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