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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Here Comes Everybody, or at least 99 percent.

Despite being somewhat dated already (having been published before the Arab Spring, the rise of Twitter and the demise of MySpace, and newer phenomena like Tumblr, FourSquare, and Google+), Clay Shirky’s 2008 book Here Comes Everybody is still, three years later, a remarkably smart and applicable analysis of the role of social networking and social media technology.

The collapse of transaction costs makes it easier for people to get together – so much easier, in fact, that it is changing the world. The lowering of these costs is the driving force underneath the current revolution and the common element to everything in this book. (p. 48)

The book’s analysis is couched in the Coase theorem and its intersection with the power law distribution that applies to social networks. The idea is that what makes social tech compelling and effective is that the cost of participating is so low, because of the minimization of transaction costs enabled by the Internet and social network technology. As a corollary, the cost of failure is trivial or at least deeply diminished. In the chapter called “Failure for Free,” Shirky highlights Meetup’s free-for-all approach to organizing groups and the open-source origins of Linux as examples of new communities that are thriving because the low cost of failure enables them to experiment widely.  This made me think of Jane McGonigal’s point in Reality is Broken that nothing motivates people to rebound from failure and try again like games. Shirky focuses on this phenomenon in the context of communities of love (as opposed to communities of practice), but I think the take-home lesson is the same: using technology, we can harness motivators aside from traditional materialist, private property-based interests.

What the open source movement teaches us is that the communal can be at least as durable as the commercial. For any given piece of software, the question “Do the people who like it take care of each other?” turns out to be a better predictor of success than “What’s the business model?” As the rest of the world gets access to the tools once reserved for the techies, that pattern is appearing everywhere, and it is changing society as it does. (p. 258-9)

Meanwhile, in real life and online, the Occupy Wall Street movement might very well be the latest and greatest sociopolitical phenomenon in distributed organizing. At The Economist‘s Democracy in America blog, G.L. calls it “the world’s first genuine social-media uprising.” I’m not interested in disputing whether earlier social movements were, in fact, primarily driven by social media,* but it does certainly seem to be the case that (new or newish) social tech tools like Tumblr are making a significant impact in the rapidly-growing Occupy movement. As G.L. points out, the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr is a critical part of the Occupy movement because it establishes a narrative clarifying what the movement wants and what it is about: ” jobs, cheaper health care, cheaper education, and relief from suffocating debt.” G.L. cites the number of blog posts and the frequency of posting over time, as evidence of the movement gaining traction, but I think better metrics would be citations/links, pageviews and shares over Facebook, Twitter, G+, etc. (For one thing, the frequency of posting is mediated by the human moderation of submissions by whoever it is that’s behind that Tumblr.) Of course, the tricky thing is the mismatch between the online ferment and the offline consequences, but I think the effectiveness of social movements in general is pretty outside the scope of this post. Even without access to these kinds of metrics, it’s indisputable that the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr is making its mark: the right-wing We Are the 53 Percent “parody”/response is beginning to gain attention of its own.

In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky observes that:

The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society. (p. 107)

I think this applies  pretty well to the Occupy movement, both in terms of online and offline social institutions.

*Although some might argue that the text message-organized Falun Gong sit-ins or the Belarus flash mob protests, which were publicized on Livejournal (and discussed by Shirky on pp. 167-8).


Revisiting Franzen and Freedom.

Today, Fresh Air re-broadcast a couple of pieces on Jonathan Franzen and his novel Freedom, which is now out in paperback. I wasn’t surprised to find that I mostly disagreed with Maureen Corrigan’s review, which I don’t remember hearing when it was first broadcast last year – I mean, considering how the plot wraps itself up with such concise tidiness at the end, it’s hard for me to consider it “realist.” Don’t get me wrong – I have my gripes about Freedom, but overall, I liked and enjoyed it, and would certainly recommend it as a reading experience.

I skipped through much of Terry’s interview with Franzen because I remembered I had heard it the first time it aired, but I caught one section which I still think is great on second listen, which I thought I’d share here:

People who have a depressive cast of mind are usually the funniest people you meet, and there’s nothing like putting a couple of Eeyores into the text to make it at least a little bit funny. What else? Why did I want depressives in here? It’s, you know, most interesting people become somewhat depressed at some point in their life, and I’m not writing books for people whose lives are perfectly great. People whose lives are perfectly great probably don’t need to read books like the kind I write.

(Emphasis added.)

Overall, what I think I like most about this interview is that Franzen seems to really answer and thoroughly address the questions that I have about his writing process, books, and, you know, life.