Interview: Yuniya Kawamura: Japanese Fashion and Qualitative Research Methods

Today’s interview is of Yuniya Kawamura, Sociology Professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Kawamura is the author of The Japanese Revolution in Paris Fashion (Berg 2004) and Fashion-ology (Berg 2005).  Her book on qualitative research methods, Doing Research in Fashion and Dress (Berg 2011), is due to be released this year, and she has a book on the fashion subcultures of Tokyo, Fashioning Japanese Subcultures (Berg) currently in progress.

Lauren Michel: You have a book on Japanese youths and subcultures in progress. What can you tell me about it? Can you tell me about your research methods for street fashion?

Yuniya Kawamura: My current work on Japanese fashion subcultures focuses on different districts in Tokyo, such as Harajuku, Shibuya and Akihabara among others, where youth subcultures along with their distinctive styles and fashion emerge from. I compare and contrast the high fashion system in my previous work (The Japanese Revolution in Paris Fashion (Berg 2004)) and the street fashion system. I use ethnographic fieldwork methods. I go to events/stores, interview industry professionals, talk to members of different subcultures and go through publications and periodicals that are relevant to my topic. I am currently completing a book manuscript which will be published as Fashioning Japanese Subcultures by Berg. Unlike my other three books, this one will have lots of pictures!

LM: With your background in sociology, how does your approach to studying dress differ from that of an historian or an anthropologist? Or does it not differ?

YK: There are some commonalities among the three, but the primary source of evidence that they/we refer to is different. Historians/art historians obviously look at events in the past and not the present. They do not study what is happening in today’s society. Therefore, they cannot conduct ethnographical fieldwork that cultural anthropologists and sociologists do. Art historians mainly use artworks as evidence, such as paintings and illustrations, to analyze fashion. Although there are historical sociologists who use historical evidence/facts and artifacts to theoretically explain some events in the past, but generally speaking sociologists study “modernity”.

There are two camps in sociology: quantitative (statistical) and qualitative (descriptive). While quantitative sociologists are statistical and are very different from historians or cultural anthropologists, there is little difference between qualitative sociologists and cultural anthropologists in terms of data collection strategies. But traditionally, cultural anthropologists tend to study non-Western cultures. Those who study ethnic dress, such as Japanese kimono or Indian sari, are often trained in cultural anthropology. However, in today’s academia, including the field of fashion/dress studies, many scholars wish to take an interdisciplinary approach so making an attempt to separate different disciplines is becoming insignificant. My method of research is qualitative as well, and I share a lot with cultural anthropologists, and I always feel that I need to be ‘in the field’ to observe and investigate fashion.

LM: Your new book on qualitative research methods, Doing Research on Fashion and Dress, (Berg 2011) is coming out soon.  What can you tell me about it?

YK: My publisher, Berg, had asked me to write a book on research methods. Doing Research in Fashion and Dress (Berg 2011) would complement my second book Fashion-ology (Berg 2005) which has a theoretical focus, and it was so popular that it was translated into four languages (Italian, Swedish, Russian, and Chinese). In the new book, I refer to different studies on fashion and dress and analyze their research methods rather than their research content. The book is not intended for professional researchers but for students who will be conducting research on fashion and dress for the first time. It is an introductory guide to qualitative methods, such as ethnography and interviews, and gives step-by-step instructions to the research process.

LM: What is it like to teach sociology courses to a student body primarily studying design for industry? How would you characterize the students’ level of interest in the academic side of fashion and dress?

YK: For students in the Accessories Design B.S. program at FIT, my course Clothing and Society is required for graduation, and for others, it is a Liberal Arts elective. Many students tell me that it is an eye-opening experience to study fashion and dress from academic/sociological perspectives. Understanding fashion theoretically changes their design approach to fashion. For instance, after reading Simmel and Veblen, they become aware of the concept of hierarchies in society and realize that there are those who initiate, spread and consume fashion. At the same time, they learn to question however fashion was explained theoretically in the past, to what extent it applies to today’s fashion phenomena.

I also bring up the concept of beauty in relation to fashion since beauty and fashion have overlapping concerns. The students become aware of their external, sociological factors that influence not only the way people dress/consume fashion but also the way they design. On a more practical level, they recognize the social meaning/significance of appearance in modern/postmodern societies. They will be able to explain logically why fashion is important to those who dismiss it as trivial.

LM: Starting March 9, Worn Through will be having a contest with a book giveaway, and we will be giving away a copy of the Japan Fashion Now! catalog, to which you contributed. Can you tell me about your involvement with the show?

YK: I am not a staff member of FIT’s Museum (I am a faculty member in the Social Sciences Dept), but since my current research is on Japanese youth subcultures and fashion, and Valerie Steele, Director/Chief Curator of our Museum, visited Tokyo twice while I was conducting fieldwork there, I accompanied her to various showrooms and fashion shows (Tokyo is not an easy city to get by if one cannot speak Japanese). I also recommended some designers and subculture styles for the exhibition. I was one of the four contributing writers in the exhibition catalogue and gave a talk at the Japan Fashion Now! Symposium which took place in November, 2010. In conjunction with the exhibition, there was another event on February 17, Tokyo Fashion Festa NY, and I gave a short presentation on Cosplay.

Photo 1: Cosplayers at the Comic Market in Tokyo; Photo by Yutaka Toyama.

Photo 2: Sweet Lolita in Harajuku: Photo by YOYA

Photo 3: Gothic/Punk duo Hangry and Angry ensembles by h. Naoto at FIT’s Japan Fashion Now! Exhibition; Photo by Maya Kawamura

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1 Comment

  • Tove Hermanson February 22, 2011 12.40 pm

    Interesting interview. However, I do disagree with Ms. Kawamura that “Historians/art historians obviously look at events in the past and not the present. They do not study what is happening in today’s society.” While that may be true for some historians, and while historians generally do not conduct fieldwork, I would argue that they (we) can and do conduct research on current events and pop culture. In fact, I’d suggest current trends / circumstances are an essential component (even if it’s just a small component) for relevant research of any kind.


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