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Nathalie Atkinson.
Nathalie Atkinson.

To understand the enduring appeal of denim, one must look half a world away Add to ...

Acid wash skinnies proliferate this holiday season (yes, really) but, though tempting, don’t blame Sarah Jessica Parker. Parker recently became the campaign face (and rump) of affordable casual denim company Jordache and its collection of vaguely vintage-inspired styles, which include several trips down an acid-washed memory lane.

There’s also Denim: Fashion’s Frontier, a new exhibition at the Museum at FIT in New York, in which 70 pieces from the collection illustrate key moments in denim’s history, like mid-century “popover” housework dresses, Brooke in her Calvins and the 1980s European denim craze (Fiorucci et al.). The earliest 19th-century examples in the show pre-date even the surviving Levi’s template of riveted, five-pocket jeans worn by prisoners and the military in the early 1900s, and go through Walker Evans photographs of Depression-era tenant farmers in Alabama and workers in 1940s factories to the feather-tufted hems of Tom Ford’s Gucci.

And denim is featured in the current resort collection of ne plus Americana brand Ralph Lauren, where dark Japanese denim is experimentally cut into tailored jackets, ball skirts and evening gowns that under normal circumstances, would be taffeta. Show curator Emma McClendon points out that in 1971, Levi’s won a Coty Award for influence on global fashion and the show traces a stylistic line from the cinch-back tab of 1840s settler style to today’s premium raw denim from brands like Studio D’artisan and Kapital Century from Japan.

But to really understand the crucial nature of that continuity, material and ideas exchange, be it Ralph Lauren or the reason acid wash jeans exist, one must look half a world away.

As the west’s long-time and ubiquitous textile, denim is the most useful way to understand what W. David Marx, an American writer based in Tokyo, dubs Ametora, the name of his encyclopedic new business study that’s also the nickname the Japanese use for American “traditional” clothing. Marx offers a cultural history of American fashion (chiefly menswear) in Japan and, specifically, how these phenomena in Japan saved traditional American style and influenced its re-popularization – in a way selling Japanese versions of American style back to U.S. customers, thereby shaping both cultures.

The real kick was the post-Second World War demand for jiipan, as off-duty G.I. pants were called in Japan – a garment better known as blue jeans. It was that rare item that had a new cultural cachet: Besides the practicality – most Japanese mens trousers were wool, and these were more climate-appropriate cotton – there was also the romance. In photographer Dennis Stock’s 1955 road trip and iconic Life magazine portrait session with James Dean (now the subject of Life, Anton Corbin’s new biopic), for example, the pair travel to Dean’s hometown and his uncle’s farm in Indiana, where the rising star dons shapeless dungarees and a denim barn jacket. The utilitarian item is equally at home on dude ranches and rebels with (and without) cause.

Marx also does the requisite deep dive into the roots and implications of the youth embrace of East Coast prep – fittingly, it’s the fiftieth anniversary of aibii, a.k.a. ivy, attributed to the influential photo series in the 1965 book Take Ivy. Commissioned by Kenzuke Ishizu, who owned VAN Jacket, a preppy styled Japanese clothing brand, the book documented Ivy League campus style for ersatz Japanese adoption, from blazers to shell cordovan loafers. Marx makes a good case that this cataloguing of culture not only showed American brands like Thom Browne and Michael Bastian how to revive their heritage but, with its built-in subculture consumer, made it financially possible to do so. Heritage footwear maker Alden, for example, had significant stock orders from key Japanese retailers for years.

Hiroshi Fujiwara, godfather of Japanese fashion, and his most famous protégé Nigo come full circle in the story, too; the latter as the creative director of UT, the T-shirt range of Uniqlo (which initially launched as a Japanese homage to Gap Inc. and later improved on its inspiration) and founder of streetwear juggernaut brand A Bathing Ape, or Bape – what Kanye wore before Givenchy, and the reason Pharrell wears denim to formal awards shows.“No longer did cultural exchange flow in a single America-to-Japan direction,” Marx says. “A Bathing Ape burrowed straight into the heart of American pop culture.”

Even the popular, carefully distressed jeans from Japanese labels Junya Watanabe and Comme des Garçons are part of that return-to-sender cycle just not, as it initially seems, as an expensive designer mimic of make-do-and-mend. I always suspected there might be a deeper meaning in their ongoing extremepatchwork jeans collaborations with Levi’s, which felt more cunning than mere pastiche, and now thanks to Marx there is: The patchwork hearkens back to the earliest iterations of American denim in Japan, first because the occupying G.I.s paid prostitutes with tattered secondhand clothes (including jeans) that they resold to Tokyo import shops, then later as the torn strips of denim used as packing material in care parcels to American soldiers were used to reconstruct pairs of jeans anew.

In the years afterwards when import restrictions were relaxed, new American jeans were still in short supply, hence the 1970s proliferation of faux-vintage Americana brands like Big John alongside imports like Lee and Wrangler. By now used to the soft worn-in feel of secondhand denim, Japanese customers didn’t take to the raw and rigid newness, so the importers who had become manufacturers further refined their looms, installed washing machines in factories and developed finishings and treatments, like stone washing and abrasion, ushering in experimentations like acid washed jeans. Marx delves into aspects of the more recent Japanese market for American vintage in engrossing detail (down to the quantity of deadstock jeans smuggled and the prices paid), and it emerges how the fetish for the selffinishing edge (a.k.a. selvedge) feature of premium Japanese denim was first revived by detective-thrifters keen to authenticate and date vintage Americana. That the latter’s stylistic history thrives as a subculture at all is due to the litany of tags, identifying stitches and marks recorded by completist Japanese fashion magazines and journals (like Boon, Made in U.S.A.). As it turns out, even their peculiar catalogue-style editorial format can be traced back to the countercultural Whole Earth Catalogue – yet another re-interpretation of an original American find.

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