Style / On fashion and ramen
Looks from designer Dido Liu’s Deepmoss collection
Images provided by vendors
“Politics is like fashion. Styles change. Yesterday, I was in fashion. Today, you. Tomorrow, me.” Wakako Yamauchi’s play The Chairman’s Wife, a fictional story about Mao Zedong’s spouse, Jiang Qing.
I was walking past racks of sweaters in Weekday, a Swedish clothing store, and suddenly realized, hey, I’m in the men’s section. This is not a Scandinavian phenomenon, this confusion of mine. It happens no matter where I travel. “Look at the packaging,” I might say, eyeing a display rack of what could be chewing gum or hairbands. “It’s beautiful. Whatever these are, I want some.”
“Condoms,” my husband may note.
On this day, I found myself surrounded by shapeless tops in muted shades positioned over tired denim and pairs of what used to be called “sensible shoes.” Everything I touched was a bit wide, a tad short. Before me was a fusion of grunge and normcore and the kind of yoga clothes you wear when you have no intention of going to class. It all seemed to be a part of a mass-attire movement that demands us to be different from what came before—different yet internally indistinguishable. And branded. Don’t forget, whatever you choose, it has to be branded.
I knew what I had to do to find my department. I would scan the racks for an item of clothing that still bears one of the few remaining gender-based style indicators, something like spaghetti straps. Yes, spaghetti straps. Only a women’s department would have clothing with spaghetti straps because when it comes to women’s clothing construction, irony is still key. For example, when there is something worth keeping in some semblance of order, like the breasts, a designer will find a way to undercut a sensible support system, like the bra. Men can be fashion victims, too, of course. They’ve had to suffer the bowler hat, the Napoleon hat, and, I’ll dare say it, the Lincoln stovepipe. Men have been known to wear short, wide ties that end just at the belly, like an arrow that points to a grand expanse as if to say, “See how much I don’t have to care about my shape?” But even the worst guy options rarely challenge a man’s physical reality. Men spend money on comfort, which might explain the low sales figures on men’s thongs and pencil skirts.
Gown by Chinese designer Guo Pei
I had just begun the hunt for spaghetti straps when my attention was captured by a promo video on the store’s big screen monitor. An Asian-looking woman and a non-Asian looking man seemed vaguely interested in connecting. Was this a love story unfolding in front of me? Each actor stood on a dreary gray shoreline, at first alone, and then at arm length’s distance. Then they kissed. Yay! I love happy endings. The woman wore the same sweater and oversized jean jacket as the man, the same wide ankle length pant, and the same thick soled, lace-up shoe. Neither had a phone. Neither had a cup of coffee. They looked each other in…the…eye. What fantasy world was this, I wondered, which made me think about video production. Was this shot in Norway? Was this Vancouver? The second location dragged my thoughts to the Pacific Rim, which in turn redirected my head back to how I had started the morning—reading an article about new Chinese fashion designers. “The Chinese have gone from mass producing American and European designs to creating their own,” the article pronounced. OK, I thought as I read it, conjuring up the Made in China stamp I saw so often growing up. But, as I stood there in the shop, all the sameness surrounding me prompted another memory. I began to reflect on how wrong the article, and I, had been.
Did you know Japan has at least three museums dedicated to the ramen noodle? The Yokohama Ramen Museum pays its respects to fresh ramen. It has a food court that looks like a Japanese city block. The facades are painted to look like storefronts. The real lights on the fake street are turned on. The ceiling is painted as if rays from a setting sun were landing on kindly, puffy summer clouds. The second museum, The Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum is impressive in an airport kind of way. It honors the man who lived in a tool shed whilst figuring out how to make food get finished faster. The third, the Cup-Noodles museum, explains how ramen came to be so life-sustainably cheap. The idea of a ramen museum might at first seem adorable and odd. What, beyond ramen, do they sell at the museum shops, you may wonder? What does a ramen-themed scarf or keychain look like? But nothing is truly odd if you think about it. America has a vacuum cleaner museum and a hammer museum. America has two kazoo museums. Two. So three museums dedicated to a food that helped a society recover from war is understandable. But ramen is not originally Japanese. No. Ramen began in China. It was imported from there originally as lamian, la for “pulled” and mian for “noodle.” By the fifties and sixties, this pulled noodle became Japan’s version of America’s Wonder Bread and Kraft American Cheese sandwich. But the basic food concept wasn’t China’s only contribution. Ramen had become a meal one might depend upon to get through the day, but, just as with our sandwich, it was hardly worth making a restaurant reservation over. By the end of the twentieth century, however, things had changed. Successful businessmen eager to escape corporate life, the datsu-sara they were called, turned their artisanal attentions to the noodle. Specialty shops sprang up. They marketed to the young with income. They worked hard to foster an atmosphere in line with Zen Buddhist practices. They even started wearing samue, the work clothing of Zen Buddhists monks. The Zen approach to life did not originate in Japan, though. It was influenced by the teaching of Chan Buddhism, which was developed in—well, perhaps you see where this is going—China.
I like the idea that fashion mattered to the datsu-sara and their movement. Yep. Ramen became hip in part because of clothes. Of course, what is hip remains a variable. Wang Guangmei was the First Lady of China for almost a decade. She spoke four languages and had a degree in physics. Her husband was second in command to Chairman Mao, and, in 1963, she wore a qipao dress during a state visit to Indonesia. The qipao we know. It is that dress often fitted and in silk with an upright collar and a diagonal front closure. The photos of her were lovely. She seemed to be so connecting with Indonesia’s first couple. But, later, after she and her husband expressed some concerns over Mao’s economic policies, the dress became a liability. Guangmei was accused of being an enemy of the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guard, Mao’s student group, used the state dinner photos to challenge her commitment to the cause. They slipped an oversized paper qipao shift over her regular outfit, a Mao suit, hung a long necklace of baseball-sized “pearls” around her neck, and paraded her in front of a jeering crowd of 300,000. Then she sat in prison for twelve years. Clothing, historians say, wasn’t the issue. It kind of seems like it was an issue.
Styles from Ms. Min designer Liu Min, who studied in London and is now based in Xiamen
We quite regularly look for commitment through uniformity. We are comforted by proof that we are playing for the same team, sometimes literally. It happens everywhere and often. This was the memory I recalled as I stood in Weekday. I had this very “they-all-look-alike-the-men-and-the-women” reaction for the first time long ago when I saw photos of the Red Guard in their matching jackets and pants. Human beings were embracing a state of sartorial sobriety, where the only clothing option was serious, contemplative, work-focused attire. I had seen images of serious masses before—soldiers on a battlefield, businessmen crowding the exchanges—but the photos of the Cultural Revolution included women, like me. Maybe for that reason, it stuck harder. But, as much as I tried to accept their need for upheaval, their hunger and dire frustrations, I kept returning to the uniform. We are not, not one of us, identical. Why pretend? That was how I reacted back then, and here I stood, experiencing that feeling again. Uniformity sends its own message, and that message is not always good.
Is all of this my overreaction to short wide pants and people pretending to go gaga over ugly shoes? Of course. But there was something else going on. My brain was clicking. Chinese design has always been an influence. Chinese everything has always left its mark. So, what would happen next? What is this next cultural event I keep sensing? There are the fabulously famous designers like Guo Pei who can make any Cinderella dream come true. She blends the distant past of regency with the more recent present of red carpets. Other designers demonstrate that they have had their sartorial skills sharpened by an education in London. There is a British suiting vibe and a Mod Squad appeal influenced by traditional robing and folding. There is Shanghai, China’s fashion capital, and Xiamen, where artists go to design in peace and better air. And there is plenty of Chinese cliché if you feel an urge to wrap yourself up in someone else’s nostalgia. Zara is full of vegan silk pants and blouses adorned with delicate flowers and busy hummingbirds. But, my curiosity about the future was piqued by another fashion approach, one expressed by the designs of Tianmo Wang’s Museum of Friendship label.
The Museum of Friendship label does not feature clothing by men designed to appeal to men, or clothing approved by men because it appeals to a woman’s fear that she needs to be either sexy or servile or man-like to survive. This isn’t clothing that conforms to a traditional male apparel standard, either; there is no camouflage or lumberjack ware, not one button-down collar in the lot, nary a holster or loafer or jet pack on display here. This label’s primary aim is to appeal to a certain collective that is tired of hiding, of being denied. The Museum of Friendship label is shaped and styled to “reflect memories, emotions and experiences that are unforgettable and have been shared between ‘girlfriends.’” The designs detail these girls’ stories and they draw people into their “unmatched world.” There. This is the next surge, and a new word. Fashion premised on the concept of girlfriendship.
You may not like the outfits, not at first, and maybe never in this incarnation. They are theatrical, to say the least. But, there is a foundation under construction here. This is artwork and engineering, a network with cross-cultural linking potential we can see if we slow down enough to look. In Scandinavia, it is a horizontal striped stocking, a wreath of flowers around the head, a willingness to bicycle down the street with a best friend balancing on the back tire’s rack. In England, it was called the Spice Girls. In the United States, it surfaced first in the Martha Stewart following, and with Oprah and Ellen and their invitations to be on a forever friend first-name basis. Today we have the Pioneer Woman and the My Favorite Murder podcast. You know, buddy stuff. Then there is Japan and Korea and their pretty and cute and effervescent and communal and joy-based outfits they’ve shared for decades now. Something about the Museum of Friendship approach is more substantial, as if you took all the Pokémon and Hello Kitty t-shirts and lunchboxes and prepared them to survive a trek across the Manchurian steppe. It comes in heavier weights, as we do, and aspires to be suitable for grownups, or at least for grownups who do not feel the need to apologize for how their brains work, for sometimes wanting to wear a suit of pants, for sometimes wanting to wear real silk, and for always, always being ready to crush it with the pair of earrings their daughters made for them in second grade. This is the next great design-based influence. Women liking and trusting who they are and how they feel inside.
“Yesterday, I was in fashion,” said the woman to her friend. “Today, you. Tomorrow, all of us, no matter what we wear.”
Catherine Berlin is Spree’s longtime style writer.