using fashion. And moreover, it failed to interrogate the real villains running the show.

The history of fashion is one of cycles: things come into fashion, go back out, and return. Large-scale trends resurface by way of what’s known as the “20 year nostalgia rule,” as a generation comes of age and power and looks back on what they remember from their childhood. Most importantly for this discussion, the culture inevitably needs a counterculture.

In the world of Kill la Kill, the resistance is represented by Nudist Beach, who have thrown off the oppressive system represented by Honnoji Academy and their stratifying superpowered Goku uniforms. It is an all or nothing proposition, and one that conveniently involves framing the insistence that heroine Ryuko become comfortable with being sexually objectified in a revealing costume as a moral imperative. To not expose one’s body, within the show’s tautology, is to tacitly endorse the fascist powers-that-be. It is very convenient and coincidental that this virtuous act of rebellion results in many, many, many upskirt shots and breasts exposed for the presumed audience’s pleasure.

Ryuko in sweats riding a motorcycle, Senketsu tied around her neck

Fashion as Resistance

What that dichotomy ignores is the storied use of fashion itself as a tool of rebellion. It’s true that certain movements have involved showing more skin as a means of pushing back against social norms designed to police, particularly, AFAB bodies. But the show’s portrayal of resistance through clothing is severely limited and, in shackling the camera to a straight male gaze, it undermines its themes. In truth, rebellion through fashion covers a vibrant variety of clothing: the Reform Dress movement of the 19th century created “bloomer suits” that were more practical for movement than heavy skirts; queer communities took the pink triangle that had been a forced marker used by the Nazis and reclaimed it as a symbol of pride; hijabi in modern Iran use the color choices of their wardrobe to imply subtle political and social critiques.

This is true in Japan as well. Kawaii originally began in the 1970s as a rebellious fashion movement, protesting cultural pressure for young women to become wives and mothers as soon as they finished school. The cutesy style celebrated a young woman’s right to enjoy being young and independent. Lolita fashion, inspired not by Nabokov’s novel but by the Victorians and Rococo aesthetic, was a subculture that embraced the concept of dressing for personal satisfaction, not to fill an expected societal role. These are all moments of history where those marginalized within society took the power available to them, even if it was only the clothes on their backs, and used it to symbolize their resistance against the ruling power.

Satsuki, nearly naked, swinging her sword down toward Ryuko. subtitle: My actions are utterly pure!

Even this history of rebellious fashion offers its own opportunity for critique that the show could have folded into itself, as capitalist systems almost inevitably monetize a sufficiently popular trend and in the process strip away its radical roots: an observable trend from the mainstreaming of drag to the fetishizing of the Gothic Lolita aesthetic by the anime industry.

The series does play briefly with these ideas, primarily through Satsuki’s reclamation of Junketsu not as her “wedding dress” but as a means to power. But this idea is discarded rather than developed. Both Satsuki and Ryoko wear the garments of past generations from beginning to end rather than, say, creating their own (again, the series touches this idea with Senketsu-as-scarf, only to once again discard the idea when that arc is finished). Again and again, Kill la Kill’s clever instincts are undermined by its determination to play first-and-foremost as titillation.

Ragyo looming over a shocked crowd dressed in white and rainbow Elizabethan clothes

Who Heads the System

To speak in favor of the show’s nudist revolutionaries, it’s fair to argue that the show is striving for a complete overthrow of an unfixable system. Because it is poisoned from the roots, no resistance using the tools of the oppressor could ever truly free those under its power. Instead, the only option is to dismantle it entirely and begin from the ground up; lo and behold, Ryuko and Mako are seen wearing new clothes, of their own choosing and implicitly free of life fibers, when they finally go on their date. In the broadest strokes, it’s an admirable overarching narrative—one that is, like so many of Studio TRIGGER (and particularly Imaishi Hiroyuki)’s projects, full of passion and light on deeper examination of its own contradictions.

Nothing embodies this more than Ragyo, head of the corporate juggernaut that supplies not just Honnoji Academy but the whole world with Life Fiber clothing in order to feed her own desire for power. She embodies the icy, cruel female CEO character that many a young, plucky heroine has been tasked to overcome: hardened by a ruthless desire to succeed at any cost, to the point of total disregard, the image of a powerful woman holding down the next generation in order to keep herself at the top.

But that has very little to do with the actual dynamics of fashion as an industry, where women walk the runways and men overwhelmingly run the show. Kill la Kill seems to imagine the icy, cutting fashion editor of The Devil Wears Prada or famous designer and Actual Nazi Coco Chanel. But statistically, only 14 percent of major design labels are run by women. While a majority of modern graduates from fashion schools are women, a vanishingly small number of them make it into leadership positions.

Ragyo in her office talking to her lackeys. subtitle: Only those things that earn Ragyo Kiryuin's approval may be called beautiful

A story like Kill la Kill, which wants to be a grand metaphor for systemic injustice, would ideally reflect this imbalance—perhaps by having the driven, talented women both good and evil be ultimately under the thumb of a cis man with that same overwhelming privilege and lack of empathy for his underlings. Doing so needn’t have erased Satsuki’s narrative of struggling against an abusive parent, and it would have sharpened the narrative commentary about Ryoko and Satsuki learning to fight not against one another but against the patriarchal structure pulling the (literal) strings.

Allegorical stories are difficult, requiring an immense amount of planning and thought to ensure that every element weaves together toward the ultimate thesis. Kill la Kill excels when it attempts to tell a story about oppressive classism, but in its attempt to justify its heavy fanservice it introduces the additional layer of gendered oppression and was simply not prepared to consider the intersection of class struggles and (cis) female identity.

Trying to have its butts and riot too, the series finds itself stuck in the same narrative grooves that series composer Nakashima Kazuki has replicated before and since with titles like Gurren Lagann, Promare, and Back Arrow. Looked at alongside its sibling stories of lovable meatheads whose straightforward quests bring them into conflict with absurd political machinations that serve as a broad metaphor for an oppressive system, it only becomes more clear that the trappings of clothing and female heroes are a new hat for a familiar story rather than a change taken to heart. And we, as viewers, are left with glimpses of the far more nuanced, powerful story it could have told: one that was about women instead of merely starring them.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the limited-edition 2019 AniFem Zine. It has been republished here with minor edits with the author’s permission.

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