We sit down with cultural historian and author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, W. David Marx.
"For me the most important thing was to tell stories to move the reader through the history — to follow individuals making choices in a particular context that led to today."
1. Can you describe your own cultural background? What led you take such a deep dive into Japanese culture?
I grew up in the South, but in an academic family and was very lucky to go to an International Baccalaureate program inside of a public high school. At age 17 I did a three-week homestay in a small town in rural Japan that happened to be the sister city of my hometown Pensacola, Florida. I had been studying French and German, but decided there I wanted to study Japanese in college. After my freshman year in college I did a three-month internship in Tokyo at the publisher Kodansha. I was already interested in Japanese pop music but during that trip, while working for a Japanese fashion magazine, I discovered Japanese Street fashion. I ended up writing my senior thesis on the specific marketing techniques of those street fashion brands, such as limited edition goods and hidden stores, which at the time seemed counterintuitive but now are very commonly used by brands like Supreme. I spent a lot of time looking for answers in the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, history, and consumer behavior. And I've just kept thinking about the inner mechanics of culture ever since. Growing up in an academic family gave me the belief and confidence that pursuing these kind of intellectual interests was a normal and natural thing.
2. Can you describe your own personal style? Do you have a standard "uniform"?
I choose my daily outfits by my mood and the seasons and the weather, so I don't necessarily have a uniform. I look a bit different every day. But I do have some general taste parameters. All of my shirts are Oxford cloth button downs. I vastly prefer natural fibers to synthetics. I like very minimal shoes and accessories. My pants are too short (maybe this is because of my height.)
I tend to make small updates to my wardrobe every year but the changes never stray too far from those guidelines.
3. How much of your own style is influenced by "Ivy Style"?
Quite a bit, both consciously and unconsciously. I grew up in the South which was still very Preppy in the late 1980s, especially when I lived in Oxford, Mississippi. My father went to Tulane in the 1950s, and so his basic look had ways been very Ivy. My mom went to Vanderbilt and dressed us in lots of Polo, Duck Head, and Brooks Brothers as kids.
Ironically, when I went to an Ivy league college no one really dressed Ivy. But as I got older I gravitated more towards my childhood roots, anchored in a bit of the tradition of my university. And the fact that so much good Ivy stuff is available in Japan made it even easier to move that direction. There is a part of Ivy that is my roots, and there's a part of Ivy that simply my preference for musty understatement.
4. Did other aspects of American culture spread to Japan in parallel with Ivy Style?
Jazz, pipe smoking, Hollywood films, American football. Kensuke Ishizu of VAN Jacket, who brought Ivy League style to Japan, always emphasized to Japanese youth that "Ivy" was a lifestyle not just a fashion. But the apparel was always the most popular part. Jazz has a longer history in Japan, which is why you still hear a lot of it in coffee shops. Pipe smoking and American football and Anthony Perkins are moribund.
5. Italian clothing influences spread into Japan soon after the Ivy influence. Were there commonalities with the earlier spread of American clothing culture?
There was a small craze around "Continental fashion" (called "konchi" in Japanese) — French and Italian — around 1966, but it never really took off with the same force as Ivy. In the 1980s, there was a boom for Armani, like the rest of the world. And then around the 1990s, a few Japanese men went to Italy to apprentice with the Neapolitan tailors.
The commonality is a reverence and attempt to preserve the original culture's unique way of doing things. But the Italian style never took root as Japanese culture in the same way as Ivy. There's a small cult of Italian tailoring, but it's not a wider culture.
6. You approach the subject of Ametora from an academic perspective, but the book is written for the layperson. How do you navigate an academic subject while managing to keep it interesting for a popular audience?
I didn't aim to write an academic book, but it's in my blood. For me the most important thing was to tell stories to move the reader through the history — to follow individuals making choices in a particular context that led to today. Nothing is more boring than history that feels like reading a list of "this happened, then this happened," as if it was all inevitable. In order to tell stories that way, you need to do a lot of research.
7. Do you think people are following trends like they used to? It seems like it's getting harder and harder to define decades in terms of fashion trends. Here at The Armoury, we believe in clothing as self-expression and we encourage our customers to dress for themselves. Is it that people are dressing more for themselves or is it more than that?
No, it's clear that major stylistic trends like we saw in the 20th century have slowed down. There are clear aesthetic differences between the postwar Americana of the 1950s, the chic early 1960s, the hippie late 1960s, the back-to-nature early 1970s, the punk and disco late 1970s, and the preppie/yuppie 1980s. It's very hard to see the style differences of the last twenty years, other than early Aughts looking "out of style."
This is one of the mysteries I'm working on now, but a few factors contributing to this are: (1) the decline of formalization (there are fewer trends when everyone's just trying to be casual) (2) the speed of fads became so fast you can't authentically adopt them (3) the move to self-expression in the digital realm.
When everyone wore suits, there was more human thought and expression in the suit style. Now you can create individual distinction just by wearing a suit — which means there's less pressure to change the specific suit styles to flee low status imitators. This seems counterintuitive but the fact that few people wear classic menswear makes it a golden age for classic menswear.
8. How would you describe technology's role in the spread of culture?
Technology and culture change for different reasons but they're clearly linked. The reason for technological change is very clear: new technologies provide greater functional benefits and utility. Culture does not necessarily progress towards a goal — it's arbitrary in the sense that many alternatives could serve the same purpose. Hip hop is not a better or worse form of music than rock n' roll.
That being said, technological change brings cultural change because tech innovations upset cultural conventions, customs, and traditions. Without central heating, buildings are really cold in the winter and so three piece suits made sense. They then became a convention of English business life — i.e. you were expected to wear one. But with the development of central heating, men no longer have to wear them, which opened up fashion to move past the three piece suit. Another example: Music culture is becoming very track oriented rather than album-oriented because we use streaming services rather than buying LPs. Technology, like the economic structure, is the crucible in which culture is created.
9. The world is changing at unprecedented pace and cultural exchange has perhaps never been easier. Do you have any predictions for the future?
In terms of cultural diversity, it's never been better. But if we're moving towards being one global market, China is going to play the most important role in pop culture — just out of raw consumer power. The Chinese may not be the major creator of it yet, but they'll be the major consumer of it. The particular status needs of young Chinese consumers have already started to shape the product lines of major luxury brands.
One prediction is that, in the next decade, conspicuous consumption will be the primary mode of status signaling rather than an understated coded consumption. This is what happens in a giant global market where many people have to impress each other without knowing how to read each other's subtle status cues.
10. What's next for you? Can we expect a follow-up to Ametora?
I'm working on a book about how culture works and why some styles, practices, and artworks take on more cultural value than others. But as with all things in this modern world, the final outcome depends on the opinions of many gatekeepers, so I have nothing to concrete to share yet.
W. David Marx at The Armoury
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