The taste of water that came out of your childhood faucet will follow you forever, the specific blend of minerals and chemicals that made it unique to your home. Maybe you own a filter, maybe you drink straight from the tap. But the taste of the pipes and water towers, the taste that changes from home to home, is as intimate a part of your experience as any other. So what if someone could change that flavor for you, just by offering you a new understanding of how that water got to your kitchen?
While embedded with Red Bull’s newest show “Social Fabric” hosted by Kyle Ng, I found myself on a construction site in Tokyo hanging out with Mr. Yangani and Mr. Ishimara, publisher and editor for Blue’s Magazine, a publication that documents and celebrates construction culture, all aspects of it. Red Bull was there to learn about the tobi pant, a decades-old garment chosen by Japanese construction workers for its protection and flexibility and still worn to this day out of a certain measure of tradition. In Tokyo there’s an entire subculture obsessed with the tobi pant—wearing, collecting, and lionizing this garment out of respect and admiration for construction workers. We might not think of construction workers as the apex of style, but for the wearers of tobi pants there’s no culture more worthy of the honor.
The pants are audacious by today’s standards. They were originally modeled after classic knickerbockers: broad and billowy from the waist to the calf, and then skin tight to the ankle. The extra fabric makes them roomy enough to move over scaffolding and offers protection from flying sparks, plus they snap in the wind as you approach the edges on higher floors. But for fans like Ishimara, function follows form. They wear them for the romanticism.
“You’re born naked, the rest is drag,” Ru Paul tells us, reminding us that everything we wear is a costume. All clothing, all style is a marker of your community, where you belong—or where you want to belong. How you put your clothes together makes a statement about who you are and who you want to be. Sometimes that’s about manufacturing a feeling of inclusion, sometimes it’s a function of separation from the status quo, and just as often it’s about purchasing a kind of legitimacy that you strive for, alien to your own experience.
Both Yangani and Ishimara discovered construction culture on their own; it wasn’t a family tradition. But unlike Yangani, who turned his obsession with workwear into a job (he’s a plumber now), Ishimara still stands on the outside as a poet and writer. He’s a witness to the culture that he admires so much, staying at an arm’s length. When his fascination began, he was overwhelmed to realize that every brick, pipe, and shingle was laid by human hands. It shifted everything. It changed the way water tastes, he said, knowing that the water that came out of his faucet traveled through pipes placed by workers. “I want to change the taste of water throughout Japan,” he says, explaining why its important for him to spread the power of the construction worker and the simple beauty of their impact. Since he can’t force everyone to read his words, at least he can wear his tobi pants.
It’s the kind of obsession that forces us to reconsider why we wear what we wear. Style is a cultural function, and we see everything we do through the lens of others. What we perceive as cool or stylish is in relation to its cultural status, regardless of whether we intend it to have the meanings we see. Being part of a counterculture or subculture assumes the same power to the culture as those who follow it; rejecting power still admits the presence of it. So even if we see the tobi pant and don’t understand why Yangani and Ishimara would want to wear it for sartorial reasons, we must recognize that the rest of the calculus is beyond our cultural language.
Yangani and Ishimara wear the tobi pant to be different, to stand out, and to fold themselves into a culture that they did not adopt naturally, and in many was has not adopted them. But the statement they make in buttoning up those pants is that they will represent a lifestyle and a meaning that is bigger than who they are without the pants. It is their uniform, their costume, their drag of a culture they respect and revere, and when they break the necks of strangers on the street who perform double takes to confirm they saw what they saw, the message is spread.
The subtleties of the beauty that Ishimara sees is not evident simply in the way the pant is put together, the same way a constitution isn’t legible on a flag. But it is a symbol. Yangani and Ishimara may be two of very few people who understand what the symbol means, but their wearable symbol, in all of its audacity, begins a conversation that would otherwise go unspoken. And it’s in that conversation that Yangani and Ishimara spread their message. Who cares if the pants are ugly? The message is one of beauty.