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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
inspired you to get into this field of research?
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 And nobody knew why that book was originally made.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.
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.
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?).