by

Steve Jobs“Chill out everybody, I got this.”

When you think of Steve Jobs, one of the first things that comes to mind is his look. Steve rocked the mom jeans, New Balance shoes and of course, the black turtleneck like nobody else could. That outfit became his trademark look over the years, but nobody ever really knew why Jobs wore the outfit, or where it came from.

Recently, I saw a post on 9to5Mac that not only explained the turtleneck, but also showed me that Jobs had a relationship with Japan that I didn’t know existed.

The black turtleneck look started back in the 80s, even though back then Jobs was still rocking the bow tie look. The author of Steve Jobs’ upcoming biography explains:

On a trip to Japan in the early 1980s, Jobs asked Sony’s chairman Akio Morita why everyone in the company’s factories wore uniforms. He told Jobs that after the war, no one had any clothes, and companies like Sony had to give their workers something to wear each day. Over the years, the uniforms developed their own signatures styles, especially at companies such as Sony, and it became a way of bonding workers to the company. “I decided that I wanted that type of bonding for Apple,” Jobs recalled.

But what’s not mentioned in that quote is that uniforms aren’t just a thing for Sony factory workers – uniforms are a big deal all throughout Japan, whether they’re worn by schoolchildren, construction workers, or airline stewardesses. Let’s take a look at why uniforms in Japan are so important.

School Uniforms

A group of Japanese school girls in uniform.Note: image searches for “Japanese school uniform” are guaranteed to find gross results.

Japanese people are introduced to uniforms from a very early age. Most Japanese schools require that their students wear uniforms. But why do Japanese schoolchildren dress like old-timey sailors?

Well, way back in the Meiji Era (late 1800s), the Japanese wanted to adopt lots of Western traditions because it was seen as “modern.” Part of this was modelling Japanese schools after European schools – especially military academies – and adopting Western fashions. (Besides the Western clothes, lots of Japanese dudes from the Meiji era also sported awesome 19th-century facial hair.)

Hence, Japanese students not only started going to Western-style schools, but they did so while wearing Western-style clothes. Boys’ uniforms were modeled after Prussian uniforms, and girls’ looked a lot like British sailor uniforms.

And since the Meiji era, the tradition has just kind of stuck. While today’s uniforms aren’t quite as dated, they still carry a lot of influence from those early days of Japanese school uniforms.

Work uniforms

A pair of Japanese construction workersUniforms don’t stop after school. Lots of professions in Japan have their own, distinctive uniforms that give workers a sense of identity and pride. For instance, road workers in Japan are pretty much instantly recognizable for their hard hats and giant reflective vests. Early airline stewardess uniforms were created by prestigious fashion designers.

But let’s jump back across the Pacific and bring this back to Steve Jobs.

American culture isn’t really accustomed to uniforms that same way as the Japanese. Sure, different groups of people have very distinctive, identifying styles, but traditional uniforms are kind of shunned. I think that uniforms don’t bring people the same kind of pride in America as they do in Japan. Try telling a high school full of American kids that they’re going to have to start wearing uniforms and see what happens.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that when Steve Jobs tried to bring a uniform back from Japan to Apple employees in the United States, people were less than amused.

I came back with some samples and told everyone it would great if we would all wear these vests. Oh man, did I get booed off the stage. Everybody hated the idea.

But while Apple employees rejected uniforms, Steve Jobs embraced them. He loved the idea that uniforms gave people identity. So, Jobs did what any sane person would do: he got in touch with Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake and asked him to make a uniform not for Apple, but for Steve Jobs.

Miyake was happy to help Jobs out and made “like a hundred” black turtlenecks for him. No, really. Like a cartoon character, Jobs’ closet was full of identical clothes, as he showed his biographer:

“That’s what I wear,” he said. “I have enough to last for the rest of my life.”

Apple has always been known for its simple design, but Jobs took it to another level.

[hr]

What do you think about the Japanese love of uniforms? Is it a good or bad thing? Let me know in the comments!

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  • http://profiles.google.com/l4ndst4nder Josh Yagley

    Great read! I’m really glad I added this site to my RSS feeds.

  • Ms. N’Donna

    This was a great article!  I often wondered where he came up with that look.  

  • http://twitter.com/Teaish Tea

    Oh, wow! That’s incredibly cool. Something like this would never have even occurred to me, haha.

  • Anonymous

    To add to this. Steve Jobs “IS” also Buddhist, persons which believe in having as little hassles as possible in your daily life. Hence the reason they shave their heads and wear the same things everyday.

    Once you rid yourself of such things, like fashion, everything else becomes important.

    The point. Get rid of clutter. Focus on the important things in life.

    I actually learned that from a Buddhist temple I visited once years back, and ever since then, I’ve only worn one style of shoe, Nike Cortez, wear the same style of jeans, Levi’s 514, and buy loads of simple shirts. When I get up in the am, what I look like is the least of my worries. And I’m much better because of it.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Interesting, I completely forgot that Jobs is Buddhist. I hadn’t even considered that the simplistic style thing might be related to that, but that would definitely make sense.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/onetimeko maybe more

    When I was young I went to a private school in the US that required uniforms and looking back on it now I really loved them. I do think they gave us a sense of… Brother/sisterhood, I guess? It wasn’t pride really but it did bring us together. We all complained about it at the time but I think it was ultimately a really good thing. People in America aren’t used to them, but I sort of wish more schools would embrace uniforms.

    This is interesting though, I had no idea that this is where Steve Jobs got the inspiration for his signature look! If he was searching for a distinctive identity through his clothes it certainly worked.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yeah, I think that American schools could benefit from uniforms in a few ways. Kids wouldn’t be so concerned about the latest fashions and, like you said, uniforms can bring people together.

  • http://www.meow.fr Meow • Japan & Urbex

    Thanks for this cool morning read! I have a Buddhist friend in Japan and his closet are full of the same kinds of clothes as well, one type for the weekdays (black and white – salary-man style – suits) and one type for the week-end (jeans – simple t-shirts). Everything comes from Uniqlo ;) Makes life easier, cheaper and gives more time to spent on more important stuff.

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  • Anonymous

    As an American high school student I would looooove to wear a uniform. it sucks that only catholic schools have them… and Japanese ones are so cute T_T

    Steve Jobs’ idea was awesome. stupid Apple workers with their closed minds :P

  • Yuki

    Hello, I’m from Indonesia. In my country we also wear uniform, especially the students. Unfortunately, the design isn’t as cool as japan uniform, haha. The topic to not wearing uniform anymore is something that had been brought up through my junior and senior high school. But the idea usually don’t be quite a success because uniform carry a more significant principle of equality. Don’t care whether you’re the richest or the poorest student, you wear the same uniform and you share the same status as student. Therefore, we are all the same and not trying to differentiate others in a wrong way. There’re times back then when I felt that wearing uniform is kinda boring. But now that I’ve graduated from high school, I do kinda missed wearing uniform. It becomes an icon that can easily connect you to the sweet memories of old times :) 

  • Anonymous

    If I lived like Jobs, I would wake up every morning, open my closet, and say “Hmm… What should I wear today…? Aah! This’ll do.” And grab the same outfit I wore yesterday. And the day before, and the day before, etc.

  • L.C

    I quite enjoyed reading this, the topic was something different from usual. Uniforms are awesome – besides creating unity among a body of people (and pride at that), one wouldn’t need to spend time deciding what to wear every morning. American high school kids are missing out. I miss uniforms ):

  • EYAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

    What’s wrong with turtle necks?

  • http://twitter.com/rAnd0mn3ss Paola G.

    wow!!! i did not know that :D

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Christopher

    I remember wearing a uniform a long time ago. The only sense it gave me was the ‘At least I don’t have to pick out my clothes’ sense (I tend to be like most other geniuses in the fact that I can’t pick out clothes very well unless they are all basically the same.)oh, and the ‘These clothes are really itchy’ sense. I shouldn’t complain though, since it was a Christian private school boys had it easier than girls.

    I don’t really mind uniforms. My only requirement is that they choose a uniform that isn’t so itchy… Then again, I would complain about it anyway since uniforms are almost never practical. I need lots of pockets on my pants and simple, comfortable shirt, pretty much what I wear every day anyway.

  • Kaona

    We also have to wear uniforms in the UK for almost every job and in our Schools (with the exception of college and university). I wouldn’t mind wearing my School uniform if it wasn’t so ugly – Japanese School uniforms are so cute. I’m a fashion conscious girl, haha. ><

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Christopher

    I never thought about the equality that a uniform brings. Looking back, I do remember that everyone talked about their clothes. I never considered clothes as a status symbol as one of my rules of thought is ‘Everybody has an equal chance at life, it is how they use it for which they should be judged’.
    I never particularly cared for fashion, so my only complaint about uniforms was their practicality and how comfortable they were as I would be wearing it for a large portion of the day.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Christopher

    My only complaint about uniforms is their practicality, or lack there of. I need plenty of pockets, that can actually hold things, and yet no one else seems to deem it necessary. One thing that doesn’t bother me is that I wouldn’t have to pick out clothes. Like many of the geniuses before me, I have a hard time choosing what to wear. The solution being, wear basically the same thing everyday unless I really need to dress up.

    And I think there is a typo in the last paragraph of ‘School Uniforms’ “While today’s uniforms are (aren’t) quite as dated,…”
    Sorry if I am wrong, but I have this problem where when I see a mistake I want to correct it. It makes reading forums and website comments quite troublesome, though I’m sure I make plenty of mistakes myself.

  • Hinoema

    I have a hard time jumping on the ‘I Heart Steve’ bandwagon due to the whole child labor and worker abuse/ suicides thing. Until that is resolved, in my book Apple = iDon’tEven.

    http://betanews.com/2011/02/15/apple-concerned-about-child-labor-suicides-at-supplier-plants/

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    So, Steve aside, this whole thing is Foxconn not following regulations set by Apple. Apple’s one of the only companies that actually found this out on their own and made it public, instead of hiding it. They’re paying out of pocket extra money over the contracted price to make sure Foxconn employees making Apple products get a better wage, and they’ve actually been more strict on Foxconn compared to anywhere else…

    If Foxconn issues worry you, I’d recommend not buying any electronics — they make *a lot* of companies’ things ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foxconn#Clients), and I’d say Apple is providing the best situation and conditions for the Foxconn workers in comparison to all of them (or, at least they’re the one bringing the whole Foxconn issues to the public themselves, rather than just waiting for it to become a worse problem.

    Basically, though, it sucks to work for Foxconn, and every tech company hires them to make their parts. So, if you have a computer with an intel chip (probably), a microsoft product (probably, if you don’t go Apple), own a Dell or HP computer (maybe?) it’s still supporting Foxconn. Impossible to get away unless you go hermit!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Ah, good catch with the typo. Went ahead and fixed that, thanks!

  • Katy

    I live in New Zealand and as far as I know all Intermediate and High schools have a uniform.
    I really like it because as much as we complain that our uniforms suck, wearing them gives you a sense of belonging and pride. It also makes it so much easier in the morning to just have your clothes there waiting for you! The annoying thing is that at my school you have to wear a school regulation jacket and scarf if you are wearing them….. Although the scarves do look pretty good with the uniform.
    At least our school doesn’t have a regulation backpack which another single sex school in our city does :P sucks to be them.
    ANYWAY uniforms are good to have (especially if they’re cute) ;)
    And this article was really awesome! MYSTERY SOLVED!!!

  • Katy

    * Note: typo not supposed to be “another single sex school” needs to be a single sex school because I go to a Co-ed school…. :P

  • Hinoema

    True. Though, I don’t have products by anyone on that list, so it is possible. I know that no overseas manufacturing is guaranteed to be fair or humane. However, if Apple was so worried about it, they could actually create and support manufacturing jobs in the U.S. Or, if that’s too much, they could set up their own company instead of using a handy outsourcer mill with a known bad reputation.

    This is the company that made a $4.53 BILLION fourth quarter (as in three months) profit because of this kind of pseudo-slavery system, and think that throwing a pittance at it as a band aid makes them ethical. I’m not impressed.

    Sorry, Koichi. First world exploitation of any kind gets my back up, and when they do these PR stunts and expect applause, that really irks me. I love your site, though. *cat shaped cookies*

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  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Well, that’s good you’re putting your money where your mouth is! You must be using some kind of really sweet hipster computer, though, to get away with not using anything made at Foxconn… and running Ubuntu on it, maybe?

    But yeah, I agree, it’s no good :( China can’t keep the yuan down forever, though, and when it comes up in value folks won’t be able to get away with this kind of thing (though I’m sure it’ll just keep moving around the world, sadly).

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  • BritiNara

    My take: uniforms are important to Japanese because they clearly identify your group, and they make everyone feel part of a group. Which is important in Japan. Uniforms are not so enthusiastically adopted by Westerners (especially Americans) because they like to think that they believe that individuals are more important than the group, and submerging your identity within the group just doesn’t sound so cool.

    If I were cynical, I might comment, “Uniforms give you an identity”. Yeah, for those who don’t have one.
    I’m not sure Japanese “love” uniforms any more than Westerners. Sound out some highschoolers about this, some time.

  • http://www.deconstrukt.tumblr.com Sarah

    Interesting article, and since I recently started my own “Project 333″ (http://www.theproject333.com/getting-started/) I can attest that having less stuff in your closet actually makes live (or at least getting dressed) less difficult.

  • http://twitter.com/jamesoneill83 James O’Neill

    I know what you mean, not so much the cute bit (too manly!) but the general ugliness of UK school uniforms. I think I’d have been a bit happier with it if our uniforms had been better designed, then again NOTHING looked good on me in my teens.

  • combatfighter

    Dude, this is my first time reading a post from this website and i gotta say… I love it! Its informational and entertaining (e.g. “Note: image searches for “Japanese school uniform are guaranteed to find gross results”) I just became a follower from your site. =3

  • Fancy_Gualbertine

    Knowing that Steve Jobs had a interest in Japan its not suprising at all!! =) I love uniforms too, used to wear at high school. Everybody hated it. Me… =3

    ps. couldn’t connect with my FB =(