1Q84 fashion.

This weekend, I finished reading 1Q84, the latest Haruki Murakami novel. Murakami is considered “Japan’s leading novelist” and frequently described as an exponent of magical realism (or unrealism). I also remember reading somewhere recently that he is known for his detailed descriptions of food and cooking; indeed, I relished the spare descriptions of his characters’ simple meals. Something that seems less discussed in the realm of Murakami commentary is fashion: I noticed in 1Q84 many references to clothing brands or luxury labels. What’s more, these references were to ’80s-era, Japan-centric fashions that I’m less familiar with. So naturally, I turned to the Internet to fill me in.

Most notably, the novel contains several long scenes wherein the main character, Aomame, is dressed in a green miniskirted suit by Junko Shimada. Aomame consciously re-wears this outfit at certain points in the book, so I really wanted to be able to visualize it properly in my head. I follow fashion casually, but I was not familiar with Junko Shimada – turns out, as the Internet has exhaustively parroted, she was one of the first Japanese designers to work and show in France, opening her first boutique in Paris in 1984. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of easily-findable photos online of her early work (StyleBistro seems to have the most complete, easily-navigable archive of Junko Shimada collections back to spring 2001; Elle also has photos of her more recent collections).

I had almost despaired of finding a good reference when I checked out eBay, that bottomless trove of vintage stuff. Lo and behold, a vintage, ’80s-era Junko Shimada miniskirted suit in green:

Vintage 80s Junko Shimada miniskirt suit in green

As far as I can tell, this is basically what Aomame was wearing in 1Q84. It’s wool with cupro lining, minimalist yet traditional, relatively demure (the skirt doesn’t look that mini) and has got a very ’80s, Japanese feel (it looks like something worn by a lovelorn actress on one of my mom’s Taiwanese karaoke laser disc back in the day.) The only thing I really can’t get on board with is the washed out aqua green color – but I guess it was the ’80s, after all. [ETA October 16, 2013: The original Ebay listing is dead, but there’s an identical one right now. I’ve updated the image so it should stick around regardless of the ephemerality of Ebay listings.]

Aomame pairs this suit with “chestnut-colored Charles Jourdan heels.” Like these?

Bland, bland, bland. I guess the look suits the character, who, when not dressed in unremarkable yet expensive designer clothes, favors sweats and jersey knits. Other labels favored by Aomame include Calvin Klein, Bagagerie, and Ferragamo. In contrast, note that another character, Ayumi, dresses more daringly in Commes des Garcons accessorized with a Gucci bag.

Murakami seems really concerned with taste and consumption, suggesting all sorts of values about the choices his characters make in what they wear, eat, or buy – and in how they evaluate what other characters consume. For example, a scene where Aomame lunches with “the dowager”:

She [the dowager] wore a beautifully cut dress of unfigured pale green cloth (perhaps a 1960s Givenchy) and a jade necklace. Midway through the meal, the manager appeared and offered her his respectful greetings. Vegetarian cuisine occupied much of the menu, and the flavors were elegant and simple. By coincidence, the soup of the day was green pea soup, as if in honor of Aomame. The dowager had a glass of Chablis, and Aomame kept her company. The wine was just as elegant and simple as the food. Aomame ordered a grilled cut of white fish. The dowager took only vegetables. Her manner of eating the vegetables was beautiful, like a work of art. “When you get to be my age, you can stay alive eating very little,” she said. “Of the finest food possible,” she added, half in jest.

Murakami, Haruki (2011-10-25). 1Q84 (pp. 132-133). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I can’t find a picture of a Givenchy dress to match this exact description, but I think the dowager would probably take her fashion cues from Audrey Hepburn:

Setting aside the cultural baggage that comes with brand names, I like the fashion references in 1Q84 because they are specific and concrete signposts that help the reader better visualize the novel’s universe. It’s the kind of detail that serves realism well, and Murakami does a great job with it in this novel without turning it into an overt commentary on materialism.

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Founding Fathers on film.

On his blog, Hendrik Hertzberg seconds the sensible call for a Alexander Hamilton biopic. I am likewise pretty amazed that this has never been done, as Hamilton is clearly a fascinating and dramatic character. Relatedly, I am a bit surprised at how many times J. Edgar Hoover has been portrayed in the cinema. (In his New Yorker review, David Denby notes that in addition to Leonardo DiCaprio, “Broderick Crawford, Ernest Borgnine, and Bob Hoskins have played Hoover.”) He’s undisputedly an interesting character — it’s just that he’s such a relatively recent historical figure. You’d think we’d have long since exhausted the cinematic potential of the Founding Fathers’ stories, but Hollywood just doesn’t seem interested.

Although it’s not a film, HBO’s 2008 John Adams miniseries deserves a mention in this discussion. I missed it when it first came out because I’m not an HBO subscriber, but I recently watched it on DVD. I found it to be pretty poorly dramatized, but it did a decent job of narrating the politics of the revolution and the founding. By the end – or the middle, really – of the miniseries, I was pretty sick and tired of John Adams, and would have gladly welcomed a spinoff on Hamilton (or Jefferson!). I’d also be really interested to watch a movie about John Madison, who sounds like a delightful crank.

Anyways, the other reason for making this blog post was to share with the Internet this fabulous screencap I took while I was watching John Adams. In light of current events, it seems appropriate to put this out there. I think the supercommittee should have a giant still of this projected over them, so that they may better imagine how they’re making John Adams roll in his grave, or at least make this tragic face (in reaction to hearing Hamilton’s pitch to create a national debt):

I saved this image months ago, thinking that eventually I would come up with some brilliant image macro for it, but alas, image macros are not really my medium. I did make it a little more Internet-appropriate though:


Words matter – ‘Chinese-American’ watchdogging.

I can be really nitpicky about language sometimes, especially when it comes to matters of race, ethnicity, and nationality, since sloppy language on these issues tends to only entrench and worsen negative stereotypes and biases. It seems to me (a Chinese-American with a grouchy streak a mile wide) that the American English language community is particularly bad at characterizing Asian-Americans. It’s not helpful that newspapers – which for some reason, we continue to look to as standard-setters for language use – frequently drop the ball on this front. For example, last year I was bothered enough by a Washington Post article that conflated (Chinese) ethnicity and nationality that I wrote a cranky letter to the editor complaining about it.

As a member of the reading community, I’m pretty disappointed when sloppy writing crops up in what I read — which brings me to last week’s NYT article about San Francisco political figure Rose Pak. Overall, the piece is interesting and the language unobjectionable, but this one sentence struck me as a little strange:

She is “tenacious as a pit bull,” said an ethnic Chinese lawyer who, like most Chinese interviewed, spoke about Ms. Pak only on the condition of anonymity.

(via Rose Pak, a Chinatown Power Broker, Savors Mayor Edwin Lee’s Victory – NYTimes.com.)

For me, this sentence raises a ton of questions: who were the people among the “most Chinese interviewed”? Did they have anything in common besides being, apparently, ethnically Chinese? (For example, did they have ties to San Francisco/Bay Area politics or business?) What about the anonymous “ethnic Chinese” lawyer? When is the last time you read a newspaper article that primarily characterized an anonymous source by their ethnicity (and not, for example, their nationality)? I don’t know for sure, but I would wager that the anonymous lawyer would be better characterized as Chinese-American.

Personally, I don’t like the usage of “Chinese” as a third person plural noun: in general, I prefer “the Chinese people” over “the Chinese,” and in this case, I would prefer something like “most Chinese politicos interviewed.” Granted, it’s considered acceptable to talk about “the blacks” just as it is to talk about “whites” or “Hispanics.” But I think the key distinction here is that Chinese is less a race than an ethnicity, so a better analogy, in the American context, would be to the Irish, Italians, or Mexicans.

For comparison, I tried a quick search on NYTimes.com for “Irish” and “Italian.” One result, about an Irish-speaking garbage collector in New York, never characterizes anyone by their ethnicity, even though the bin man in question seems to be of Irish descent. Another recent article, about an academic conference on MTV’s Jersey Shore, consistently uses the term “Italian-American” throughout. Because of more similarly fluid recent immigration patterns, Mexican-Americans might make a more apt comparison to Chinese-Americans. The NYT seems to refer to Mexican-Americans in various manners as appropriate to the context of the story: “Mexican immigrants” in an article about immigration, “Mexicans in New York”/”Mexican New Yorkers” in a city-specific piece, and “Mexican-Americans”/”people of Mexican origins” in a report on nationwide migration and birth rates.

Of course, the Rose Pak article is not just about Pak’s role in San Francisco’s Chinese-American community, but also about her ties to China. And it’s certainly true that the Chinese-American community in San Francisco is primarily identified with and organized around Chinese ethnicity and heritage. Nevertheless, I still think that one sentence sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s not clear from the context why the anonymous source’s ethnicity is what matters. Was it the case that most Chinese people of American and other nationalities were the only people who spoke to the reporter on condition of anonymity? Or was it just people involved in the nascently-powerful San Francisco Chinese-American community? As readers, we don’t know, but I would like to know! At best, referring to Chinese people who live and work in the U.S. simply as “the Chinese” erases the (long, established, and much-ignored) story of Chinese-Americans in service of the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype; at worst, it portrays Chinese people as a part of a monolithic yellow peril, one so numerous and foreign that it merits a mass noun resistant of standard American English pluralizing, and is simply racist.

Updated to add: Compare the Rose Pak article with today’s well-written story about the arrest of a fundraiser for New York City Comptroller John C. Liu, which does not gratuitously mention anyone’s ethnicity and only discusses heritage in the appropriate context of heritage-related community groups.