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fashion: feature

All in the jeansAll in the jeans

Sylvia Giles examines the history of denim jeans in the context of popular culture
Expanded from issue 23 of Lucire


POPULAR CULTURE has a lot to answer for. Of all the cultural carnage created for the sake of being popular with the masses, fashion could be considered the worst offender. Defined as the ‘culture of the people,’ it relies on mass communication, mass media, mass recognition but most importantly, mass acceptance of symbols and icons that are presented to us. It often involves the use of icons that become so everyday their original meanings are lost. While this certainly could be said of denim, the longevity of its popularity has meant it has transcended all fads and fashions, making it a fluid gauge of popular culture that has morphed and reinvented to suit the requirements of an erratic society.

While everyone is all too familiar with the Levi Strauss story, the influence of pop culture over denim includes rock stars, artists, intellectuals and film stars, and began with the emergence of the USA as a superpower after World War II. This supremacy would slowly translate to dominance of popular culture across the globe. Denim was quintessentially American, typically branded and fundamentally mainstream. In its early history, denim embodied the wholesome all-American hero, the cowboy and the labourer. It was seen as having been bastardized by biker gangs around the 1940s, and it was the first sight of what would be a long-standing relationship between denim and the rebel. Denim companies had a token attempt to portray themselves as a socially responsible choice of apparel. In 1953, Lee ran its first advertisement to teenage youth that promoted denim as an appropriate choice for school, in response to the banning of denim in schools. But ultimately, denim was to cash in on a rebellious youth and an American cultural explosion.

It wasn’t until Marlon Brando endorsed jeans with the kind of placement companies dream of in 1947. In A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, and the resulting movie, jeans emerged into the realm of pop culture. James Dean, Paul Newman and Marilyn Monroe all reciprocated and jeans reached their cult status, with associations of stardom and celebrity. Pop icons were also used to export to other markets, such as ventures into France with Brigitte Bardot, and her Italian equivalent Gina Lollobrigida.

It also became an icon of intellectuals, particularly in New York, as early as the 1940s. In 1949 Jackson Pollock was photographed for the cover of Life fittingly in paint splattered denim, and began something of a craze within the world of abstract expressions. The style was echoed by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Saul Bellow. Warhol, in particular, was fastidious about his jeans. He also went on to became the cover star for l’Uomo Vogue’s special denim issue in 1980. He once said, ‘I wish I could invent something like “blue jeans”. Something to be remembered for. Something mass.’

During the 1970s, western pop culture’s influence was being felt across the rest of the world. Within my parents’ library is a beautiful Russian book that my mother acquired while on a train travelling through Russia. The currency for this book was, in fact, her pair of Levi’s, spotted by a local passenger desperately wanting them for ‘his girlfriend’. The trade took place. She still treasures the book, and effortlessly bought a replacement pair on her arrival back in the UK. The reality is that in Russia in the 1970s, a pair of Levi’s could have reached a much higher price than a paperback. Jeans had become a symbol of western decadence because of the difficulty involved in getting a pair in non-western countries. But that the demand existed at all was an indication that the influence of western pop culture was now sweeping across the entire globe.

Fashion took on a life of its own in the 1980s, and the creation of pop culture-turned-monster. The cult of the supermodel and celebrity reigned. In 1980, Calvin Klein used a 15-year-old Brooke Shields to communicate the sexuality of jeans. The use of the boldly stated line, ‘Between me and my Calvin’s there is absolutely nothing … if they could talk I would be ruined,’ was married with a provocative, leg-spread pose. The ad was pulled from many television stations. Klein’s rebuttal was left at a ‘Jeans are sex.’ He hardly needed to say more. Conservative Middle America could not tame the beast that had become pop culture, and Klein’s sales leapt to $180 million a year. Likewise, fashion houses such as Versace and Dior launched high-end denim wear lines, modelled only by supermodels in sexual, powerful poses.

Music’s contribution to fashion is generally a treasured one. As a true voice of the street, it is unlike the devised marketing strategies in the name of consumerism. Music is also, in general, more politically charged than the impression left on pop culture by movie stars. Elvis, for example, refused to wear jeans on stage, after having been schooled by black musicians in Memphis, where denim rang of cotton fields and share cropping.

In 1975, in a small bar in New York called CBGB, Television bassist Richard Hell graced the stage in a ripped T-shirt and jeans. It was observed by a very impressed Malcolm McLaren, who recreated the look with the Sex Pistols, with the help of Vivienne Westwood. This was the beginning of the punk movement, which was to take on a life of its own. Denim sat alongside leather, vinyl and safety pins. While the untrained eye was to brand it an “uglification”, punk communicated a deep dissatisfaction of a generation that felt deeply let down by the world.

The Ramones, also Television fans, created a variation of their own, teaming their jeans with black leather jackets and white T-shirts. Their manager, Danny Fields, was also a figure in the Andy Warhol Factory scene. He easily identified why their look resonated with youths: ‘It’s an easy enduring look and costume that any kid in the world can create. It’s the way you face the street.’

If the pop culture influences on denim history read like a Who’s Who of the 20th century, the 21st century would signify a break-down of the concept of “the mainstream”, and the emergence of subcultures and individualization. The internet is now the ruling authority on pop culture. Information is traded in an instant. It has reduced the cycles of fashion and fads, which now happen instantaneously and the globe. But by far the most interesting outcome has been the explosion of subcultures—a fragmentation of the mainstream.

If you put denim distressing into Google you will find many a website and thread devoted to home ‘distresseurs’. The most interesting include one fashion devotee that had buried his jeans in his back yard for an entire year. After a wash they came up better than jeans one might find in the scientific laboratories of any well-known, excessively funded denim factory. Likewise, with the recent tendency towards very blue denim with very little interference, anecdotal evidence filters through the web of fashion victims refusing to wash their jeans in an effort to keep them as authentic to the original denim as possible. But giving a voice to the public that sits on the same forum as fashion reviews from Paris, New York, London, suddenly equates the consumer with the label, giving a new voice and authority to fashion at the ground roots. continued


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Main photograph:
Brooke Shields in her Calvin Klein print ad. From top: Kate Moss appears in another sexy Calvin Klein jeans advertisement, pushing more boundaries. Jeans from Free Religion. Doosh Roadrunner jeans in Smoke. Levi’s Super Fit.



Within my parents’ library is a beautiful Russian book that my mother acquired while on a train travelling through Russia. The currency for this book was, in fact, her pair of Levi’s, spotted by a local passenger desperately wanting them for ‘his girlfriend’. The trade took place

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