The meaning of blue jeans
Denim's history suggests that American attitudes to work are more complex than they seem
IN AN interview near the end of his career the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent confessed to a regret: that he had not invented blue jeans. “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity,” sighed the owlish Frenchman. “All I hope for in my clothes.” American denim-lovers might add other attributes. As far back as the 1930s, when the popularity of cowboy films helped jeans make the leap from workwear into the wardrobes of Hollywood stars, denim has been understood to stand for something larger about the American spirit: for rugged individualism, informality and a classless respect for hard work.
“Deep down in every American's breast…is a longing for the frontier,” enthused Vogue magazine in 1935, advising readers on how to dress with true “Western chic” (combine jeans with a Stetson hat and “a great free air of Bravado,” it counselled). Levi Strauss & Co., the San Francisco firm which invented modern blue jeans in 1873, saw sales boom after it crafted posters showing denim-clad cowboys toting saddles and kissing cowgirls.
Jump to the 1950s and 1960s, and American consumers learned the heroic history of denim from nationwide magazine and television advertising campaigns. They were told that the tough blue cloth began life as “Serge de Nîmes”, in the French town of that name, and was used by Columbus for his ships' sails, before outfitting the pioneers who tamed the West. In a country so often riven by culture wars, jeans crossed lines of ideology, class, gender and race. Presidents from Jimmy Carter onwards have worn denim when fishing, clearing brush or playing sports to signal their everyman credentials—though Barack Obama has endured mockery for donning capacious jeans that he later conceded were “a little frumpy”.
Since the second world war, when GIs and sailors took blue jeans to the Old World and Asia, denim has carried ideas of American liberty around the globe, often leaving governments scrambling to catch up. Emma McClendon, a curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, notes in a fine new book, “Denim: Fashion's Frontier”, that when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, reporters were surprised to see young East Berliners dressed exactly like their cousins from the West—in stonewashed jeans. Ms McClendon's book accompanies a small but splendid exhibition on denim at the FIT on Seventh Avenue.
自美国大兵和水手将其带到旧世界和亚洲的第二次世界大战以来，蓝色牛仔裤已将美国的自由思想传遍了全世界，经常使得各国政府为了跟上潮流而手忙脚乱。纽约时尚技术学院（FIT）博物馆馆长爱玛·麦克伦登（Emma McClendon）在《牛仔裤：时尚的先驱者》（Denim: Fashion's Frontier）这本制作精美的新书中指出，当柏林墙在1989年倒塌时，记者们吃惊地发现，东柏林的年轻人穿得与西方同龄人一模一样的——都是身着水洗牛仔裤。麦克伦登的书是与 FIT在第七大道举办的一次小型但杰出的牛仔裤展览一同出现的。
The popularity of clothing invented to survive hard labour is of topical interest in America, a country gripped by election-year debates about blue-collar, working-class voters, and whether their interests have been ignored by ruling elites. Ms McClendon argues, persuasively, that much of what Americans think they know about denim draws on a set of “origin myths”, crafted and disseminated by manufacturers over many years, both individually and in campaigns run by the Denim Council, an industry group of clothing-makers and textile mills that was active from 1955-75. The council, whose papers are now in the FIT's archives, was formed after jeans-clad motorcycle gangs and such films as “The Wild One” and “Rebel Without a Cause” led to something like a nationwide panic about denim and its unseemly effects on young bodies and minds. Committees of denim manufacturers and advertising executives set out to combat “anxieties over juvenile delinquency”. Wholesome films about jeans appeared on over 70 television stations, and “How It All Began” cartoons ran in newspapers, tracing the origins of denim back to medieval Europe. From the late 1950s Levi Strauss & Co. ran advertisements and a letter-writing campaign urging schools to allow students to attend classes in denim. Their pitch combined images of clean-cut, studious children in jeans with such slogans as “Right for School”, explains Tracey Panek, Levi's company historian.
这种为了承受艰苦劳作而发明的服装的流行，在美国这个被有关蓝领和工薪阶层以及他们的利益是否为精英阶层忽略等讨论所抓住国家，是具有现实意义的。麦克伦登令人信服地指出，美国人自以为自己已经了解的有关牛仔裤的东西，其中的绝大多数都源自一整套由制造商多年单独或是在牛仔裤行业协会这个在1955年-1975年间非常活跃的服装生产和纺织企业工业组织所运作的运动中设计和传播的“起源神话”。如今它的文件就在FIT藏品中的这个行业协会是在身着牛仔裤的摩托车飞车党以及诸如《飞车党》（The Wild One）和《无因的反叛》（Rebel Without a Cause）这类电影导致了一股有关牛仔裤和它们对年轻人的身心的不良影响的全国性恐慌后形成的。当时，牛仔裤制造商协会的会员和广告高管决定打消人们“对少年违法犯罪的焦虑”。一时间，有关牛仔裤的电影出现在了70多个电视频道中，将牛仔裤的起源追溯到了中世纪欧洲的《牛仔裤是怎么来的》的漫画登上了多家报纸。自上世纪50年代末期开始，李维·施特劳斯公司发动了一场广告大战和一场敦促学校允许学生穿牛仔裤上课的写信运动。李维·施特劳斯公司的公司史专家Tracey Panek解释说，他们当年的营销手段就是把身着牛仔裤的干净利落且勤奋学习的孩子的形象和“Right for School”这类口号融合在一起。
Quite a lot of this marketing was hokum, or close to it. There is no evidence that Columbus crossed oceans under billowing denim sails, while the latest research is that the term “denim” may have been invented in England. Perhaps most strikingly, relatively few cowboys wore blue jeans at the height of the Wild West, Ms McClendon says: canvas and leather trousers were also common. Denim was mostly worn by small farmers, field-hands, labourers and miners—some of the oldest pieces in the archives of Levi Strauss & Co. were found in disused mines in California and Nevada (there is a whole world of denim-hunters out there, willing to endure much hardship to find a pair of 1880s Levi's).
The best history money can buy
Ms McClendon describes economic and commercial forces at work in the 1930s. Denim sales to working-class customers slumped during the Depression. At the same time ranchers in need of extra income touted their properties as “dude ranches” at which affluent tourists could play at cowboys, apeing favourite film stars. Even Depression-era protectionism arguably played a role: Sandra Comstock, a sociologist at Reed College in Oregon, has written that tariffs on imported French clothing prodded department stores to promote domestic fashions including jeans.
Myth-making about jeans suggests a political conclusion, too: that for a supposedly classless country America takes a complicated view of work. Study denim's history and it is hard to avoid concluding that heroic individuals roaming the land, such as cowboys, are easier to sell as fashion icons than folk who toil by the hour in a factory, garage or field, taking orders from a boss. The first gallery at the FIT exhibition shows how the earliest denim clothes were often uniforms: it includes a prison uniform, sailor's overalls and, most tellingly, the sort of blue work-shirt made of chambray (a cousin of denim) that inspired the term “blue-collar worker” back in the 1920s. Yet, other than to a few urban hipsters in recent decades, chambray shirts have mostly lacked the “cross-over cool” of denim jeans, says Fred Dennis, senior curator at the FIT—they did not fit into a “romanticised, cool-dude weekend look”. Small wonder that blue-collar workers feel forgotten.