Friday, July 7, 2017

Cultural Topics: An Interview with W. David Marx, author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style

Mr. W. David Marx is the author of the book Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. In this fascinating and meticulously researched work, Marx details the inter-exchange of fashion trends between Japan and America throughout the last hundred and fifty years. We sat down for a mini-interview to talk about his research on the fashion industry and its trends in Japan and the US.

There is much to explore about the influences between Japanese and American fashion trends.  Please visit the link below to learn more about Ametora and Marx’s research, as well as find links to excerpts from his book.

Interview below:

Q: What inspired you to get into this field of research?
WM: I stumbled upon this as a research topic Japanese fashion in the late 1990’s.  I was interested in the history of why the Japanese youth were so into fashion in the way American youth weren’t. And then around 2008 – 2010, American fashion bloggers suddenly started to get interested in Japanese fashion.  I realized there was not much material out there.  This Japanese book from the 1960s, Take Ivy, was reprinted in the U.S. and got very popular. It sold probably more than 60 thousand copies. And nobody knew why that book was originally made. At the time, through random opportunities, I got to meet some of the people behind the book. I realized there was a really interesting story behind Take Ivy.  I started to work on that and realized that people were also very interested in Japanese denim, and yet nobody knew why the Japanese started making such high quality jeans.  I put everything together, and it became a single story about how American clothing came to Japan is now being exported back to the U.S.

Q: In one of your books you quote the United Arrows founder, Osamu Shigematsu: “Clothes can express personal identity and also act as a communicative tool.” Which I thought was a really interesting comment to explore. What things did you see the Japanese youth trying to communicate through American fashion?
WM: I would break it into two parts. I would say first that universally, people use fashion as a way to express identity through their clothing. They can be imitative of other people – and I don’t mean that in a bad sense. I just mean, you’re part of a group, and you all dress the same way. To show loyalty, you dress just like your friends. And then fashion also is a way to dress differently than people — for whatever reason, whether it’s to create a unique identity or for a sense of superiority. Those are basic human motivations for dress, since clothing is a really easy way to communicate affiliation or non-affiliation with groups.

In Japan, in particular with the different styles I look at, Ivy League style came to Japan as a way for youth to show that they were youth — an identity beyond being students. Hippy style was a way of communicating the fact that they were in rebellion of the mainstream system. Then so many of Japanese styles, once they became part of the commercial network in the ‘70s and ‘80s, were just part of communicating that you were in style, that you had the latest information, that you were part of an information-based elite. At the same time, there were Yankee style and motorcycle gang style, which were looks about trying to disgust mainstream society and to communicate that they had oppositional values to the middle class mainstream. The main thing is there isn’t one single motivating reason for fashion: different styles mean different things. I recommend to anyone interested in fashion, when looking at a trend or a style, you have to figure out what is that motivation behind it.

Q: A few years ago at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, there was an event in which visitors could wear Japanese kimono, which became controversial because of the issue of cultural appropriation. What is the line between what is appropriation, and what is not appropriation? How do we respectfully incorporate an aspect of another culture such as fashion?
WM: I don’t want to add any value judgement into this appropriation debate, but I can explain what I think the debate is really about. If you have two groups and one of them has more power than the other group, when the powerful group borrows style or language from the less powerful group, that is what we call appropriation. When it is the opposite — a less powerful group taking the style and language of a more powerful group — no one calls it appropriation. So when you look at the case of Japanese in the post-war era taking American style and doing something different with it, nobody really refers to that as appropriation. So the appropriation debate is not about the idea of borrowing or the idea of how culture spreads, changes, mutates, and adapts: It’s all about power. It’s a discussion about power tucked under a discussion about culture.

Q: What broader message would you like to give to those who are interested in this field or in Japan?
WM: When I was a kid in the 1990s, it was very hard to find any information about Japan in the U.S. Now it’s really easy. And that helps a lot of people get into things like manga, anime, or Japanese fashion. The important thing is that you keep going deeper. And you can always go deeper. But it’s also important that you broaden out your interests to see how the wider culture impacts your particular interest. If you like anime or manga, you should look into the wider history of Japanese pop culture to see where those art forms come from. When I was into Japanese music in the 1990s, there was so little to read about, that I ended up having to read other things. Now it’s really easy if you’re into manga to spend all your time 100% on manga. And that’s fine as long as you keep digging deeper and learning more.

Q: Sure. Go beyond the superficial.

WM: Right.


Student discussion prompt:
-What aspect of Japanese culture or society would you like to "dig deeper" into? Be specific (for example, if manga or anime, what aspect of it in particular?).

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