by Nelson Fragelli
George Will wrote an article in The Washington Post titled “Demon Denim.” The article analyses the influence blue jeans have on those who wear them. In his piece, Will cites another article published by the American writer Daniel Akst in The Wall Street Journal, “Down with Denim.”
Akst denounced denim as a ubiquitous fabric, which is symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche. He said it was a manifestation of “the modern trend toward undifferentiated dressing, in which we all strive to look equally shabby. Jeans come prewashed and acid-treated to make them look like what they are not – authentic work clothes for the calloused-handed sons of toil and the soil.” In other words, Akst says, “Denim on the bourgeoisie is discordant.”
According to Akst, blue jeans expose a profound contradiction of one aspect of Western civilization, especially in the middle classes: “How is it that the middle classes dress in a way that does not reflect them? This egalitarian way of dressing of the American is the infantile uniform of a nation, used by young and old alike. It is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy’s catechism of leveling – thou shalt not dress better than society’s most slovenly.”
George Will adds, “Denim is the carefully calculated costume of people eager to communicate indifference to appearances. But the appearances that people choose to present in public are cues from which we make inferences about their maturity and respect for those to whom they are presenting themselves.”
Will concludes by saying, “Edmund Burke – what he would have thought of the denimization of America can be inferred from his lament that the French Revolution assaulted ‘the decent drapery of life.’ It is a straight line from the fall of the Bastille to the rise of denim -- said: ‘To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.’”
What is the connection between a political event and a way of dressing? When the French revolutionaries invaded the Bastille, they proclaimed, amongst other things, the total equality between men: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Since blue jeans have become a uniform, “an egalitarian way of dressing,” it is here that Akst saw the link.
Although the Levi Strauss name is indelibly associated with copper-riveted jeans, it was Jacob W. Davis who first fabricated them at his Reno shop in the State of Nevada in 1871. After several legal battles, he and Strauss jointly won patent rights to the invention, and Davis supervised their manufacture in San Francisco until his death.
Both men had the intention to sell strong fabric for tents and wagon covers as well as tough trousers for the men who knelt on the muddy, stony banks of Northern California creeks panning for gold, and for surveyors and teamsters working for the Central Pacific Railroad in the mid 1800’s.
These working men were frequently rustic, without any religion and with few moral principles. Tight-fitting to reveal the form of the body, from the beginning blue jeans expressed the strength of manual labor and of a sexually active youth. The sexual revolution was already present in its shape. From 1935, advertisements began to show women in blue jeans also.
Anna Schober, who has a doctorate in History and Art History (2000) and lives in Vienna, published the results of her study of blue jeans in a volume entitled Vom Leben in Stoffen und Bildern (Life in Materials and Images). In it, she describes her surprise to discover that the history of these trousers is the history of an immense advertising campaign to impose blue jeans as a fashion.
The distribution of blue jeans is identical to the history of religious and ideological propaganda techniques by means of the radio, film, magazines and billboards. In one of these billboards Marilyn Monroe appears in blue jeans with her midriff exposed – a fashion that only became generalized fifty years later.
The advertising campaign was effective. The copper-riveted jeans ceased to be a symbol of the worker and became one of social groups. In the 20th century no other item of clothing was pushed so much to the point of becoming one of the symbols of the century.
What is the psychological effect of blue jeans? What tendencies do they arouse? What revolutionary ambience do they create? Social research reveals that the first two tendencies encouraged by this type of clothing are the desire to be the same as everyone else, and to blend in with the masses thus becoming imperceptible and like everyone else. However, if this piece of clothing gives to the wearer the sensation of imperceptibility, it contradictorily emphasizes the shape of the body, which gives the impression of notoriety.
At first, while blue jeans were being launched, they attracted those passionate for novelty who wanted to break with the formality and tradition of the dominant fashion. To wear jeans was a radical criticism of that society. Imperceptibility and pre-eminence is in fact the mysterious contradiction these trousers bring to the forefront. They seem to proclaim: “Do you want to be different? Then be like everyone else.”
Alongside these two psychological stimuli there is yet a third. Jeans evoke a sympathetic proletarianization of society. This proletarian effect refined itself in later models of jeans presented: first they were faded, then ripped, now shredded.
According to Anna Schober, a symbol acts especially in daily life by impregnating the mind with the principle symbolized. Jeans present a proletarian idea of a world in contradiction with itself. In this sense, Jeans foster a Marxist-like mentality of egalitarianism as well as the absurdity of communism itself.
Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira says that the way of dressing denotes a preference for certain principles expressed symbolically by the type of clothes worn. He says that souls are influenced much more by living principles contained in ambiences and fashions than by philosophical theories expounded in treatises.
Blue jeans have become a uniform. Whole sectors of society have become equalized, after first having been led to do so out of rebellion by the mediocrity of the bourgeoisie world. Infallibly, clothing expresses the mentality of those who created and used them throughout the ages.
The popularization of denim reveals a prodigious process of the depersonalization of the peoples. It could easily be adopted by Brussels as the uniform of the countries of the European Union.