Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward
Oxford • New York
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Notes on Contributors
The Making of an American Icon: The Transformation of
Blue Jeans during the Great Depression
Sandra Curtis Comstock
Diverting Denim: Screening Jeans in Bollywood
Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber
How Blue Jeans went Green: The Materiality of an American Icon
Bodil Birkebæk Olesen
The Limits of Jeans in Kannur, Kerala
‘Brazilian Jeans’: Materiality, Body and Seduction at a
Rio de Janeiro’s Funk Ball
Indigo Bodies: Fashion, Mirror Work and Sexual Identity in Milan
Jeanealogies: Materiality and the (Im)permanence of Relationships
Carrot-cut Jeans: An Ethnographic Account of Assertiveness,
Embarrassment and Ambiguity in the Figuration of Working-class
Male Youth Identities in Berlin
The Jeans that Don’t Fit: Marketing Cheap Jeans in Brazil
– v –
Notes on Contributors
Sandra Curtis Comstock is currently a Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for
Studies in American History at Harvard University. She completed her PhD thesis at Cornell University (entitled ‘Imperial Denim: the place of blue jeans in the
consolidation and transformation of American power in the 20th century’), and has
worked previously as Adjunct Research Professor at the Department of Sociology,
University of Western Ontario.
Moritz Ege is a PhD candidate at the Department of European Ethnology at
Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, and a fellow of the German Academic
National Foundation. Ege is the author of a book on “Afroamericanophilia”,
race and new subjectivities in 1960s and 1970s Germany (Schwarz werden.
“Afroamerikanophilie” in den 1960er und 1970er Jahren, 2007). His research interests include popular culture and subcultural theory, particularly processes of appropriation and institutionalisation; anthropological and sociological theories of
culture, particularly as they intersect with aesthetics and urban life; and methods in
ethnography and cultural analysis.
Daniel Miller is Professor of Material Culture at the Department of Anthropology,
University College London. Recent publications include The Comfort of Things
(Polity, 2008), Stuff (Polity, 2010) and Au Pair (Polity, 2010, with Zuzana Burikova),
and the edited collection Anthropology and the Individual (Berg, 2009). Forth
coming publications include Tales from Facebook, Technologies of Love (with Mirca
Madianou) and Denim: The Art of Ordinary (with Sophie Woodward). Along with
Sophie Woodward, he established the Global Denim Project, and also runs (with
Haidy Geismar) the blog: www.materialworldblog.com.
Mylene Mizrahi received her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the Federal
University of Rio de Janeiro in June 2010. Since 2002, she has carried out extensive
fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, among creators and spectators of Funk Carioca,
a local musical movement. Her theoretical interests include aesthetics, creativity,
connectivity and the role played by objects and images on those topics. She is the author of articles on material culture, consumption, fashion and clothing, religion and
irony, alterity and mimesis. She is currently preparing a monograph, provisionally
entitled Rio Funk Aesthetics: Creation and Connectivity with Mr. Catra.
– vii –
viii • Notes on Contributors
Bodil Birkebæk Olesen is post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Anthropology
at Aarhus University in Denmark, and a Research Associate at the Sainsbury
Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at University of East
Anglia. Her main regional focus is West Africa where she carried out her doctoral research on bogolan cloth from Mali. She has also conducted ethnographic fieldwork
in North America. Her research and publications focus on art and material culture,
museum anthropology, economic anthropology and cloth, textile and dress.
Rosana Pinheiro-Machado is a Lecturer in Anthropology at the College of Ad
vertising and Marketing (ESPM/RS), Brazil, with a PhD in Social Anthropology
from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. She specialises in the
ethnography of Chinese and Latin American societies and she has been carrying out
multi-site fieldwork in both of these regions over the last ten years. Previous topics on which she has published include social inequalities, capitalism in emergent
economies, guanxi, informal economies, kinship and migration, legality and illegality, human rights, globalization, fakes and brands.
Roberta Sassatelli is Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology at the Department
of Social and Political Studies at the Università degli Studi di Milano. She has previously taught at the University of East Anglia, UK, and the University of Bologna,
Italy. She has published widely on consumer culture, the sociology of the body, gender and sexuality and cultural theory. Her English-language books include Consumer
Culture: History, Theory, Politics (Sage, 2007) and Fitness Culture: The Gym and
the Commercialization of Discipline and Fun (Palgrave, 2010).
Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber was educated at Durham University and received her
PhD (anthropology) at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include material culture, gender and media production. Her work has centred in India
and has focused on local conceptions of creativity and skill in artistic practice, and
shifting aesthetic and social patterns in the Hindi film industry. Her articles have
appeared in Visual Anthropology Review, Anthropological Quarterly and Journal
of Material Culture. Her book Embroidering Lives: Women’s Work and Skill in
the Lucknow Embroidery Industry was published by SUNY press in 1999. She is
currently working on another book titled Fashioning Bollywood: The Making and
Meaning of Hindi Film Costume.
Sophie Woodward fis a Lecturer fin Socfioflogy at the . She
researches into material culture, consumption and clothing and has a continued interest in feminist theory and innovative methodologies. She is developing further
research into personal life and closeness. She is the author of Why Women Wear
What They Wear (Berg, 2007) and Why Feminism Matters (Palgrave, 2009, with
Kath Woodward). Forthcoming publications include Denim: The Art of Ordinary
(with Daniel Miller) and an edited special edition of the journal Textile. Along with
Prof. Daniel Miller she established the Global Denim Project.
Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward
To state that denim jeans are a global presence is, in itself, not a radical claim – the
production, design and trade in denim evidently spans the globe, as does wearing
jeans. But as we started to develop the Global Denim Project, we became increasingly aware of the sheer extent of denim’s global reach. Every time he went abroad for
a conference Miller began to count 100 random people who passed him on the street
to see how many were wearing blue jeans. This included a good range of sites from
Seoul and Beijing to Istanbul and Rio. On the basis of these observations, along with
some global denim surveys (Synovate 2008), we suggest that (discounting the major
populations of rural South Asia and China) perhaps the majority of the people in the
majority of the countries of the world are wearing blue jeans on any given day. Yet
despite their global ubiquity, a lack of academic attention is given to denim jeans.
After twelve years in publication there is not a single paper devoted to the topic in
the journal Fashion Theory and, with the exception of historical works, any writing
from a social science perspective is minimal.
Existing research into denim falls within the domains of textile technology,
marketing and consumer perceptions, the global denim market, and historical research. Firstly, research within textile chemistry and technology analyses aspects
of the material performance of the fabric (Tarhan and Sarsiisik 2009) as this relates
to quality (Chowdhary 2002), including dyeing (Card et al. 2005), and the fate of
reclaimed denim products (Hawley 2006). Secondly, running in tandem with this is
literature within the arena of marketing and branding, which considers consumers
perceptions of jeans and brands, as this relates to specific regions (Wu and Delong
2006). Thirdly, the existing literature includes papers on jeans production and labour
conditions (Bair and Gereffi 2001; Bair and Peters 2006; Crewe 2004; Tokatli 2007;
Tokatli and Kızılgün 2004).
The final area of writing on the topic of denim is also perhaps the largest, and
includes books on the historical iconography of denim jeans (Finlayson 1990; Marsh
and Trynka 2002; Sullivan 2006) and the way blue jeans became an American icon,
linked to particular generations and values (Reichs 1970) and a part of popular culture. It is this historical narrative that, in turn, is generally accepted and adopted as
the explanation for why blue jeans became ubiquitous, as though this was some kind
of common sense. In the existing literature there is very little social science work
– 1 –
2 • Introduction
that is not historical, and in particular very little qualitative or ethnographic work.
Fiske (1989) discussed how the meanings and wearing of jeans are contested, as a
medium through which people live the contradictions of popular culture, yet this is
in specific relation to American-ness. The approach of this book, instead, is ethnographic but we are also simultaneously attempting to understand the global. When
we say ‘global’ it should be noted that our book does not refer to every country in the
world, which would anyhow be beyond the scope of one collected volume – as there
are, for example no papers in this volume on African or Middle Eastern countries
(although work by, for example Hansen 2005, indicates the importance of jeans in
The paucity of social science research into denim is notable when compared to
the seemingly endless books and papers that are devoted to the clothing by major
designers that exists primarily on the catwalk, and is subsequently worn by very few
people. This suggests a paradox at the heart of studies of clothing and fashion: the
significance attributed to clothing in such studies is probably in inverse proportion
to the importance that items of fashion and clothing have to the population as a
whole. This book is part of an attempt to shift attention from the spectacular to the
mainstream and the everyday. In the paper that launched the Global Denim Project
(Miller and Woodward 2007) we suggested that denim is the subject of that felicitous phrase, ‘the blindingly obvious’. That is, certain things have become so deeply
taken for granted and omnipresent that we have become blind to their presence and
importance. This book is, then, the first ever published specifically devoted to the
topic of blue jeans as a global phenomena that effectively dominates contemporary
clothing and fashion.
Of course, it is not a particularly attractive proposition to suggest that academics
should study something just because it is there, and in this introduction we are really
asserting something quite different. We argue, instead, that the study of denim, and
more specifically blue jeans, matters as it can provide us with insights, understandings and advances in fashion and clothing studies beyond that of almost any topic
that we might otherwise have focused upon. Coming from anthropology we tend
to see the ubiquitous not as boring and taken for granted but as the critical point of
departure for understanding our relationship to the world more generally.
Furthermore, this book is not just about denim – it is specifically about global
denim because, once again, there are advantages to taking this particular perspective
from which to expand our view of denim as a whole – to show how we can simultaneously understand the existence of denim as a global phenomenon and that which
is specific and unique. We argued in the manifesto paper, that as social scientists,
and especially as anthropologists, our explanations depend on the nuances of local
context – that is, on knowledge about what people in South Korea do as opposed
to Argentineans, or upper class as against lower class, shop workers as against factory workers. The problem is that none of these more parochial studies helps us to
explain the existence of a global phenomenon such as denim. The explanation for
Introduction • 3
the global has to be more than the aggregate of all the local explanations for why
something is present in each place.
It is this problem that gives birth to the Global Denim Project. It was an appreciation that, to actually come to terms with global denim, the kinds of studies
and approaches that exist in academia at present are insufficient. We need something
radically different. The project has sought, since its inception, to find new ways to
conceive and carry out academic research appropriate to the scale of the phenomenon
we are trying to explain. We argued that to hope for the kind of profound insights
that we believed an investigation of denim was capable of, we need to bring together
people from many different places and disciplines and have them converge around
this particular issue. We created a structure aimed at achieving this goal, loosely
based on a kind of ‘open source’ model for academic contributions. Admittedly this
was partly because, apart from a small research grant for our joint ethnography to
help with transcription costs, neither of us has raised any money for an overarching
global denim project. But in this case, necessity was the mother of invention. We
used the Internet effectively to create the Global Denim Project as a self-proclaimed
entity, inviting anyone who is seriously interested in furthering the understanding of
this phenomenon to join in. There would be no actual formal organization – rather
we agreed to foster and organize collaboration and debate. We expect this to continue for several years, but already there are clear results from this collaboration,
which this volume is intended to disseminate. If the manifesto laid a foundation for
starting the project, this volume will consolidate our infrastructure and prepare us
for building the next stage.
Putting out a kind of random call to the world at large is something of an adventure. Ideally we hoped to have people involved in this project from different disciplines, working in a wide range of regions on a vast spectrum of issues. Somewhat
astonishingly, this is exactly what happened. All the papers in this book come from
academics who embraced this call, but they by no means exhaust this list, which at
present amounts to over twenty independent studies committed to denim (www.ucl.
ac.uk/global-denim-project, accessed 11 June 2010). Some of these existed prior to
the project and others have been devised in the light of the challenge posed by the
project itself. They include historians, sociologists, geographers and anthropologists
and, apart from those in this volume, cover areas such as Turkey, Japan and Sweden.
As well as this volume, which focuses on issues that help us bring together the
simultaneity of both a highly localized and global phenomenon, we are also working
on a further special issue for the journal Textile (2011) that focuses more on the
textile itself and its implications. For the future we are also discussing still more
radical ways of undertaking such work including writing from a truly open source
perspective in the style of a wiki rather than with named authors.
Yet, however original the approaches, intentions and perspectives that are brought
to bear on the topic, the value of this collection lies ultimately in the original insights
it can contribute to our understanding of global denim. To appreciate this we propose
4 • Introduction
to review briefly some of the underlying theoretical issues raised in the original
manifesto paper and then see how these are developed in the light of the actual
findings reported in the individual chapters of this volume. Firstly, the manifesto
includes the question of how we relate global and local explanations of clothing
and how we both account for and overcome this issue of the blindingly obvious.
Secondly, we consider what, if anything, global denim says about global homogenization. Extrapolating from the work of Woodward (2007), in particular, the third
question we pose is whether there are specific aspects of modernity that create common responses. For example, is the growing consciousness of the immensity of the
global world linked to a kind of anxiety that people feel when selecting clothing?
Does this in turn lead them to use denim as a kind of default clothing worn because
they fear anything more conspicuous or specific (Clarke and Miller 2002; Woodward
2005; Woodward 2007)?
The fourth question that we posed derived from observations about denim as
something unique, because the reason to focus on denim is not dependent entirely
upon its global presence. It is unique in several other ways. One of the most evident
of which is its relationship to distressing. We noted that distressing developed from
a period in the 1970s when jeans became the most personalized and intimate apparel
as they essentially disintegrated on the flesh through being worn to death by the
nomadic and relatively impoverished hippies of the time. During this period jeans
also became softer and more individual to the person. The paradox was that at the
very time when blue jeans were becoming the global ecumene of clothing, they were
simultaneously becoming the most developed expression of specific individuality.
Finally we asked whether in response to these questions there was some ‘value
added’ in the collaboration between projects that came from different disciplines and
different regions to constitute a self-conscious global denim project and how this
might help us confront these larger questions.
If we were to sum up the implications of these questions and this initial analysis
of denim as a clothing phenomenon, the evidence is that jeans seem to have taken
on the role of expressing something about the changing world that no other clothing
could achieve. It was almost as though jeans were expanding even as the world itself
was expanding. The more global the world then the more global the jeans but also
the more the world created a sphere for the personal and the intimate the more this
applied also to jeans. The more people tried to find ways to bring these two extremes
of the intimate and the global from flying apart in their lives the more they wore
jeans as the instrument for keeping this simultaneity of local and global experiences.
At one level, jeans may be merely a pair of trousers, but they exhibit three extraordinary characteristics: jeans are amongst the most global clothing in the world, they
express their capacity to become the most intimate clothing in the world, and they
have become the default mode for people uncertain as to which clothes to wear. To
understand them we have to start from the relationship between these three points.
That, for example, distressing, as an expression of the ability of jeans to become
Introduction • 5
worn to our body and thus intimate and personal exists as a phenomenon precisely
because it is also jeans that are global.
These may sound like sweeping statements. One could say that shirt wearing
is equally global but it is relative to their specific colour and fabric that blue jeans
are so remarkable in their ubiquity. One could say that lingerie is necessarily more
intimate than denim. But our point is that while lingerie occupies a more intimate
relation to the body, it is distressing that makes a garment gradually personalized
to the specific body that wears it, which gives denim a capacity for intimacy that
lingerie does not possess. Finally, our observations on denim as default wear is
based on fieldwork by Woodward in London, we cannot know at this point whether
it applies, for example, to elderly people in Mexico. But what we do know is that
these are three extraordinary traits that denim does clearly exhibit for people in some
places, and at least for London in direct relation to each other. So there are grounds
for asserting that to understand denim we simply have to ask ourselves why these
traits would ever be found in respect to the same garment
As anthropologists we turned to jeans the way the anthropologist Claude LeviStrauss (1966) (no relation to the jeans designer) turned to myth. Jeans are not an
explicit statement of philosophy but, in practice, they may achieve something of that
which philosophy is also aiming to achieve. Instead of expressing such dilemmas
abstractly and intellectually they are the practical means to partially resolve them.
By simultaneously being both global and intimate in this sense of personal represented by distressing, blue jeans demonstrate the degree to which we the wearers
can be simultaneously the most global and most intimate. Instead of seeing these
as a contradiction, wearing jeans makes them feel compatible. The word ‘feel’ is
important here because most people are not looking for abstract philosophy – they
are simply looking for a way to literally feel better about themselves and about the
world. An item of clothing is ideal for this purpose. In order for jeans to accomplish
such a task, they need to act as a material culture (Kuchler and Miller 2005; Miller
2010) directly analogous to those philosophical engagements, and their ability to do
so is attested by their very ubiquity.
If these claims are already present or implied in the arguments of the manifesto
paper then what is the purpose of this volume relative to those claims? The answer
comes in the central dialectic of academic enquiry that constantly moves us backward and forward from the particular to the general. We can now state at a very general level something of the meaning that blue jeans have to the modern world. This
may satisfy some academic interest in making such highly generalized statements
analogous to philosophy. But we are not philosophers – we are students of clothing
and fashion, social scientists and historians and we have a deep concern with the
specific populations that we study. None of us would be satisfied merely to leave
these claims at such an abstract level. For us the point of the enquiry is only realized
when we address the kind of question a sceptic might pose to this philosophical
rendition, the question of ‘so what’? How, from the general, do we then return to our
6 • Introduction
specific fields of enquiry and populations with a new appreciation of their lives and
experiences? While we may use jeans to express our relationship to the global, we
are always simultaneously local and our primary concerns will always be with these
far more specific engagements.
Having established the quite extraordinary significance of jeans to express and
perhaps to some degree resolve the growing antinomies of our contemporary world
– the simultaneous growth of the world as increasingly global and personal – we
now use this volume to directly address the ‘so what?’ question. We aim to show, for
example, what for particular populations it means to be intimate, or what it means to
be global, and how this impacts upon their particular experiences. At this point global denim becomes far more than just a neglected field of clothing studies: it is the
quintessential case of a global object posed as an issue of academic comprehension
and thereby a challenge to contemporary academia itself. It implies the potential
of denim to become a catalyst in the emergence of new forms of studies and new
Given the scale of the project and of global denim itself, we will not be able to
offer a comprehensive answer to the questions we have posed. Instead, this initial
volume aims to start a dialogue, an imagination of this new terrain and a commitment to future work and collaborations on denim. What we hope this volume will
achieve is an impact on the wider study of clothing and fashion that persuades its
practitioners of the importance of this quest. That it can demonstrate how the study
of denim contributes not only to the understanding the clothing that dominates what
people wear everyday but also to many critical questions about who we are in the
The Current State of Global Denim1
One of the arguments for the importance of understanding denim in a global context
is that denim is not only present in all countries in the world, but, as global denim
surveys on the wearing of jeans demonstrate,2 it has also become a widely worn garment within these places. The global average (more accurately the average for the
selection of countries included in this particular survey) in 2008 was for people to
wear jeans 3.5 days a week (Global Lifestyle Monitor 2008) with the highest amount
being in Germany where jeans are worn 5.2 days of the week (and ownership is on
average 8.6 pairs per person). In the same sample of countries, more than six out
of 10 (62 per cent) of consumers say they love or enjoy wearing denim, with the
highest responses coming in, for example, Brazil (72 per cent) and in Colombia. By
contrast, in India a mere 27 per cent stated they loved wearing jeans. According to
another recent survey of selected countries (Synovate 2008), 31 per cent of those
surveyed own three or four pairs of jeans, 29 per cent own five to ten pairs of jeans.
In Brazil, 14 per cent of respondents own ten or more pairs of jeans and 40 per cent
Introduction • 7
owned five to ten pairs. By contrast, the numbers of people who do not own jeans is
relatively low, with, for example, 13 per cent of Russians not owning jeans, although
the figure for Malaysia reaches 29 per cent.
Notwithstanding the broad trends in all these countries towards the wearing of
jeans by the majority of the population, there are clearly national differences. This is
especially evident in how much people are willing to spend on a pair of jeans; most
people will not spend more than US$80 for their jeans (seven out of ten of all those
surveyed). Interestingly, American citizens are the lowest spenders on denim, as the
survey finds that 76 per cent would only be prepared to pay up to US$40 on a pair of
jeans. At the other end of the scale, in Russia, 26 per cent would spend US$120 or
more on a pair of jeans, with 10 per cent prepared to spend more than US$200 and
5 per cent US$280 or more. In both Taiwan (where 3 per cent would pay US$280+)
and Serbia (where 25 per cent would pay US$120+) there was also an evident willingness amongst at least some of the population to spend more. The issue of price
is particularly marked in a UK context; in a 2007 survey (Mintel 2007), 63 per cent
of people stated that they has spent less than £30 ($47) on their last pair of jeans,
and only 3 per cent had spent more than £70 ($109) This spectrum of jeans buying
is enabled by the wide price range of jeans, which span from supermarket and value
stores such as Primark, up to the top range designer jeans, which sell in excess of
£250 ($389). As such, there is both an increased democratization of denim, where
even those on the lowest incomes can afford a pair of jeans yet, at the same time,
this wide price spectrum means that denim simultaneously retains a considerable
capacity to mark social and class differentiation.
One of the key arguments we made in the manifesto paper was that denim is
as much a refutation as an acceptance of capitalist pressures such as fashion. The
core style of a pair of denim jeans is much the same today as the first ever pairs of
Levi’s in the late nineteenth century. When asked, in the Synovate (2008) survey,
why people chose jeans, the strongest response was the quality of denim (39 per
cent), and secondly the cost (22 per cent). The response, ‘they are fashionable’ was
not a significant overall response, although in a couple of countries (11 per cent of
Russians and 10 per cent of French) it was cited as a feature. Although in fashion
and clothing studies there has been an emphasis upon the growth of designer jeans,
in practice the significant development that has effected much larger populations has
been the growth of supermarket jeans, or jeans at discount stores such as Primark.
Even within the designer jeans market there is a clear complexity, as seen in the
expansion of Turkish denim manufacture and the complex network of contracting and subcontracting for denim brands, including the emergence of several local
brands from these producing countries (Tokatli and Kızılgün 2004). The point being
that the main expansion has come in the market segment that is least profitable and
least related to fashion.
The continuity in the basic style of a pair of jeans therefore occurs hand-in-hand
with changes within the denim sector, such as in the global trade in denim, and sites
8 • Introduction
of production. For example in the UK, between 2003 and 2007 there was a rapid
growth in imports as jean production in the UK continued to fall. In 2006, 41 million
pairs of men’s jeans and 43 million pairs of women’s jeans were imported (Mintel
2007). The origin of supply to the UK has also changed. In 2003 only 53 per cent of
men’s jeans and 64 per cent of women’s jeans were imported from Asia, that figure
in 2006 was recorded as 70 per cent for men’s jeans and 81 per cent for women’s.
The increasing dominance of China (Li, Yao and Young 2003) as a source of production seems as evident in this market as many others.
A key feature in shifts in the denim market is changes in trade agreements. To
take, as an example, the case of Syria – the Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA)
in 2005, allowed garments manufactured in and imported from other Arab countries
to enter Syria’s formerly protected retail sector (International News Service 2008).
As a result many international brands, such as Benetton or Miss Sixty (which are
manufactured in the Middle East) could enter the country. Despite this, due to low
income levels of many, there is still a dominance of locally produced brands. In the
case of the US, as a result of NAFTA (a North American trade agreement), Europe’s
supply of denim to the US declined from 83 per cent of US denim to a mere 7 per
cent after a massive shift to Mexico (Li, Yao and Yeung 2003: 20) and blue jeans are
consequently Mexico’s most important export (Bair and Peters 2006: 210). Equally,
there has been a very rapid expansion of Chinese denim production, with over 1,000
firms now involved (Li, Yao,and Yeung 2003) and with Hong Kong developing as
a major point of brokerage. In the midst of these shifts in the denim market, Turkey
has emerged as a key player, with significant export markets in Europe, Russia and
the Middle East (International News Service 2008).
Changes in production, and the importing and exporting of jeans are also evident
in the relative popularity of jeans, which may not remain constant (as evidenced by
the plunge in denim sales in the 1990s in the UK). Yet most significant for our purposes is the fact that, in recent years, denim jeans have increased in their dominance
as the choice of everyday wear. During 2007, three pairs of jeans were sold every
second of every day in Britain alone (Mintel 2007) – the approximately 86 million
pairs of jeans bought constituted a 40 per cent increase over the previous five years.
In short in major markets denim was not just ubiquitous – its dominant position as
everyday wear seems to be ever increasing.
The Origins and Consequences of Global Denim
It is clearly not the case that all populations in all places are saturated with denim,
nor is denim the only garment to have achieved global prominence. But these statistics all point in the direction of affirming our starting point and the reason for
the Global Denim Project, which is that for such as specific garment in terms of
textile and colour denim has achieved a quite astounding global presence. As this
Introduction • 9
is evidently the case, the danger is that this then becomes merely taken for granted,
a given quality in the world, as though this was somehow inevitable. It becomes a
kind of common sense, and usually in such cases this is accompanied by a simple
narrative that explains why this should be – if people can even be bothered to ask
or answer the question why jeans are ubiquitous. In the case of jeans, the common
sense story arises from the popular histories of jeans as the rise of an American icon
that makes the global spread of jeans come to appear inexorable (Sullivan 2006).
When we asked the basic question ‘why are blue jeans blue?’ in our London
ethnography, almost no one could even start to give an answer. Yet this would surely
be the obvious place to start such a narrative. As it happens, there may have been
periods in prehistory or early historical times when this very same blue was just
as ubiquitous to the world as it is today (Balfour-Paul 1998). Indigo was unique in
being the only commonly available natural dye that did not require some kind of
mordent or fixing quality to work on fabrics. Its usage was not simple because not
being soluble in water is one of its attractions as a dye, but it was easier to use than
alternatives. Since indigo and the closely related woad were found in most areas of
the world it is likely that it dominated early clothing in most areas of the world. But
it does not follow that our contemporary ubiquity represents this historical ubiquity.
Looking at paintings and portraits during various historical periods in various regions of the world it is clear that there have been intervening times when indigo was
not so prominent and not especially favoured.
Even if we narrow the story back to the popular idea of jeans as part of US iconography, this volume gives us reason to challenge at least the colloquial versions.
Most popular accounts (such as Marsh and Trynka 2002) go straight from jeans as
working men’s garments to the actions of alienated youth as portrayed by James
Dean and Marlon Brando, which makes jeans the key to a 1950s youth movement
that establishes them as the US icon. But the chapter by Comstock reveals an early
substratum to this story that had already established jeans as a symbol of egalitarianism and shared suffering that could appeal to middle as well as working classes
following the Depression.
Indeed, if we follow Comstock, it seems that the very first indication of what was
to become this global presence, the establishment of denim as a dominant US icon,
was in fact a quite fragile and almost fortuitous coming together of a wide variety of
forces. Not necessarily production. as defined by the interests of commerce, not necessarily consumption defined as the desire of consumers. It was just as much the influence of the state on production and of popular culture on consumption. Central to
Comstock’s argument is that it was the disruption of commerce, particularly through
the Depression, rather than its expansion, which gave rise to this response, whether
through changes in labour and constraints on imports or through the empathetic engagement with suffering found in popular culture such as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of
Wrath. Comstock’s chapter radically changes the popular and accepted story of the
history of denim. Furthermore Comstock shows that crucial to its success was the
10 • Introduction
new ambiguity and flexibility of jeans that made them an instrument of diversity as
well as stability – a factor that takes centre stage in many of the subsequent chapters.
So already this opening chapter of our volume puts us in a different league from
previous studies of denim. The constantly repeated ‘myth’ or more precisely ‘just-so
story’ of how denim came to dominate the modern world turns out to be somewhat
distorted. Things no longer appear so inevitable and taken for granted. In a volume
that is devoted to scholarship we are very fortunate to have as our starting point
this elegant demolition of one glib story and its replacement by something much
more nuanced. There are then some fascinating parallels between Comstock and
the following chapter by Wilkinson-Weber in that if the former looks at how denim
became mainstream in the 1930s, Wilkinson-Weber is examining a parallel situation
with regard to India today. Furthermore, in both papers we have a similar attempt
to refuse simple adjudications as to whether it is consumption desires or production
needs that facilitate the success of denim. In both cases the role of popular culture
and film is seen as critical, which is a field with its own autonomy and concerns. This
is perhaps particularly true in the India case, where there are many specific implications and constraints which make Bollywood a kind of microculture in its own right,
with its own supply chains, its own arbiters of taste.
A difference lies in the much more overt relationship between commerce and the
film industry in India. This may be seen in the prevalence of direct product placement but also in the central role that key film heroes and heroines have in the advertising and marketing of jeans. In Kerala, for example, advertising for denim was
seen as more-or-less synonymous with the presence of key film stars. It is important,
therefore, to position Wilkinson-Weber’s arguments in relation to the discussion
of Kannur in Miller’s chapter because it is precisely the presence of stars such as
Akshay Kumar with their highly sexualized campaigns, that make clear to people in
areas remote from the Indian metropolitan regions what is at stake in the spread of
jeans and why therefore it is essential to resist them in various ways. This volume is
clearly not intended to provide a comprehensive historical account of how blue jeans
took over the world. But this combination of Comstock’s revision of the key moment
in the development of jeans within the US along with Wilkinson-Weber’s appreciation of how these garments are being developed in the contemporary Indian market
demonstrates how such a comprehensive and scholarly account could be achieved.
It also shows us how such an account might link these more specific regional stories
with a central stream that flows towards the sea of denim in which our world is now
For this volume, even a rewriting of the history of denim becomes merely one
instrument of a rather grander ambition, stimulated by this ever present sceptical
‘so what?’ Our point is that if the ubiquity of denim has its cause it also has its consequence, and we are better off understanding the one directly alongside the other.
What this volume does, is to pitch chapters such as Comstock and Wilkinson-Weber
directly against papers such as Olesen. Olesen’s argument could not make sense
Introduction • 11
without the outcomes of the trajectory laid out by Comstock, since the starting point
is precisely the ubiquity of jeans within the US context. Even if we resist the assumption that, for other places, jeans signify Americanization, we can still concede
that jeans within the US have achieved a significant status as a kind of metasymbol
that stands for the collectivity. This is exactly what Olesen demonstrates when she
shows that it is jeans in particular that are used to make the bridge between the
collectivity of the workplace and the desire to express that larger social whole in
acts of philanthropy or in a concern for the environment found in the recycling
of used denim. As such she shows how the position that denim has achieved as a
transcendent icon is here leveraged to act as the medium by which people enact their
commitment to the planet as a whole.
As Olesen’s chapter shows, one of the factors that makes jeans American is that
they play on a quite specifically US concept of individualism. A relationship between
the individual and the ethical and spiritual dimension that is clearly expressed in, for
example, US Pentecostalism. We tend to assume jeans would express US capitalism,
but actually it is hard to imagine a more perfect example than Olesen’s chapter, of
the relationship between the individual and civil society in the US as recorded by the
French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s prior to the development of modern
capitalism. So while Olesen shows just how effectively modern corporations exploit
this relation, its source is much wider than simply the intentions of commerce. This
ethical dimension in the recycling of jeans has, then, a much deeper ideological
If we are trying to match cause with consequence then we might well expect
that ubiquity also stimulates rejection. Once jeans become sufficiently associated
with the spread of cosmopolitanism, whether this is Indian or American, this makes
them ideal for the objectification of conservatism. This is where Miller’s chapter
is intended to balance the previous focus on the rise and spread of jeans. Taking
a small town in the state of Kerala, Miller shows how jeans have become implicated in a wide range of social dimensions. There is a clear gradation from gaudy
jeans associated with toddlers through to the unacceptability of jeans for executive
wear for older men. There is the sequence from jeans wearing for young girls to its
unacceptability for married women. There is the growing opposition between the
associations of more elaborate jeans with Muslims to the more drab styles associated
with Hindus. All of these in turn contribute to the way in which the town of Kannur
itself creates a new conservatism in which the outer world, which is now associated
with jeans wearing, is matched by what emerges as the relative stability and value of
the town. The point is that to understand global denim it is not sufficient to see jeans
simply as signs of modernity, or cosmopolitanism that are welcome everywhere.
Rather, jeans become a parameter of many differences and distinctions that allows us
to create both a bridge and a stretch between tradition and modernity, parochialism
and cosmopolitanism. What this chapter demonstrates is that we can learn as much
from the refusal of jeans as from their acceptance.
12 • Introduction
The general ideas sketched out in the introduction to this book are now starting to
be given flesh. We can already see how our dialectical approach should operate. We
start by establishing a claim that global denim can be conceptualized as analogous
to philosophy, as that which can bridge the growing antinomy of the local and the
global. This is, however, only the first stage in our global denim project. The next
stage needs to negate this universalism, by showing the consequences of this general
analysis for our more specific encounters with jeans – how a general analysis gives
greater meaning and depth to the parochial encounter and vice-versa. It is only in the
light of our more advanced understanding of how jeans become a US icon that we
can understand the very possibility of the contemporary use of jeans documented by
Olesen. By the same token it is only in the light of Olesen that we can see the contemporary consequences of the historical work done by Comstock. It is only in the
light of quite deliberate and systematic attempt to spread jeans in India documented
by Wilkinson-Weber that we can understand why jeans, of all things, have become
central to the way people in Kannur protect their conservatism and regionalism. It
is only in the light of Miller’s insistence that we look at places where jeans have
been prevented from becoming ubiquitous that we can understand the implications
for when jeans do succeed in becoming ubiquitous. We now have our answer to the
sceptical ‘so what?’ We can show why it really does make a difference having a global denim project that directly matches history and anthropology, the direct impact
of globalization on new forms of localization and not just the other way around.
Intimacy and Antinomy in Jeans
The implication of the last section is that this volume is intended to take the analytical findings of our more philosophical reading of jeans and turn this back into the
heat of lived experience and consequence. Nowhere is this achieved more literally
than through Mizrahi. In reading her chapter we can almost feel how a theoretical
or analytical point can simultaneously be something that is essentially sensual. By
the time we have allowed ourselves as readers to be drawn into the heat, sweat and
movement of a funk ball, it is as though we see, for the first time, denim emerging
through the haze of movement and music. These jeans are not some abstract closedoff entity but appear to our vision as an integral part of that dance; its eroticism and
its integrity with the surrounding music, atmosphere and play between the male
and female aesthetic. Here the precise materiality of the jeans, their elasticity and
form has a lithe dynamic that cleaves not just to the body of the wearer but refuses
to be separated off by the violence of any analytical gaze that will not acknowledge
its integrity with this context of performance. In her other publications, Mizrahi
(2002, 2006) has analysed the development of ‘Brazilian jeans’ as a particular kind
of stretch fabric that has become associated with the export of a general sense of the
erotic associated with Brazil. This chapter takes this to the source, which lies not
Introduction • 13
just in the technical quality of the denim but in this almost idealized anthropological
illustration of a holistic environment in which the jeans are given life. Jeans here appear seamless as part of the mobile, suggestive appeal of clothing that dances before
If Mizrahi’s paper stands as emblematic of this erotic presence and potential
of contemporary jeans, this begs a question as to how this may be related to the
other aspects of jeans appeal. A question that fortunately receives a very clear and
systematic answer in the chapter by Sassatellli. By the end point of Sassatelli’s paper
we reach something akin to that of Mizrahi. Jeans for young Italians also have an
erotic potential that has become central to the way they view the power and idealized
possibilities of their own bodies. This comes as almost the end point of a process in
which a person who wants to look fit, in the current colloquial meaning of that term,
has first to consider the implications of fit in a more mundane and literal translation
of that word. The sexiness of the public performance emerges out of the private acts
of considering the body in the bedroom. The argument builds upon Woodward’s
(2005, 2007) previous work on watching women getting dressed, where the act of
trying on clothing in front of the mirror is an act of establishing what is ‘me’, yet
always through the imagined and remembered opinions of others. What emerge are
three closely connected arenas of fit: to the body, to fashion and the need to look
fit in the eyes of the opposite sex. The sexualization of the body depends upon the
core dynamics between the individual and conformity. The starting point is the often
problematic construction of the body as confident in a pair of jeans and finding just
the right pair that is seen to fit. Basically in order feel sexy, a woman has to first
feel confident about how her body looks to others. How does one take a garment
that excels as the unseen and ordinary and use it to make visible the sexualized
body? As in Mizrahi’s wider study of the commercial foundation of stretch fabric
jeans in Brazil, the issue of the erotic is no longer an entirely autonomous field of
performance. It depends upon quite similar resolving of contradictions in the fashion
industry and the wider dialectics of singularity and conformity as it pertains to the
perception of the body.
In Mizrahi’s and Sassatelli’s chapters we remain within a realm that at least
seems relatively familiar. Women wear jeans that attract men and men wear jeans
that attract women. Jeans serve then to enact sexuality and especially the heightened sexualization in the sweat and motion of clubbing. The ways in which they do
this may sometimes be extraordinary but not the fact that they do this. By contrast,
Woodward’s chapter starts from something rather less predictable: not a woman
wearing a woman’s jeans to entice a man. Instead these are women who have already found their man and now have taken to wearing his jeans. As such this chapter
takes one of the central issues of denim studies, the centrality of distressing, a stage
further. Jeans are the one garment that we regularly buy already looking at though
they were pre-worn. We know that the development of distressing came after the
hippie period, when jeans were worn to destruction, a time that focused very clearly
14 • Introduction
upon the individual. Here this entire sequence is now replayed as gender and as
relationships to others, as women wear the jeans that men have already worn before
them. Commerce has quickly appropriated the phenomenon to create a commercial
category of boyfriend jeans that turn this intimacy into a commodity in much the
same way that commerce previously took the hippie experience and turned it into
distressed jeans. This gives us a narrative but does not explain its causes.
As Woodward notes, the ambiguity of commercialized boyfriend jeans is prefigured even in the non-commercial version. Do these jeans stand in relation to an
actual boyfriend, an imagined boyfriend or a sequence of boyfriends? Is it already
abstracted as a cultural genre even prior to being commercialized as one? Georgia
is not merely wearing a relationship; she is wearing her relationship to relationships
more generally. At the very same time when commerce renders this a purely abstract
concept of boyfriend, the three figures that appear in Woodward’s chapter in three
different ways develop their resonances through actual relationships. As such they
reflect the parameters of this book as a whole. Denim jeans in Woodward’s chapter
are a medium to express a core contradiction and ambivalence. This theme can be
seen in many versions in this book: from people who use jeans to merely extend an
actual relationship to an individual, through to the relationship people have to the US
in Comstock’s and Olesen’s papers, right through to a prefiguration of the arguments
that come at the end of this introduction, when through a consideration of Ege and
Pinheiro-Machado, we see jeans mostly in relation to issues of alienation and ambiguity, something evidently prefigured in Woodward. It is hardly news to suggest that
many women feel that they really don’t know where they stand in relation to either
a particular man or men in general. But what we have found, yet again, is that it is
jeans of all things that speak directly to this dilemma. Jeans are a medium through
which women come to literally feel their feelings.
Jeans and Alienation
What we have written so far could be read as though jeans have an endless capacity
to express globality at its extreme, locality at its extreme and the ability to resolve
these. However, that would be naïve and a rather romantic reading of jeans today.
Although, we are claiming in all of these chapters that jeans have this unrivalled
capacity to express globality and simultaneously intimacy, the problem comes when
we turn to the issue of resolving the antinomies between these two extremes. We
clearly do have cases where this would be a reasonable proposition, where distressing somehow makes people feel more able to live in and through such extremes than
would otherwise be the case. But jeans are of this world, and this is a world where
the given condition of humanity is as much one of alienation as inalienability. It is
far more accurate to suggest that jeans represent a struggle towards resolution than
Introduction • 15
to suggest they actually succeed in this task. We therefore have to pay equal attention
to the way jeans express that alienation, frustration and struggle.
While not yet forefronted, this has in fact been evident in the previous chapters.
It is clearly there in the situation Miller describes for Kannur a situation where the
resistance to denim reveals a town feeling increasingly under siege from the forces
of cosmopolitanism and modernity. The conservatism being expressed there runs
parallel to new religiosities in many contemporary societies from Pentecostal to
radical Islam. Mizrahi’s context also lies at the fringes of society coming from the
impoverished and often violent favelas of Rio. At a more personal level we have just
seen this ambiguity expressed in the case of Georgia, as presented by Woodward’s
chapter, where the jeans are expressive of her own ambivalence about her relationships. Although based in the intimacy of boyfriend jeans, there is an obvious link
through the concept of alienation with much more general and collective issues.
The point is explored extensively in the paper by Ege, where we have a classic instance of exclusion and alienation leading through anxiety to assertiveness
and ambiguity. The population he describes within Germany – ‘boys and young
men with Turkish, Arab, and other immigrant backgrounds, most of whom come
from working-class, relatively low-income families’ – are pretty much exactly those
where we might anticipate such feelings of an uncomfortable presence with regard
to the mainstream. The cultural genre that these youths claim allegiance to, that
of gangsta rap, is about as close as we have come to an international emblem of
adherence to alienated youth culture. Ege’s contribution is that he sees how this is
channelled into a much more specific sartorial expression of their underclass status
in the form of these Picaldi ‘carrot-cut’ jeans.
Ege shows that this situation cannot be simplified as either merely an expression
of agency amongst those otherwise lacking in empowerment or, at the other extreme,
seeing them as merely the structural expression of their position relative to dominant
or hegemonic power. Above all these jeans are redolent of ambiguity. Alienation
does not give rise to just one position; it creates anxiety and thereby uncertainty and
contradiction. Most people do not actually desire to embody some kind of unremittingly bad, negative or confrontational position against cultural norms. They have
their own powerful moral and positive understandings of themselves, much of which
is tied to wider networks of families and peer-group moralities. Picaldi is not the
same as gangsta rap but it is an emergent form within this particular milieu that acts
as an external form through which they can find out who they are. The style elicits
a response; people love it or hate it, identify with it or despise it, but they seem less
likely to ignore it. For this group, being the centre of concern is one way to become
of significance. Running the risk of retrospective ridicule or embarrassment, they
here have a mirror through which they can better see themselves. The implication
of Ege’s chapter is that making ambiguity visible marks a step, if not in resolving it,
then at least in coming to make it visible and to understand it.
16 • Introduction
Through this focus upon ambiguity Ege seems to conclude our argument. But
actually he does so only with respect to the wearing of jeans. To bring us full circle
we clearly need the final chapter by Pinheiro-Machado and the criticism she makes
of the entire global denim project from the perspective of her ethnography. It is
only too easy to start with the kinds of issues of production and distribution that are
explored with Comstock and Wilkinson-Weber and assume that the consequences of
production are to be found in consumption. What this ignores is the way in which
consumption always, in turn, has consequences for production and more especially
for peoples involved in the commerce of jeans. Here, at the end, we come to a position diametrically opposed to the idea of jeans as an expression of the agency of
people. On the periphery, there are people who become the pawns of a much larger
political economy in which jeans are hugely important simply as a commodity. The
growing ubiquity of wearing jeans makes them increasingly important to global
systems of production and sale.
As a result the people presented by Pinheiro-Machado seem powerless, even in
comparison to Ege’s disaffected youth. The very term Voluntários da Pátria with its
semantic ambiguity of volunta (becoming engaged in prostitution) makes this pretty
clear. These people are forced to sell things they don’t particular want to sell, moved
to a place of sale where they don’t particularly want to be. As Pinheiro-Machado
makes abundantly clear, even given their disadvantaged position these vendors naturally struggle to find some position of comparative advantage, to at least make some
money out of this situation. They strive to find a ‘business model’ that will allow
them to undercut others, to reposition themselves so that they can find a niche they
can exploit. Yet this chapter does not flinch from concluding with their failure rather
than their success, forcing us to acknowledge the degree to which they remain the
pawns of wider forces. Even their own customers remain blind to the opportunities
they try to open to them. For all their background in the wiles of trading, they still
cannot find a way out of the position that, by the end of this paper, seems more like
a trap than an opportunity
This is why Pinheiro-Machado’s chapter is appropriate as the ending to this first
collection of the global denim project: because in the end we need to be confronted
with the consequences of our arguments. By the time we have worked out our explanations for why denim is so ubiquitous, and appreciated its power and its resonance,
we are also ready also to face up to its effects. Throughout the world there will be
people on the margins where the importance of denim is not that they can express
themselves through it, but rather that they become subject to its immensity. Faced
with the sheer scale and strength of denim, people in all sorts of places dotted around
the world find themselves defined by it, pushed into selling something they may
have no particular identity with or affection for. In many respects they are the victims, the detritus of this ever growing presence. We should not forget those who are
distressed by denim.
Introduction • 17
The stance of this introduction, and indeed of the entire Global Denim Project, is dialectical: from the concrete to the abstract from the abstract to the concrete and now
finally to the abstract again. We start with the most concrete, our observation of the
ubiquity of denim as an empirical phenomenon that requires explanation. Why is it
so ubiquitous? How does it seem to refute the logic of something as powerful as the
fashion industry? These questions lead us to the kinds of abstractions that were the
subject of the manifesto paper and the launch of the Global Denim Project. We can
then see why denim is ubiquitous and how it has achieved a unique presence directly
expressive of the extremes of the modern world. With the growth of modern media
and constant exposure to the sheer size and diversity of the world we live in today,
we all become desirous of embracing this vast global humanity and simultaneous recoil from it and become protective of our singular and personal humanity. Very few
people are only concerned with one or other of these entirely opposed relationships
to the world. The vast majority of us want both simultaneously.
Denim appears, then, as both the expression and the resolution of this contradiction. As expressed in distressing, it is the emblem of personalization and individuality, our most intimate garment that wears itself to the precise contours of our body
as a mode of practice and engagement with the world. It is as if our lives are so full
of life and labour that our jeans gradually disintegrate into a pattern expressive of
that abundant life. Actually, in practice, we are so busy that we do not, it seems, have
time to live our own full lives and so commerce provides us with this ‘as if’ scenario
in pre-distressed jeans. So at the very moment that we are confirmed in our desire
for singularity we are wearing a garment that we know full well is the single most
homogenizing and ubiquitous presence in the entire world today. That we are indeed
Citizens of Humanity, ironically one of the most expensive denim labels, members
of an ecumenical, stateless, citizenship of the global.
At this level of abstraction denim becomes an ideal of anthropology: a form of
philosophy that is not expressed in words or by esoteric and abstract thinkers. It
is instead a philosophy found in everyday practice, as a thing that speaks what its
wearer cannot say. When we feel dumb and inarticulate, our blue jeans speak for
us and demonstrate that we too have this understanding of the need to resolve the
contradictions of modern life. It no longer matters whether we are academics joining
together in a global denim project committed to this mode of understanding through
research and writing, or whether, when we have finished typing our denim research
on the computer, we go out to have a drink with our friends actually wearing denim.
Both are equally resonant of the capacity of denim to be expressive of our philosophical position relative to our understanding of the world we live in.
This is also the uniqueness of denim itself. The vast majority of entitles in the
world cannot become a work of philosophy in this manner. A bottle of whisky, or
18 • Introduction
game of football may be found in most countries but they remain relatively specific
and limited. They don’t reach down to anything like the same extent as a garment
that is worn all the time and actually dominates the street scene in almost every
place, everyday. More than that, they don’t extend that ubiquity to the individual
in their most private and personal representation of themselves as they get up in
the morning and go to bed at night. Compare the potential rival symbols. We might
visit a McDonald’s and drink a Coke, but both retain much more of their point of
origin in the US and both are specific and relatively occasional events. There is no
equivalent to distressing or boyfriend jeans, to the eroticism of Milan and Rio. They
are not what we see constantly and what we are constantly – to anything like the
So the point of global denim is that it is in many ways unique, extreme, and
extraordinary. It thereby has capacities that nothing in the world can rival as it manages to be universal by losing all particularity. Many people wear jeans without any
sense of which brand they are, where they purchased them, what type or style they
are, any implication of Americanization, or any other specific quality. They are just
the jeans they took out of the wardrobe that morning so they didn’t need to think
about anything at all except that they were getting dressed. In a study based on our
own ethnography in north London, with the title Denim: the Art of Ordinary, we will
expand to a book-length discussion this concept of the ordinary and unmarked. It is
this that gives denim its universality, where it transcends its specificity as the idiom
At this point we have reached our apogee of philosophical abstraction by discussing what jeans are as an entirely generalised concept, and explained jeans as though
it was a single thing and we a single humanity – all people and all jeans. This is
why the manifesto paper leads inexorably to the Global Denim Project and why the
Global Denim Project leads inexorably to this particular volume of writings. As academics we must remain true to this dialectic. Having achieved our abstraction then
the next stage is to return to the specifics to examine the consequences of the points
we have just made for particular populations and for particular jeans. Only at the end
of this book, when all the chapters are read, have we fulfilled the commitment of the
project itself. Every one of these chapters shows in its specific way what happens as
a result of this process: when jeans become philosophy and what this enables people
to do or what this forces people to become.
Compare, for example, the essays by Mizrahi and Olesen. In Mizrahi’s paper
jeans repudiate entirely their impersonal relation to the world to become seamlessly
integrated into the specific sensuality of the Funk Ball. At the other extreme, jeans
for Olesen manifest a commitment by the particular to the universal in the form of
a concern with the environment and the future health of the planet. It is only when
jeans become the looming presence of the ubiquitous that the people of Kannur
take up arms against jeans in particular and defend themselves against their assault.
It is the way they straddle the extremes from ubiquity to singularity that explains
Introduction • 19
how Picaldi jeans can become a sign of ambiguity; a source of resistance and also
of embarrassment, an ambiguity also very evident as a form of both identity and
distance in boyfriend jeans. Similarly contradictions are found in the relation between production and consumption discussed by Comstock and Wilkinson-Weber,
then rewoven together by Sassatelli’s ability to relate fit and fit. Finally we come to
the places where these contradictions just remain as contradictions in the chapters
by Ege and Machado, where street vendors find themselves defined by jeans in a
process over which they have very little control.
The definition of contemporary material culture studies is that we need to be at
least as concerned with how objects make people as with how people make objects.
Jeans are a quintessential example of material culture. They transcend any simple
opposition of subjects and objects. The idea that they are a simple expression of
people’s identity is clearly absurd. In many ways their ubiquity is the very negation
of the project of identity; they are about the least identifying form of appearance
available to us today. They are not objects that represent subjects. Equally they are
only sometimes the oppressive object force that is experienced by Rio vendors. In
the main they are doing, as a form of practice, more or less the same things that
we are doing as a form of academia. They are an attempt to understand the basic
antinomies of the contemporary world and through that understanding they are the
very means by which we struggle in our attempts to live with and through those
oppositions, in our individual resolution of collective expression.
1. Our thanks for Naomi Braithwaite for undertaking the task of gathering these
statistics for the project and to Joanne Eicher for her critical comments and
2. The two main ones being the Global Lifestyle Monitor report (2008), which
surveyed people in Brazil, China, Colombia, Germany, Thailand, Turkey, India,
Italy, Japan, and the UK, and the Global Denim Survey (Synovate 2008), which
was carried out on people in the USA, Canada, Brazil, France, Taiwan, Korea,
Malaysia, Serbia, Russia and South Africa.
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Growth. Export Dynamism and Development in Honduras and Mexico’, World
Development, 34 (2): 203–21.
20 • Introduction
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Marsh, G. and Trynka, P. (2002), Denim: From Cowboys to Catwalk. London:
Aurum Press Ltd.
Miller, D. (2010), Stuff, Cambridge: Polity.
Miller, D. and Woodward, S. (2007), A Manifesto for the Study of Denim, Social
Anthropology, 15: 335–51.
Mintel Market Research (2005), Essentials – April 2005. Mintel International Group.
Introduction • 21
Mintel Market Research (2007), Jeans – April 2007. Mintel International Group.
Mizrahi, M. (2002), A influência dos subúrbios na moda da Zona Sul [The Influence
of the Outskirts on the Southern Area]. Monograph. Universidade Estácio de Sá.
Mizrahi, M. (2006), “Figurino Funk: uma etnografia dos elementos estéticos de
uma festa carioca”, in D.K. Leião, D.N.O. Lima, R. Pinheiro-Machado (eds),
Antropologia e Consumo:diálogos entre Brasil e Argentina. Porto Alegre: Age.
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Make America Liveable, New York: Random House.
Synovate (2008) Fact Global Denim Survey, http://www.synovate.com (accessed 14
Sullivan, J. (2006), Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon, New York:
Tarhan, M. and Sarsiisik, M. (2009), ‘Comparison among Performance Character
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Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture (2011), Denim Special Issue, Textile 9(1).
Tokatli, N. (2007), ‘Networks, Firms and Upgrading within the Blue-jeans Industry:
Evidence from Turkey, Global Networks, 7(1): 51–68.
Tokatli, N. and Ö. Kızılgün (2004), Upgrading in the Global Clothing Industry:
Mavi Jeans and the Transformation of a Turkish Firm from Full-package to Brand
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S. Küchler and D. Miller (eds), Clothing as Material Culture, Oxford: Berg, pp.
Woodward, S. (2007), Why Women Wear What They Wear, Oxford: Berg.
Wu, J. and Delong, M. (2006), ‘Chinese Perceptions of Western-branded Denim
Jeans: A Shanghai Case Study’, Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management,
The Making of an American Icon:
The Transformation of Blue Jeans
during the Great Depression1
Sandra Curtis Comstock
As the chapters in this volume show, at the current conjuncture, an astonishing
number of people in a striking number of cultural contexts have come to deploy
jeans as a symbol of movement between social worlds and boundary crossing – be
it generation, gender, culture, religion or class-inflected boundary crossing. In a
world characterized by intensifying exchange and transposable goods, produced by
the now ‘virtually universal intersection of (cultural) structures’, blue jeans seem to
epitomize this exchange and intersection.2 And just as the intersection of cultural
structures has lead not to homogenization but to increasingly complex differentiation between seemingly similar practices and products, so too, blue jeans do not so
much homogenize as simultaneously translate between and highlight differences
among social worlds. A key element permitting this is the now general, cross-cultural social expectation that blue jeans are inherently changeable – materially and
symbolically. But why do people today believe in and embrace such diversity in
jeans styles, looks, and uses? And why do we associate jeans’ material and stylistic
changeability with social-symbolic ambiguity? This chapter contributes to part of
the answer by explaining how and why jeans gained their first, initial layer of material and symbolic protean-ness, and the manner in which this was connected to the
emergence of mass-culture in the 1930s.3
Prior to the 1930s few thought of blue jeans as ambiguous in meaning or capable
of much stylistic variation. However, in just one, short decade, a remarkable shift
began to take place. The undistinguished working-class dungaree started to become
a gender- and class-blurring icon of ‘the American people’. While iconic status
would not be fully established until the 1950s, the groundwork for the transformation was laid down in the crucible of the Great Depression. During the Depression, a
series of contingent events and circumstances in the US encouraged industry and the
– 23 –
24 • Sandra Curtis Comstock
public to take up blue jeans as a stylistically and symbolically versatile, class- and
gender-blurring national icon. As the idea of the changeable jean was constructed
in multiple realms, for multiple reasons, emerging mass-culture industries found
growing public interest in the symbolically and stylistically amorphous middleclass jean commercially useful and suggestive. The blue jean’s accruing capacity to
resonate with an expanding variety of audiences and customers, just as mass-culture
was searching for bridges between working and middle class and male and female
consumers, made it both alluring and exemplary. So just why did jeans initially take
on new, potentially iconic meanings in the late 1930s? How did it come to pass that
non-working-class men and women began to embrace what had just a decade earlier
been considered the ultimate plebeian garment? And furthermore, why did American
clothing makers and retailers so doggedly pursue and embellish upon the newly
minted American blue jean, commercially?
Those who have written on the topic take two distinct approaches. Some emphasize ‘consumption-side factors’, while others emphasize ‘production-side factors’.
On the consumption side, Leslie Rabine and Susan Kaiser explain these changes
in terms of shifts in everyday habits and emulation.4 They argue that changes in
middle-class Americans’ everyday activities (such as increased leisure time, women’s entry into paid work, greater emphasis on women’s sports) led to ‘a need’ for
casual clothing. Given these needs, women then chose dungarees over, for example
khakis, because stars like Greta Garbo wore them, and they wished to emulate them.
In a different vein, production-centred authors like Ben Fine and Ellen Leopold
argue that, in the first decades of the twentieth century, the changes in technologies
and strategies of mass-production and mass-distribution created the competition in
the women’s ready-made garment industry to push manufacturers and retailers to
market dungarees and other standardized garments in new ways in order to expand
their markets and compete with one another.5 In this account, Hollywood’s uses of
jeans and new middle-class leisure activities figure as latent conditions until competing marketers and advertisers activate them by convincing users of their social value
The production and consumption approaches disagree on the ‘primary factors’
explaining the emergence of jeans as a class-ambiguous American icon. However,
they both share the belief that underlying conditions (such as shifts in everyday
activities, or shifts in production and distribution) and specific mechanisms (such as
emulation or advertising) transformed the working-class blue jean into an American
icon. These shifts and mechanisms play an important role but these factors alone
cannot explain why jeans sellers and consumers made such a radical departure
from previous practice, neither can they sufficiently explain why the middle-class
jean became such a compelling symbol. In times of stability and continuity it may
make sense to think in terms of generalizable forces and mechanisms but William
Sewell has pointed out that in moments of crisis and radical departure, relatively
The Making of an American Icon • 25
slow‑changing conditions and static mechanisms cannot adequately explain the
drastic reorganization of society’s practices and outlooks.6
The shift in patterns of jeans production and meanings during the Depression
was a radical one, emblematic of deeper political and economic changes in society.
It was produced by a breakdown in normal ways of operating, and by a sudden unknowability of the future. Accounting for shifts of this nature requires an enhanced
conceptualization of consumption and production – one that pays close attention to
jeans consumers’ and sellers’ experiences and interpretations of disruptive and unexpected events, and one that examines the role of event sequence and conjuncture
in shaping interpretations and actions. To be pushed out of deeply ingrained habits
of thinking of the blue jean as plebeian, and to embrace the strange idea of blue
jean as a class-less American icon, Hollywood, consumers, and jeans sellers had to
have their normal ways of doing and thinking substantially disrupted and called into
In addition to the factors emphasized by consumption and production schools of
thought, two categories of events (regulatory and aesthetic) were crucial in jostling
participants’ understandings of jeans in the 1930s. The first series of events was
regulatory in nature and involved efforts to reorganize clothing consumption and
production in a more equitable fashion. These events disrupted the garment trades
and inspired unorthodox interactions between previously separate women’s and
men’s work-clothing industries, which often involved experimentation with the middle-class blue jean. The second series of events consisted of spurts of aesthetic activity aimed at making sense of Depression-era calamities and reinterpreting American
institutions accordingly. For a variety of reasons, narratives of Depression-era events
and experiences repeatedly drew upon blue jeans as a mnemonic leitmotif linking
different social categories of people in ways that encouraged the public to see jeans
as quintessentially American for the first time.
Neither regulatory nor aesthetic events, nor shifts in the broader conditions of
jeans production or consumption produced the transformation of the work dungaree
into a class-muting American icon. Rather, it was the particular timing, sequence
and conjuncture of disruptive regulatory events and perspective-changing aesthetic
events that shaped manufacturers’ and retailers’ actions, and public tastes. As William
Sewell notes, the causal significance of the sequence and timing of disruptions and
responses to disruption amplifies and deepens remarkably in moments of serious
societal upheaval.7 Tracing the intricacies of how and why the blue jean became a
part of American middle-class and women’s clothing repertoires during the volatile
1930s shows just how the timing and sequence of seemingly minor events mattered.
It also sheds light on the important role that ordinary elements of material culture
like blue jeans can play in helping to connect and reorganize previously separate
practices and social categories and tastes.
26 • Sandra Curtis Comstock
The Department Store and the Middle-class Women’s Dungaree
Prior to 1930, high-end department stores did not offer women’s denim dungarees
for sale. In fact, a significant portion of the clothing they offered was either manufactured in Paris, or made to order by jobbers from patterns imported from France.8
The association with French fashion was one of the major sources of the high-end
department store’s prestige among middle- and upper class customers.9 Because
many of these Parisian designs were based on the French regime of production,
a large number of the items were relatively complex in terms of their sewing and
required considerable finesse and adjustment of operations by the sewing operator.
The quick changes in variety and the complexity of women’s clothing encouraged
department stores to keep costs down by using agile jobbers, or middlemen, who
hired fly-by-night sweat shops or networks of home workers willing to work cheaply
and sporadically.10 All of this started to change in the 1930s as department stores
began emphasizing more standardized, simpler, American sportswear for women.
Beginning in 1934 high-end department stores began using dungaree advertisements that emphasized California and Hollywood as a new American fashion frontier. One early Bullock’s advertisement made this quite explicit by placing a map
with movie set locations and the ‘wild west’ alongside pictures of men and women
in leisurewear. This new realm of American style was defined by its casual sportiness. To emphasize the point, sailor’s dungarees were foregrounded to emphasize
informality and cosmopolitan travel. Why did department stores start experimenting
with dungarees? Why did they decide to offer the unlikely blue jean to middle-class
American women who were accustomed to tea dresses and cocktail clothing? Below
I will show that shifts in the cultural practices of Hollywood taste-leaders, combined
with a series of disruptive regulatory events, motivated department stores to sell
Changing Cultural Conditions: Growth in Working-class Women’s
Consumption of Movies and Magazines, Shifting Working-class Women’s
Social Roles and the Rise in Visibility of Women’s Dungarees in
In the early 1930s reports of Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn and Marlene
Dietrich wearing bell-bottomed dungarees as street clothing crowded magazines
and newspapers. For example, male commentators sarcastically declared Katherine
Hepburn’s dungarees a ‘sartorial thrill’. They criticized ‘La Hepburn’ for wearing
dungarees ‘like a common farmhand’.11 Others announced that Hollywood had become ‘Trouser-Land’ and ascribed the fad to women’s ‘blind striving . . . in a man’s
field.’12 In short, actresses’ trousers and mannish habits were reviled by journalists,
The Making of an American Icon • 27
f ashionistas, and film producers, alike. What exactly was the public’s fascination
with actresses’ dungarees? And why, if male film makers found mannish actresses in
jeans so personally repugnant, did they choose to generate films and publicity that
featured these same women, challenging gender and class norms?13
To explain this we must take a few steps backwards to understand the changing social context of working-class women, who became the main group driving
the production and sales of articles and films on the subject. Going into 1930,
working-class households in urban centres tended to subscribe to patriarchal norms
that hinged on the idea that, because men were the main breadwinners, they should
be given preference over other family members. As working-class men lost their
factory jobs, and women’s informal work and government relief sustained more
and more households, women began to question patriarchy in their homes.14 As a
result, working women began to take a special interest and pleasure in Hollywood
news and films that played on the themes of the fragility of gender roles and differences. During this time, the importance of working-class audiences to Hollywood
box-office receipts grew as well. As working-class tastes increasingly interested
Hollywood, executives commissioned studies that showed working-class women
were particularly influential in determining what films their families and friends saw.
As a result, while male film producers and directors disliked the strong personas of
the dungaree-clad starlets, they produced more and more movies and publicity playing on the gender-troubling themes that working-class women seemed to like best.15
Yet, heightened working-class women’s interest in these themes did not directly
translate into a desire on their part to emulate Garbo’s or Hepburn’s blue jeans.
Working-class women associated jeans with male toil, which made them unenthusiastic about dungarees. Nevertheless, heightened circulation of jeans did capture the
interest of a small group of young, elite, college-bound women who wanted to wear
less ostentatious forms of clothing in line with the seriousness of the times. This isn’t
to say it started a fad. In the mid-1930s only a few college women began to wear
dungarees in the manner of Kate Hepburn. Detractors persistently described college
women’s jeans uses as emasculating and used them as an example of how workingclass tastes were increasingly degrading an emergent, middle-class American
In this negative context, then, why did highbrow department stores opt to carry
the dungaree? Careful review of the timing of highbrow department store advertising suggests that the dungaree’s status as symbol of gender and class transgression and modern Hollywood style became important as a result of three regulatory
events: changes in trade rules, changes in wage rules and the right to organize and
the institution of something called the Cotton Code. As I will show, these events,
and their interplay with Hollywood meanings, motivated department stores to offer
28 • Sandra Curtis Comstock
Regulatory Events: Disorder, Contingency, and the Active Role of
the Dungaree in Nudging High-end Women’s Clothing towards
As mentioned earlier, prior to the Depression, most women’s clothing sold in department stores was derived from samples, or made-up clothing imported from French
fashion houses.17 Beginning in June of 1930, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act raised
import duties on Parisian ready-made clothing and patterns dramatically. This led
to a drastic decline in imports from France.18 Searching for alternative sources of
prestige, stores puzzled over how to develop American sources of distinction.19 One
strategy adopted by department stores was to feature shockingly modern, slightly
disreputable, women’s dungarees in their newly established ranch and resort shops.
Women’s dungarees as a signature item in these shops helped stores to propose a
new, gender-bending, democratic, American, and Hollywood fashion sensibility
against the old, formal, hierarchic, Eurocentric sensibility. Dungarees’ plebeian,
gender-defying associations provided a shock value that could be profitably used to
emancipate department stores from the dominance of Parisian fashion.
By 1935, department stores’ assertion that dungarees were markers of an alternate
American sartorial space was consecrated when Vogue magazine featured ‘Lady
Levi’s’ in its summer travel issue. In the article Vogue declared: ‘True Western chic’
is an invention of the cowboy, ‘but the moment you stray from (authentic cowboy)
tenets, you’ll be lost.’20 Despite the Vogue boost, most department stores continued
to avoid brand-name, stiff denim jeans, of the straight-legged variety, which were
associated with male cowboys. Instead, they offered soft, faded, flowingly feminine
bell-bottoms and emphasized the daringly modern, hybrid, gender-blurring qualities
of the jean.21 In emphasizing Hollywood, and back-grounding the cowboy image,
the majority of department store advertisements sought to avoid overlapping with
the growing associations between Levi’s and cowboys. Since the department store’s
goals were to lower costs and maintain control over dungaree designs, they tended to
avoid messages that directly competed with Levi’s and which might have compelled
them to carry Levi Strauss & Co.’s more expensive jeans.22
These dynamics explain how department stores began advertising women’s sports
dungarees (usually a flowing, sailor-style jean, distinct from the straight-legged,
men’s Levi’s) in the early 1930s. However, they do not sufficiently account for why
department stores’ dungaree advertisements rose in 1934 and 1935, collapsed in
1936, and then increased significantly from 1938 until military purchases raised
dungaree prices in 1941. Understanding this ebb and flow is important because it
helps us to identify what really drove department stores’ decisions to carry blue
jeans. The sudden spike, drop off, and recuperation of denim dungaree advertisements during this period are best understood in terms of the ebb and flow of events
altering garment industry regulations.
The Making of an American Icon • 29
In 1933 the National Relief Act mandated that the federal government develop
codes aimed at stabilizing labour costs and ending competition based on cut-throat
pricing in the garment industry.23 One of the first mandates of the NRA was to require the clothing industry to gather detailed information on garment wages and
employment practices throughout the country. These efforts provided unions with
information and encouraged new methods for evaluating, comparing, and negotiating piecework regimes and contracts.24 Many of these methods were borrowed from
the far more standardized work-clothing industry, where management and unions
had been working on issues of parity in worker compensation for some time.25As
one labour historian noted:
The code agencies travelled widely from market to market inspecting shops, examining
books, conducting hearings, and comparing labor costs under all types of operations and
conditions of employment. A common procedure was to estimate the comparative labor
costs of making sample garments . . . from market to market. After . . . intensive study,
these agencies produced the first truly industry wide surveys of production cost factors
in their respective trades . . .26
Armed with new information and tools, unions were better equipped to collectively bargain with the manufacturers, especially in union-resistant labour markets
where it had been difficult to gain insider-knowledge of factory practices.27 At the
same time, under new NRA protections of the right to organize, unions finally had
the legal room and broad worker optimism necessary to launch highly successful
unionizing drives that organized vast numbers of workers across the garment industry.28 Federal restrictions on homework and the union drive encouraged manufacturers to move to producing within their own inside factories, significantly reducing
contractors and home workers.29 The NRA also required clothing factory owners
in different segments of the industry to develop national organizations in order to
work with unions to establish codes delineating minimum wage-rates and rules for
different segments of the garment industry.30 This strengthened unions’ bargaining
power and introduced greater standardization of wages and wholesale prices across
However, collaboration between the industry and the state to define the new clothing wage codes also had some unintended effects. Up until the passage of the NRA,
union-management bargaining had always recognized a supposed skill differential
in the work of sewing operators making garments in different clothing genres. As a
result, differences in earnings between industry segments had developed over time.
The NRA cotton codes preserved this hierarchal difference in wage rates based on
traditional distinctions.31 The ‘Cotton Code’ distinguished between appropriate rates
for sewing operators making ‘women’s clothing’, ‘men’s clothing’, ‘cotton clothing’
and ‘work clothing’, with work clothing wage rates being the lowest of all.32 As wage
rates were standardized and raised, department stores – whose profits had depended
30 • Sandra Curtis Comstock
on exploiting wage discrepancies by pitting contractors against one another – sought
new ways to exploit wage differentials.33 One option was to develop new garment
lines, such as leisure dungarees, that could be made by ‘work clothing classified’
workers. Because the sportswear genre was relatively novel, rates governing its
manufacture were ambiguous, which meant that women’s dungarees could be made
by workers classified as work-clothing sewing operators, to lower costs per unit.
The non-unionized manufacturers in rural areas colluded with this practice to attract
business.’34 Southern and South-Western manufacturers were especially quick to
adopt the work-clothing status in order to thwart efforts to raise wages in the South.35
Thus, strong unionization of the women’s clothing industry in the North, increased
standardization of regional wage-rates, and special work-clothing wage-rates under
the Cotton Code in 1933 explain high-end department stores’ increased efforts to sell
women’s leisure dungarees from 1934 to 1935.
The significance of the NRA codes in shaping department stores’ initial decision
to offer dungarees is supported by what happened to department store dungaree
offerings after three subsequent events. First, generic department-store dungaree
advertisements fell after the Supreme Court’s 1935 abolition of the NRA clothing
codes. Second, department stores’ dungaree advertisements recuperated after a wave
of new union contracts reinstated Cotton Code-like wage differentials in 1936 and
1937.36 Finally, the sharp 1941 drop in dungaree advertisements when military jeans
purchases raised prices also suggests that department stores’ interest in selling dungarees had much to do with wage-differentials.37 This conclusion is also substantiated by the fact that there was no similar drop in independent stores’ advertisements
for Levi’s until 1943, when material shortages made Levi’s unavailable.38 From this
evidence, it is clear that regulations favouring denim work clothing, combined with
Hollywood uses of the blue jean, were the key reasons department stores began
selling women’s dungarees in the second half of the 1930s.
Towards an Event-oriented Explanation of the Department Store
The event-centred analysis presented thus far shows that trade and labour-law based
disruptions of department stores’ usual practices forced department stores to seek
alternative strategies of generating fashion prestige and of keeping costs low. The
coincidence of these challenges with heightened Hollywood dungaree use, and work
clothing wage rules, caused department stores to experiment with selling dungarees.
This suggests that jeans were not introduced to middle class women as a result of
shifts in norms of production. Rather, women’s jeans were introduced as a result
of a breakdown in norms of production, combined with the advent of the Cotton
Code and conditions like new Hollywood meanings and uses of the dungaree. This
attention to sequence and timing of events leads us to ask if the Cotton Code and
The Making of an American Icon • 31
epartment stores’ interactions with the work-wear industry contributed to subsed
quent tactical shifts in the production of women’s wear.
The evidence available suggests that the Cotton Code and the decision to emphasize women’s sportswear and dungarees made in work-wear factories were influential in reorganizing department stores women’s wear practices. That is, department
stores’ collaboration with work-wear companies and unions to measure production
methods under the Cotton Code, and their subsequent use of work-wear factories to
produce sportswear and jeans encouraged those in charge of selecting clothing and
managing the production process to adapt the Taylorist principles work-clothing
makers had developed from the 1920s through the early 1930s. Department stores’
increasing use of work-clothing manufacturers’ approaches to clothing design and
production is suggested by fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes’ description of how
the women’s wear industry was changing in her 1942 book, Why Is a Dress?39 It
is also suggested by letters sent to the United Garment Workers between 1936 and
1942 by factories seeking advice on how to implement new Taylor-based regimes
of production.40 As Elizabeth Hawes points out, once department stores used the
new Taylorist strategies of managing garment production, and appreciated the
savings involved, they increasingly selected designs that could be easily and efficiently manufactured under this regime.41 Thus, the Cotton Code and introduction
of dungarees and simpler sportswear helped women’s wear buyers appreciate the
advantages of selling pared-down designs amenable to the Taylorist principles used
in the work-wear sector, and led them to think about clothing designs that followed
in terms of whether they could be easily made using such principles.42
Thus far, I have answered the question why department stores started offering
dungarees to middle-class women. This is what an event-centred reworking of Fine
and Leopold’s production oriented framework does best. However, what it cannot
explain on its own is why middle-class consumers finally embraced the blue jean in
1939 and 1940, which will be explored in the next section.
The Manufacturer Designed and Marketed Levi’s Brand Blue Jean
In the early 1920s the men’s work-clothing industry was quite distinct from the
women’s wear industry. Levi Strauss & Co. and H. D. Lee ran in-house manufacturing facilities and maintained regional distribution networks of independent community-based stores. As many of these stores were the sole suppliers of clothing
and consumer credit in their communities there was little competition from other
suppliers. However, by the mid-1920s discount chain stores, like J. C. Penney, and
mail order companies, like Sears, began seriously competing with the independent
community retailers.43 While some manufacturer-merchandisers, such as H. D. Lee
and the Oshkosh Overall Company, began selling a portion of their clothing to the
chain stores, local, independent stores remained their most lucrative clientele. As
32 • Sandra Curtis Comstock
this happened the increased influence of discount chains depressed manufacturermerchandisers’ jeans prices.
As a result, Levi Strauss & Co. and H. D. Lee began taking a number of measures to lower their costs of production. To do so, they experimented with Taylorist
principles, breaking down whole garment production into a series of separate simple
tasks, introducing new time and productivity accounting schemes, and experimenting with reorganizing the shop floor to better manage the work flow from one task
to the next.44 Additionally, they increased their advertising, producing their own
catalogues, and store cards. These advertisements emphasized the utilitarian qualities of jeans and overalls as work-wear. The care put into manufacturers’ hand bills
contrasted sharply with the few independent store advertisements, which simply
listed blue jeans with a price.45
However, in the first half of the 1930s, manufacturer-merchandisers began to
experiment not only with lowering production costs but seeking out new markets.
Levi Strauss & Co. was the first to introduce jeans oriented toward middle-class
dude ranch and frontier themes in 1933, as well as the first to design middle-class
women’s jeans in 1934. After the 1935 Lady Levi’s fashion spread in Vogue magazine, several of the other large inside-manufacturer-merchandisers, like H. D. Lee
and Oshkosh, followed Levi Strauss & Co.’s lead.46
Why did the manufacturer-merchandisers begin pursuing Western, frontier, dude
ranch, middle-class meanings in the early 1930s? Why did Levi Strauss & Co. lead
Changing Conditions of Production and Distribution in the
Work Clothing Industry
To answer this it is important to first appreciate why Levi Strauss & Co., and
eventually other manufacturer-merchandisers, pursued the middle-class market.
Consumption-side explanations attribute Levi Strauss & Co.’s campaign to the popularity of Westerns and dude ranches, and the use of Levi’s by Hollywood stars.
However, the popularity and prestige of the Western film genre plummeted from
1930 through 1938.47 Furthermore, while a handful of LA, New York, and Chicago
news articles mentioned dude ranch uses of Levi’s between 1928 and 1930, there
were no further mentions until late 1933.48 Why then did Levi Strauss & Co. begin to
allocate scarce resources to advertise the middle-class cowboy concept precisely in
1933? The main reasons have to do with the discount chain stores’ growing control
over the work-wear market and with the 1934 San Francisco Levi’s boycott.
The main crisis that began the shift in manufacturer-merchandisers regime of
retailing was the dramatic decline in farmers’ and workers’ consumption. Between
1929 and 1932, industrial unemployment rose from 1.5 to 15 million persons. At the
The Making of an American Icon • 33
Figure 1.1. Salesman’s flyer for Levi Strauss & Co. work clothing, c1926. Courtesy Levi Strauss &
Co. Archives, San Francisco.
34 • Sandra Curtis Comstock
same time farm income fell from 12 billion to 5.3 billion dollars a year. As a result,
workers’ and farmfers’ expenditures on work clothing dramatically declined.49
Declines in demand for work clothing affected all players but the well-capitalized
discount chain stores suffered far less. In fact, the collapse in work clothing demand
allowed discount chains to use their superior purchasing power to obtain unparalleled concessions from workers and manufacturers. This enabled them to cut prices
on overalls from one dollar and twenty cents a pair in 1929, to eighty-nine cents a
pair in1932.50 Wielding lower prices and superior cash reserves, the chain stores
undercut the independent retailers, upon which Levi Strauss & Co. and HD Lee
depended for their most lucrative business.51 To make matters worse, many workers
and farmers not only stopped buying jeans from their local stores – they also stopped
making payments on the jeans they had purchased earlier on credit. By the end
of 1931 43 per cent of the independent stores in business in 1926 had closed, and
those that did survive often lacked the cash to rapidly replenish their work clothing
As a result, Levi Strauss & Co.’s 1932 sales reached only half of their 1929 levels, and LS & Co., HD Lee and others shortened their work weeks and temporarily
shuttered factories.53 In the meantime, some of their cheapest Southern competitors
actually grew, as discount chains increased their purchases from the South.54 The
ability of chain stores to set up distribution regimes linking South to North, and East
to West gave them another advantage over the small town retailer, and by 1933 more
local stores had closed their doors.55
Thus, manufacturer-merchandisers’ loss of independent retailers, willing to sell
their jeans at a premium price created a strong incentive for them to seek out alternative markets. Levi Strauss & Co., as the only manufacturer-merchandiser not regularly selling jeans to the chain stores, was particularly devastated by these losses. By
1933, concerned about the company’s survival without its loyal small-town stores,
Levi Strauss & Co. began to tentatively develop a series of advertisements leveraging Hollywood uses of Levi’s in the ranch context.56 However, Levi Strauss & Co.’s
commitment to pursuing the middle-class dude ranch theme significantly intensified
after San Francisco workers stopped buying Levi’s because of the company’s nonunion status in 1934.
The 1934 Boycott as Decisive Event Propelling Levi’s to Devote
Substantial Resources to Middle-class Frontier themed Ad Campaign
The catalyst of the event was the labour unrest in California and San Francisco between 1933 and 1934.57 Working-class agitation and brutal repression of workers in
California’s fields, factories, and docks bred widespread disgust with industry and
bolstered pro-worker sentiment, particularly in San Francisco. This led to a concerted workers’ campaign to promote buying union-label consumer items only.58 While
The Making of an American Icon • 35
other major manufacturer-merchandisers were already unionized, Levi Strauss &
Co. did not sign a union contract until 1937.59 As a result, the company’s normally
loyal neighbourhood stores were forced by workers to stop carrying Levi’s throughout 1934. In the end, Levi Strauss & Co.’s only San Francisco outlet for its blue
jeans in 1934 was a middle-class-oriented saddlery in the suburbs outside the city.60
From this point forward Levi Strauss & Co. pursued middle-class cowboy and frontier leitmotifs with unusual vigour. As one company manager recalled the period,
‘We put a certain imagination into [the Levi’s]. It was different from a workman’s
garment . . . We were on the western theme continuously in our advertising.’61 The
continuous advertising paid off with the 1935 Vogue article on the Lady Levi. This
initial achievement then convinced other manufacturer-merchandisers like H. D.
Lee to imitate the Levi’s-look and marketing messages in the hopes of freeing themselves from the growing power and control of the chain stores.62
The above production-oriented narrative satisfyingly explains how manufacturer-merchandisers began advertising middle-class frontier and cowboy themes.
As should be clear, the rise of manufacturer-merchandisers’ emphasis on old West
themes was particularly contingent upon the specific experiences of Levi Strauss &
Co. General conditions, such as the loss of independent retail outlets to the chain
stores, and particular circumstances like Levi Strauss & Co.’s special historic relationship with California ranchers and Hollywood stars, encouraged Levi Strauss &
Co. to pursue the dude ranch theme, which encouraged others to follow. But the specific event of the 1934 boycott of Levi’s in San Francisco enhanced the company’s
commitment to this idea, before the notion had borne fruit in terms of increased
sales. In addition, the Vogue feature on Lady Levi’s enhanced the legitimacy of the
Western jeans theme still further.
These efforts kept the Levi’s signature ‘Western-style’ blue jean with copper
rivets, red-threaded seams and the leather patch circulating as a special symbol of
the Western frontier in the advertising culture of 1934 and 1935, particularly in
California. But nation-wide popularity and desire for this style of blue jean was
still four years away, when Eastern stores would begin to regularly carry Levi’s.
And it was not achieved by advertising alone. As will be evident, California artists
uses of the Western-style jean to tell the story of dustbowl migrants and the Great
Depression significantly shaped the outcome, as well.
From Mundane Work Pant to Symbol of the Working Class
As many historians have observed, the economic chaos and uncertainty of the
Depression brought on a society-wide ‘inability to imagine what had happened and
would happen next.’63 Initially, the profound effects of the Depression were hardly
reported at all. However, the introduction of pro-worker legislation with the New
Deal, encouraged workers who had experienced severe deterioration in working
36 • Sandra Curtis Comstock
conditions between 1930 and 1933 to respond with the largest wave of worker activism and militancy in American history. The intensity of feeling and sense of societal
rupture sent writers, artists and singers out across the byways of the nation in search
of ‘the real America’.64 No image was more repetitively documented or invoked than
that of working people in their overalls and straight-leg blue jeans.
Jeans and overalls appeared on the machine-wedded urban labourers of Diego
Rivera’s 1933 Detroit murals of the River Rouge Ford factory; they protected
Charlie Chaplin and his fellows as they were sucked into the relentless pace and
machinery of the assembly line in his 1936 film, Modern Times.65 Newly established
photo-magazines and Sunday news photo-supplements pictured jeans on embattled Southern textile workers, destitute sharecroppers, and striking miners. Many
of these were produced by photographers working for governmental agencies who
circulated these images freely in a bid for public support of their social agendas.66
Uniting portraits and panoramas of rural tenant farmers and urban wage-workers,
blue jeans became a mnemonic image that readily evoked the ‘new iconography and
rhetoric of class’ sweeping the US in the mid-1930s.67
The Role of Aesthetic Events in Transforming ‘Working-class Jeans’ into
These aesthetic shifts suggest how jeans gained initial purchase on the American imagination, but do not explain why Western jeans and Levi’s become so symbolically
powerful, as a sign of ‘the American people’. The simple explanation is that advertisements for copper-riveted Western blue jeans that circulated heavily in California
became an attractive symbol and resource for California artists. They drew upon
Western jeans as a symbolic resource as they pieced together a modern frontier
parable that would become the dominant way of making sense of the Depression
years and redefine Americans’ understanding of themselves and the nation. The full
story of the political events, artists, journalists, politicians, and state officials that
produced the new frontier parable is another paper in itself. However, below I will
summarize the key events and artistic interpretations that produced the parable, and
helped elevate the Western jean to an American icon.
The contours of the new frontier narrative of the 1930s began taking shape when
photographer Dorothea Lange and economist Paul Taylor were urgently sent by
California and the federal Farm Security Agency to investigate the problems facing
farm workers from the Southwest as they searched for work in California. Lange and
Taylor likened these migrants to modern-day pioneers forging a new life in an unfamiliar world of mechanized, industrialized agriculture. Often Lange photographed
migrant workers in the Levi-style blue jeans that were widely worn in California at
the time. Their 1935 article, titled ‘Again the Covered Wagon’, described refugees’
westward migration as a search for ‘individual protection in the traditional spirit of
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38 • Sandra Curtis Comstock
the American frontier’. They warned, however, that what refugees found when they
arrived was a modern frontier ‘of social conflict’ and insecurity.68 Lange and Taylor
advocated government aid to these worker-pioneers as a modern solution for taming
the ‘wilderness’ of social conflict, just as the Homestead Act had tamed the physical wilderness of the nineteenth-century old West. This analogy was driven home
by combining such statements with cowboy movie-like images of Southwestern
migrant workers in Western, Levi-style cowboy jeans leaning alongside canvascovered jalopies and walking down the lonely road in their Stetsons.69 The story
struck a chord in more progressive circles and generated numerous articles, pamphlets, and books.70
However, it was Archibald MacLeish’s epic 1938 photo-poem narrating the
Depression that proposed a transformative pioneer myth explicitly linking the massacres of Eastern industrial workers to the struggles of sharecroppers and farmerworkers in the agricultural fields of the West.71 Using many of Lange’s images,
MacLeish proposed that during America’s expansionist period the allure of frontier
land had produced blindness to the evils of concentrated wealth in the East. The
Depression, for him, represented both a reckoning with this illusion and a new wilderness of social conflict that workers of all backgrounds and classes had to resolve
through focus on their common humanity.72
Both Lange’s and MacLeish’s versions of the dustbowl migrant as working-class
pioneer were picked up in Steinbeck’s March, 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath,
and John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of the novel.73 The popularity and notoriety
of Steinbeck’s book made his dustbowl family, the Joads, a metaphor for the times,
and inspired thousands of articles and photo spreads.74 At the same time, John Ford’s
film emphasizing the story’s utopian agrarian impulses, and support for legitimate
outlawry against monopoly capital, tied the story to a new Western movie formula
that Ford had successfully proposed the previous year in his film, Stagecoach, starring John Wayne.75 Following this model other film-makers rehabilitated the prestige
Western as parable of the Depression.76 As they did, prominent use of Western
jeans became the preferred way for Western films to gesture toward working-class,
Western, and populist rhetorics and America’s past and present all at once.77
The Interpretive Contexts of the Eastern Dude Ranch and War: Bringing
Together Women’s Fashion Jeans and Western Frontier Jeans Meanings
The events discussed above not only multiplied commercial and state-sponsored
narratives invoking the Levi-clad cowboy as totem of American egalitarianism.
They encouraged middle-class men and women to join in the myth. By 1940, 25,000
families a year visited Western dude ranches to pursue their own frontier fantasies.78
Simultaneously, many Eastern farms and resorts established vacation dude ranches
near large cities.79 Travel articles lauded the Eastern dude ranch for the access it
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The Making of an American Icon • 41
provided white-collar workers to the Western experience. Now secretaries, office
clerks, bankers, and tycoons could enjoy the equalizing experience of addressing
one another on a first name basis, wearing the same Western jeans, participating
in the same demanding physical activities, and eating around a common table.80
Anxious to mix appropriately with the leisure elite, white-collar women purchased
the flowing jeans touted by department stores and the Western jeans proscribed by
fashion mavens and Eastern equestrian shops. Once on the dude ranch, white-collar
and middle-class men’s and women’s uses of Western-style and department storestyle jeans to act out their equalizing frontier dreams bonded their intimate fantasies
to the larger State- and Hollywood-promoted ideas of the Western jean as symbol of
Americans’ ‘natural’ distaste for elitist pretension and greed.
Meanwhile, another shift was also afoot in general women’s dungaree use. While
writers had consistently condemned women’s jeans in the 1930s, the symbolic use of
the dungaree to delineate American clothing style and tastes gained legitimacy as the
looming war shifted public understandings. By 1940 journalists were writing about
college women patriotically dressing in jeans to train for the jobs left vacant by male
soldiers. Through the lens of war, college women’s choice of jeans suddenly seemed
patriotic, practical, frugal, and in keeping with the national shift from consumerism to wartime conservation and military production.81 In addition, the liberty of
American women to choose what suited them best (for the war effort or just plain
comfort) was contrasted with the absolute prohibition of pants-wearing imposed on
French and German women.82 As Marlene Dietrich put it:
The idea (that women’s slacks) . . . are not respectable . . . is old fashioned and European
. . . I am reminded of my last visit to France when it was unlawful for a woman to appear
in trousers in public . . . Here the freedom to wear slacks at all is a little liberty we women
cherish . . . Girls are entitled to more freedom in dress . . . because of the part many play in
national defense . . . Slacks are more sensible . . . They are a great economy . . . (and save)
on the expense of . . . underclothing (and) hose . . . I’d say the American way would be to
let girls dress as they please.83
The war years encouraged many to see women’s work and jeans as patriotic and
emblematic of American pragmatism and democracy. The war context legitimated
department stores’ use of women’s jeans as a symbol of American style. Contrasts
between American and European attitudes towards women’s clothing especially encouraged people to associate the gender-egalitarianism of the fashion dungaree with
the class-egalitarianism of the predominantly male Western blue jean. Whether for
or against women in jeans people began to see jeans as a sign of youthful America’s
repudiation of gender and class hierarchies, and distaste for elitist, wasteful ostentation. Through everyday use and the new interpretive context of war, previously
separate meanings of women’s fashion jeans, and men’s frontier jeans began to
blend into one contradictory, protean, symbol that artists and everyday people would
return to again and again.
42 • Sandra Curtis Comstock
To conclude, at the general level this chapter has presented an event-centred approach to explaining the broad shifts in jeans consumption and production that took
place during the Great Depression. This has helped identify the regulatory and aesthetic events that most contributed to this transformation. An event-centred approach
is, in my view, particularly necessary for understanding dramatic shifts in material
culture that occur in moments of societal upheaval and crisis. This is because the approach highlights the transformative importance of interactions between processes
of production and consumption, as well as the transformational effects of exchanges
between distinctive regimes of production or strategies of meaning making, for example between women’s and work clothing industry networks, or working- and
middle-class oriented film and photo-magazines. It shows that, in fact, economic,
political, and cultural events are the contingent forces that push different groups to
link and rearrange these processes and regimes in ways that fundamentally change
At a more specific level, while this chapter has shown that the emergence of blue
jeans as a boundary-blurring sign of American egalitarianism was a fragile, event
driven outcome, it also suggests why inventing class- and gender-bridging artefacts
and symbols like the dungaree was an integral part of how commercial entities and
state reformers sought to resolve the economic and political crises of the period. That
is, declines in consumption among all social groups during the 1930s encouraged
commercial entities from Levi Strauss & Co. to Twentieth Century Fox to search
and foment the kinds of material culture and tastes that might extend the appeal of
their products to new social groups and bolster sagging sales.84 At the same time, the
collapse of public confidence in the American capitalist system in the early 1930s
sent reform-minded intellectuals and state bureaucrats alike in pursuit of narratives,
symbols and artefacts with the resonance to speak to and draw together diverse
groups and sensibilities in order to encourage the broadest numbers to identify and
favour their society-changing projects and agendas.85
In a short, while the emergence of the socially transposable blue jean in the 1930s
was unique and contingent, it was also the expression of a general, crisis-inspired
turn toward intensified mass-forms of consumption and mass-forms of political
culture that would define the century to come. Once a certain potential and allure
became evident, experiments with social-category-transcending blue jeans became
highly useful to the mass-culture industries and mass-oriented politics, and were
reproduced with aplomb. While the chapter cannot make any bolder claim as to
why blue jeans have spread so intensively and extensively beyond their Depressionera home, the unusual protean-ness with which blue jeans emerged from the peak
Depression years certainly made it a highly attractive resource in the nascent masscultural industries and mass-politics of the time. The chapters that follow suggest
The Making of an American Icon • 43
that blue jeans’ protean-ness and association with boundary crossing have remained
their most important and compelling qualities. The question remains as to what
extent the remarkable persistence of these qualities is still as intimately intertwined
with the spread and deepening of localized mass-culture industries and mass-forms
of political mobilization and culture.86
1. I would like to acknowledge the University of Western Ontario’s internal
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Internal Grants for funding
a portion of the archival research in the Southern Labor Archives. In addition
UWO’s Sociology Department and Michael Carroll, Sam Clark and Laura Huey
in particular, provided a supportive environment in which to write. I would
also like to acknowledge the enthusiastic and invaluable assistance of Traci
JoLeigh Drummond, Archivist at the Southern Labor Archives at Georgia State
University. Finally, Leah Stevenson-Hastings’ indefatigable work copying and
organizing materials for analysis was also essential to this chapter.
2. Sewell (2005: 150).
3. There is disagreement over when mass-culture industries emerged in the US.
These disagreements have to do with the conflation between popular culture
and mass culture, as Michael Kammen points out. Here I am asserting that mass
culture industries emerged between the 1930s and 1950s. This is when photo
magazines came into their own, when films began to strive for the broadest
audiences possible, and when well-to-do women’s wear became most generally
mass produced. (Green 1997; Hawes 1942; Kammen 1999; May 2000).
4. Rabine and Kaiser (2006).
5. Fine and Leopold (1993: 87–147).
6. Sewell (2005: 225–70).
7. See Logics of History (Sewell, 2005: 219, 225–70). Philip McMichael explores
the methodological implications of this world view in terms of how it changes
the comparative strategies we must employ when comparing periodically or
steadily interacting phenomena (McMichael 1990).
8. Ley (1975).
9. Hawes (1942: 12).
10. Hawes (1942: 6); Green (1997).
11. Mann (2006: 199).
12. Berry (2000: 154–60).
13. Berry (2000); Denning (1996); ‘Detective Lends Motif to Fashion’ (1941).
14. Cohen (2008); Crane (2000); Mann (2006); ; May (2000); McComb (2006);
15. Welters and Cunningham (2005); Thomas (1935); Berry (2000); May (2000).
44 • Sandra Curtis Comstock
16. ‘Article 10 – No Title’ (1941); ‘Detective Lends Motif to Fashion’ (1941); ‘She
is Not Sure Where She is Heading in This Angry World . . .’ (1941); Warner and
17. Lipovetsky (1994: 58–60).
18. Ley (1975: 88).
19. Best & Co. (1933); Bullock’s (1934); Green (1997: 114); Macy’s (1933).
20. Downey (2007: 62).
21. These advertisements emulated the popular bio-pieces highlighting Hollywood
stars’ idiosyncratic tastes, habits, and transgressions. According to Michael
Kammen, by the late 1920s entertainers’ biographies gained prominence and
emphasized their private lives, consumption, and tastes (Kammen 1999: 57).
These consumption-focused articles were bolstered by merchandisers’ distribution of photos of stars wearing their clothing in national magazines (Gledhill
22. Although Macy’s and Best’s briefly experimented with Levi’s for a few weeks
following the Vogue articles.
23. Carpenter (1972: 634).
24. Carpenter (1972: 600–24).
25. Abernathy (1999: 28–32); Howarth et al. (2000).
26. Carpenter (1972: 619–20).
27. Braun (1947).
28. The ILGWU alone went from 50,000 members in the spring of 1933 to 200,000
members in 1934 (Herberg 1952: 47–8).
29. 94 per cent of the men’s clothing industry was brought into inside factories by
1940 (Green 1997: 63–71).
30. Cobrin (1970: 200).
31. By 1934, 85 per cent of the men’s clothing trade was unionized. The ILGW, in
less than three years, had multiplied eightfold from 23,876 in 1932 to 198,141
in 1934 (Carpenter 1972: 649).
32. Carpenter (1972: 734–5).
33. Cobrin (1970: 181–2).
34. Cobrin (1970: 181).
35. Cray (1978: 88); Marsh and Trynka (2002: 24–38); Staff (1933, 1936); Box 268,
United Garment Workers of America Records, L1992-17/L1997-08. Southern
Labor Archives. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University,
Atlanta (hereafter referred to as UGWAR SLA).
36. This was then reinforced by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which
strengthened unions by establishing nation-wide minimum wages and reducing
clandestine clothing production (Blackwelder, 1997: 39–44, 102–3, 16; Monroy
2006; Wolensky, Wolensky and Wolensky 2002).
37. ‘Plants Here Speed Clothing for Army’ (1941); ‘Pay Rises Sought in Cotton
The Making of an American Icon • 45
38. ‘Clothes Shortage Found in 25 States’ (1943); Fear Textile Drain in Relief
Programs, (1943); Gritz (1943).
39. Hawes (1942: 12–24).
40. Braun (1947: 1–91); Gomberg (1948); Production Systems. Box 83, Folder 14:
41. Hawes (1942: 87–99).
42. Hawes (1942).
43. Cobrin (1970); Fraser (1983).
44. Cray (1978); Howarth et al. (2000).
45. Cobrin (1970: 117–24, 146–9); Cray (1978: 67, 77, 80–2); Fraser (1983: 540);
Howarth et al. (2000); ‘Penney Spends 2,250,000 Annually’ (1928); File 2,
Box 4: UGWAR SLA; 12/12/1921 J.C. Penney, Box 391: UGWAR SLA, Staff
(1925, 1928). See also HD Lee Boxes 372, 377, 384, 386, 394: UGWAR SLA;
Marsh and Trynka (2002: 34–7); Little (1996: 23, 32) and Fraser (1983: 539).
46. Downey (2007: 60–4); Marsh and Trynka (2002: 34–55).
47. Anderson (2008); May (2000: 283); Scott (1939); Slotkin (1992: 254–7).
48. ‘Correct Clothes for Feminine “Dudes”’ (1930); ‘Melancholy Days?’ (1929).
49. ‘Business World’ (1932); Cray (1978: 80); ‘Great Depression’, Encyclopedia
Americana; ‘Work Clothing Sales Pointed to Employment Turn March 1’
50. UGWA correspondence with J.C. Penney. Folder 2, 3, and 4, Box 2: UGWAR
51. Cray (1978: 82); Staff (1930, 1931, 1932).
52. Burd (1941); ‘Twenty Percent of Small Town Stores are Chains’ (1933).
53. Cray (1978: 84); ‘Business World’ (1932); New York Times, 20 July 1932, p. 14;
New York Times, 30 August 1932, p. 37.
54. Cray (1978); ‘Business Notes’ (1933); ‘Garment Company Plans Five-Day
Week’ (1930); Organizer Notes, Boxes 386, 389: UGWAR SLA.
55. 1930 Articles. Box 2, Folder 4: UGWAR SLA; ‘Twenty Percent of Small Town
Stores are Chains’ (1933).
56. Downey (2007: 62); Harris (2002: 14).
57. Denning (1996).
58. Cray (1978: 85–8); Glickman (1997).
59. Box 377: UGWAR SLA.
60. Cray (1978: 85–8).
61. Cray (1978); Downey (2007: 62).
62. Downey (1995, 2007: 59–60); Marsh and Trynka (2002).
63. Denning (1996: 264).
64. Stott (1973).
65. Sheeler, 1978; Hurlburt, 1989; Chaplin, Modern Times, 1936 (film).
66. Finnegan (2003: 170–90).
67. Denning (1996: 8–9).
46 • Sandra Curtis Comstock
68. Taylor (1936a: 350).
69. Taylor (1936b).
70. Denning 1996 (268–70); Lorentz, The Plow That Broke the Plains, 1936 (film);
McWilliams 1939; Steinbeck (1936, 1938).
71. MacLeish (1977).
72. Meltzer (1978: 105).
73. Loftis (1998: 134–49); Denning (1996: 262); Steinbeck (2002); Ford, The
Grapes of Wrath, 1940 (film).
74. Finnegan (2003: 2); 260-8: Denning (1996: 260–8); Loftis (1998: 163).
75. Grant (2003); Slotkin (1992: 281–303).
76. Slotkin (1992); May (2000).
77. Increased use of Western blue jeans and down play of more vaudevillian cowboy costumes was noted by commentators of the time in more female and family oriented singing cowboy films, as well as the new Western epic (Scott, 1939).
78. “More Ranches for Dudes,” 1936; Zimmerman, 1998.
79. Zimmerman (1998).
80. Markland (1939, 1940, 1941, 1942a, 1942b); Ray (1941).
81. ‘Barnard Girls Get Auto Repair Study’ (1941); ‘College Girls Ask for “Sense”
in Clothes, and they Get It at Mary Lewis Showing’ (1942); ‘Coming Fashions.
Defense Activities Influence Fashions’ (1942); ‘Duty Duds and Other Practical
Things are Worn at Showing of College Fashions’ (1942); Gardener (1941);
‘Girls Will be Boys’ (1942); JTH (1940); Pope (1941); Schnapper (1939).
82. Hawes (1942: 63–6).
83. Godychaux (1941).
84. Hawes (1942); Kammen (1999); May (2000); Slotkin (1992).
85. Denning (1996).
86. On extensification and intensification see Mintz (1986).
Abernathy, F.H., Dunlop, J.T., Hammond, J. and Weil, D. (1999), A Stitch in Time:
Lean Retailing and the Transformation of Manufacturing – Lessons from the
Apparel and Textile Industries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Anderson, C. (2008), The Western Film . . . by the Numbers! Retrieved 27 January
2009, from http://www.b-westerns.com/graphs.htm (accessed 27 January 2009).
‘Article 10 – No Title’ (1941). Washington Post, 31 August.
‘Barnard Girls Get Auto Repair Study’ (1941), New York Times, 14 February.
Berry, S. (2000), Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood,
Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Best & Co. (1933), Display Ad 7. New York Times, 11 June, p. 7.
Blackwelder, J.K. (1997), Now Hiring: The Feminization of Work in the United
States, 1900–1995. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
The Making of an American Icon • 47
Braun, K. (1947), Union-Management Co-operation. Experience from the Clothing
Industry, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Bullock’s (1934), Display Ad 14, Los Angeles Times, 22 January.
Burd, H.A. (1941), ‘Mortality of Men’s Apparel Stores in Seattle, 1929–1939’,
Journal of Marketing, 6(1): 22–6.
Business Notes (1933), New York Times, 20 June, p. 35.
Business World (1931), New York Times, 22 December, p. 43.
Business World (1932), New York Times, 4 February, p. 37.
Carpenter, J.T. (1972), Competition and Collective Bargaining in the Needle Trades
1910–1967, Ithaca, NY: New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
‘Clothes Shortage Found in 25 States’ (1943), New York Times, 4 January, p. 14.
Cobrin, H.A. (1970), The Men’s Clothing Industry. Colonial Times through Modern
Times. New York: Fairchild Publications Inc.
Cohen, L. (2008), Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
‘College Girls Ask for “Sense” in Clothes, and They Get It at Mary Lewis Showing’
(1942), New York Times. 6 August.
‘Coming Fashions. Defense Activities Influence Fashions’ (1942), Hartford Courant,
‘Correct Clothes for Feminine “Dudes”’ (1930), New York Times, 6 July, p. 96.
Crane, D. (2000), Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in
Clothing, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Cray, E. (1978), Levi’s, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Denning, M. (1996). The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the
Twentieth Century, London: New York: Verso.
‘Detective Lends Motif to Fashion’ (1941), New York Times, 27 August.
Downey, L. (2007), Levi Strauss & Co. & Co, Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub.
‘Duty Duds and Other Practical Things are Worn at Showing of College Fashions’
(1942), New York Times, 11 August.
‘Fear Textile Drain in Relief Programs’ (1943), New York Times, 11 November,
Fine, B. and Leopold, E. (1993), The World of Consumption, London: Routledge.
Finnegan, C.A. (2003), Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs,
Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Fraser, S. (1983), ‘Combined and Uneven Development in the Men’s Clothing
Industry’, Business History Review, 57(4), 522–47.
Gardener, J. (1941), ‘The Young Crowd Design Their Own Fashions’, Christian
Science Monitor, 31 July.
‘Garment Company Plans Five-Day Week’ (1930), New York Times, 11 December,
‘Girls Will Be Boys’ (1942), Hartford Courant, 9 August.
Gledhill, C. (1991), Stardom: Industry of Desire, London: Routledge.
48 • Sandra Curtis Comstock
Glickman, L.B. (1997), A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of
Consumer Society, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Godychaux, M. (1941), ‘History in the Making. Front Door Ballot Box Forum’, Los
Angeles Times,10 August.
Gomberg, W. (1948), A Trade Union Analysis of Time Study, Chicago, IL: Social
Science Research Associates.
Grant, B.K. (2003), John Ford’s Stagecoach, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Green, N.L. (1997), Ready to Wear, Ready to Work, Durham, NC: Duke University
Gritz, E.D. (1943), Agency Says Needs Will Be Met, Washington Post, 26 May,
Harris, A. (2002). The Blue Jean, New York: Power House Cultural Entertainment
Hawes, E. (1942), Why Is a Dress? New York: Viking Press.
Herberg, W. (1952), ‘The Jewish Labor Movement in the United States’, Industrial
Labor Relations Review, 5(4): 501–23.
Howarth, G., Martino, T., Melton, S., Miegel, A., Morley, J. and Weissman, M.
(2000), ‘Levi’s a Company as Durable as its Jeans’, http://shakti.trincoll.
edu/~ghowarth/levi.html (accessed 22 September 2004).
Hurlburt, L.P. (1989), The Mexican Muralists in the United States. Albuquerque,
NM: University of New Mexico Press.
JTH (1940), ‘Coeds Tell What They like at Boston Clothes “Parade”’, Christian
Science Monitor, 25 July, p. 9.
Kammen, M. (1999), American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the
Twentieth Century, New York: Knopf.
Ley, S. (1975), Fashion for Everyone. The Story of Ready-To-Wear, New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Lipovetsky, G. (1994), The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy,
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Little, D. and Bond, L. (1996), Vintage Denim, Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith.
Loftis, A. (1998). Witnesses to the Struggle: Imaging the 1930s California Labor
Movement, Reno: University of Nevada Press.
MacLeish, A. (1977), Land of the Free, New York: Da Capo Press.
Macy’s (1933, 06/07), Display Ad 6, New York Times, 7 June, p. 5.
Mann, W.J. (2006), Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, New York: Macmillan.
Markland, J. (1939), ‘Dude Ranch Comes East’, New York Times, 11 June, p. XX5.
Markland, J. (1940), ‘Ranges in the East’, New York Times, 26 May, p. XX1.
Markland, J. (1941), ‘The East Goes West: A Tenderfoot Gets Tough Riding a Dude
Range Not Far from City’, New York Times, 25 May.
Markland, J. (1942a), ‘Eastern Dude Ranches Busy Amid Colorful Autumn Scenes’,
New York Times, 18 October, p. D7.
The Making of an American Icon • 49
Markland, J. (1942b), ‘Eastern Dude Ranches Offer Outdoor Life near Big Cities’,
New York Times, p. D9.
Marsh, G., and Trynka, P. (2002), Denim: From Cowboys to Catwalks. A Visual
History of the World’s Most Legendary Fabric, London: Aurum Press.
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Diverting Denim: Screening Jeans in Bollywood
Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber
During a research visit to Bombay in 2008, I asked a young costume assistant, as we
sat talking in a suburban Bombay coffee house, how often she had sourced jeans for
films. She replied: ‘Denim is big in films. Our actors are wearing denim throughout
the film. They have to have jeans, unless they are wearing a suit. I cannot think of a
film where we haven’t used jeans, even actresses.’
There is nothing particularly striking about this statement until one considers that
as recently as the late 1980s it would have been inconceivable. It is possible to watch
several popular Hindi films from the 1960s and 1970s in their entirety, even those
films with a reputation for being fashionable for their time, and not see a single blue
jean or denim jacket.
Only with the transformation in the Indian economy of the late 1980s and 1990s
did denim begin to make a more frequent and prominent appearance in Indian media.1 Since then, in the midst of Bollywood’s undimmed enthusiasm for spectacular
costume, jeans have made a remarkable and somewhat quieter shift towards costume
normativity. The increasing momentum of a consumerism that began in the 1980s
has vastly expanded opportunities for, among other things, ready-made clothes
consumption (Mazumdar 2007: xxi; Vedwan 2007: 665; Virdi 2003). The quickening pace of the appropriation of denim for film costume directly coincides with
this phenomenon, and film remains an influential and in some cases the dominant
visual source for the artefacts and practices of consumerism in the sub-continent
(Mazumdar 2007:18 and Miller, this volume).
The first part of this essay sketches shifts in the occurrence and meaning of jeans
in film costuming in the tradition of the majority of film costume studies (e.g. Berry
2000; Bruzzi 1997; Dwyer 2000; Gaines and Herzog 1990; Moseley 2005; Street
2001). If jeans, as Miller and Woodward (2007) argue, are a prism through which
to examine some of the anxieties associated with modernity, the ‘career’ of jeans in
popular Hindi film elaborates and seeks to resolve the lingering anxiety about ‘what
to wear’ that has vexed Indian consumers since colonial times (Tarlo 1996). In the
– 51 –
52 • Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber
second half, I go beyond conventional analyses to show that the screen images at
issue are predicated on material practices that make judicious and tactical use of
brands, fakes, and copies both in Bombay and in other market places. In the subculture of Bombay media production, these practices illustrate and respond specifically
to the anxieties of Bollywood stars who are the most prominent models of jeanswearing for the Indian public. Even in Bollywood films, despite the fantastic settings
which remain exotic and remote to most South Asian viewers, jeans have emerged as
everyday clothing (Miller and Woodward 2007; Sassatelli this volume) that lack the
existing cues to sartorial distinction associated with most Indian garments (Banerjee
and Miller 2008; Tarlo 1996). Jeans on film are not like couture items that ‘speak’ on
their own terms (e.g. Bruzzi 1997). Instead left to themselves they would ‘speak’ in
largely uniform tones about sexuality, relationships, and personal autonomy in ways
that supersede their particular use in any given narrative context. This is because
they first designate their sameness and predictability (Miller and Woodward 2007:
343) – the same range of colours, the arrangement of rivets, the subtle variations on
one form. But to the individuals who wear them, for whom dress is a critical signifier
of their personal charisma and celebrity, all this is insufficient. In order to emphasize
their own distinction (Bourdieu 1984) stars will try to display brands publicly; if
they cannot, they strive for distinction through fusing their personal jeans choices
with their portrayal of characters – choices that are delegated to designers and their
assistants to actualize. This is a power that stars wield, which is denied to character
actors, extras – even the star’s double.
These brand assertions implicitly articulate the limits of Bombay’s retail ecology,
placing a firm constraint upon the extent to which a mere film fan can emulate the
stars. Those disappointed at not looking like their film idols when they buy their
clothes may feel that ‘what one sees is not what one gets’ but, conversely, from the
point of view of the costumer, ‘what one gets is not necessarily what one sees’. The
game of illusion, effacement and manipulation starts long before the film hits the
Jeans and the Spectacular: Denim on Screen
The film industry in Mumbai (still referred to in film circles and in this chapter as
Bombay) has the distinction of being the best known nationally and globally of all
the various film centres in India (Dwyer and Patel 2002: 8; Ganti 2004: 3; Mazumdar
2007: xviii; Rajadhyaksha 2003). Since its earliest years, costume has been one of
the distinct visual pleasures associated with film going (Bhaumik 2005:90; Dwyer
2000; Dwyer and Patel 2002: 52; Wilkinson-Weber 2005: 143). If what is spectacular is in part what can either not be appropriated or only appropriated with considerable qualification, then jeans indeed belong next to the lavish costume displays that
few Indians would dream of copying without considerable modification; as Miller
Screening Jeans in Bollywood • 53
points out in his study of denim in Kannur in this volume, jeans in India remain the
clothing choice of a few rather than, as in other countries of the world, the many. On
the other hand, urban middle and upper classes, both male and female, and young
people across an even wider social span, find it easier than ever to buy jeans now
that domestic or imported (often fake) versions from elsewhere in Asia provide a
range of price and quality alongside foreign high-priced labels. When these consumers judge a costume’s ‘wearability’ as clothing, they are now making assessments
of cost as much as whether it complies with social standards of attire (Berry 2000:
xiv). Jeans unlike almost any other garment are thus tenuously poised between the
spectacular and the mundane.
That the clothed celebrity body inspires aspiration and emulation is a widely
accepted maxim, holding that clothing possibilities are imaginatively anticipated via
film viewing before being actualized in shopping and wearing practice (Berry 2000;
Dwyer and Patel 2002; Eckert 1990; Stacey 1994; Street 2001: 7; Wilkinson-Weber
2006). For viewers to be able to anticipate their own, comparable experiments in
dress, a certain naturalism in the depiction of characters and settings is needed so
that costumes can seem minimally ‘wearable’. More than this, though, the materials,
practices and institutions (social and ideological) to foster emulation must exist, or
otherwise film viewers would not dream of ‘dressing up’ like their favourite actors.
In India, the personal tailor or menswear store until recently had the almost exclusive ability to facilitate the customer’s desire to emulate movie costumes until the
relaxation of curbs on foreign imports and an exploding market in consumer goods
in the 1990s (Sheikh 2007; Wilkinson-Weber 2005). From this point began a growth
of new shopping practices, spaces and dress conventions. Hindi film has arguably,
via its fascination with the material accoutrements of status and power, long been
making the case for what Berry (2000: xiii) terms a ‘symbolic economy’ in which
the management of appearances amounts to a complex set of moral statements about
selves in class, caste, and patriarchal contexts. Film not only models (in every sense
of the word) the kind of clothes that are central to these locations and experiences,
but costume itself is central to the definition of occupations, lifestyles and identities
that distinguish the new, globally-aware, Indian citizen, be these corporate executives, ganglords, reporters, even NASCAR (US based stock-car racing) drivers, and
a host of others.2
Male Hindi movie actors – ‘heroes’ or stars, and some supporting or character actors – began wearing denim jeans and jackets in their films in the early to mid-1970s.
By the later 1970s female film stars – ‘heroines’ – were doing so as well. Despite
the apparent naturalism of the contexts in which jeans were worn, the wearing of
denim by stars bore little resemblance to the actual reality in which the film was
imaginatively located. Still comparatively scarce, and by no means shared by all the
stars in the star pantheon, film uses of denim came well in advance of when jeans
and jackets began to be accepted even among the middle classes, as appropriate
apparel for Indian bodies.3
54 • Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber
Jeans, when they appeared, were typically signifiers of characters exploring new
forms of identity and social mobility. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that
denim came into Bollywood film just as the major tropes and themes of mainstream
film shifted towards a focus on subaltern subjects and the pursuit of justice, and away
from romance. Theorists have associated the emergence of the action film and action
heroes, chief among them the iconic star Amitabh Bachchan, with social and political upheaval in India (Ganti 2004: 32–3; Prasad 1998). Other scholars have pointed
to the emergence of homoerotic subtexts in the focus on dosti or male relationships
that overshadow heterosexual pairings (Kavi 2000; Rao 2000). Connected to both
is the wearing of denim, which, in the words of Rabine and Kaiser (2006: 236), can
be ‘endlessly adapted to the creation of new genders and sexualities’. Jeans, unlike
suits or tailored outfits, destabilized conventional sartorial distinctions of elite versus
subaltern. The star’s jeans were visually central, of course, but he – like some of the
minor characters or extras played by junior artists – could well be a lower class or
socially marginal character (for example, Dharmendra in denim jacket and jeans as
the petty criminal turned hero of the iconic 1975 film, Sholay).
For men, jeans were an extension of a Western-style wardrobe (shirts and trousers
for the most part), an Indian version of which was already widely in use. Jeans on
women, on the other hand, were a clearly transgressive deviation from Indian styles.
Anxiety about the propriety of women wearing jeans in public life has only slowly
and partially given way to the preferences among the affluent – but certainly not
among lower class women – for this kind of attire. As a style of clothing imported
from overseas, worn by both men and women, and replete with countercultural and
sexual implications, jeans exemplified the ‘un-Indian’. In addition, the way they
both concealed and revealed the body, the way they were to be worn, was problematic. Unlike skirts that were rejected by many women because they boldly exposed
the legs, jeans covered them, following the function, if not always the form, of
existing clothing types. Churidar (tight-fitting trousers) and salwar (loose-fitting
trousers) were universally regarded as suitable for women, albeit coded by their specific religious, regional, and age associations. Indeed, an advertisement for a fabric
company in a 1969 Filmfare shows a very fair-skinned woman wearing the fabric
stitched into a kameez (tunic-blouse), with jeans as a kind of churidar beneath. But
wearing a long shirt over jeans, while still very popular in India, does not rule out
wearing jeans with a shorter garment on top, allowing the body’s form from the
knee up to the waist to be revealed, even shown off (see Sassatelli this volume).
Mould-breaking heroines like Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman pushed the boundaries in their films of the 1970s and early 1980s when they wore jeans with short or
tucked-in blouses. These costume choices signalled and substantiated their playing
of roles that expanded the boundaries of what defined the archetypal film heroine. To
what extent their roles as fashion leaders tended to destabilize the sartorial orders of
dress for ordinary men and women, and thus the hierarchies associated with them,
is debatable, because very few women could emulate their styles, and for the most
Screening Jeans in Bollywood • 55
part, even film heroines continued to cleave to Indian clothes (occasionally veering
off into respectable professional outfits like police uniforms). In separate research
among young males and females, Derné (1999: 559) and Banaji (2006) reported
that jeans were counted among the types of provocative clothing that heroines only
wore to ‘please’ the film hero. As recently as 2002, a ban on jeans among young
women in Delhi universities exemplified an embattled institutional morality even
as cable television was offering more and more models of the new femininity in
the form of jeans-wearing by MTV India VJs (Cullity 2002: 421). In addition, until
recently the threat of reprisals for female autonomy in occupation, behaviour and
dress were rarely far from the surface in Hindi films, and emerged straightforwardly
in B.R. Chopra’s Insaaf ke Tarazu (1980). In this loose remake of the American film
Lipstick, Zeenat Aman plays a model who must deal with the consequences when
her rapist is found innocent of the crime. Casting Aman as a model allowed the film
makers to make her non-conformist wardrobe central to her identity and in effect
a party to her assault; in the rape scene, her clothes, including a pair of jeans, are
metonymically disarrayed and discarded by her attacker.
The sheer increase in jeans-wearing among the middle classes in metropoles in
the last five years alone surely contradict any notion that women find jeans on screen
to be on the same level as attractive but ‘unwearable’ costumes like the revealing
outfits typically worn in song and dance ‘item numbers’. On the contrary, jeans now
appear to be colonizing domains previously dominated by the salwar-kameez as the
habitual dress of the youthful, fashionable, yet still socially respectable ‘college girl’.
This is made obvious in Madhur Bhandarkur’s recent film Fashion (2008), about
sex, betrayal, and venality in the contemporary Indian high fashion world. Having
suffered some accumulated indignities from being a top model, Priyanka Chopra,
as the heroine, makes a recovery in her modest home in Chandigarh, where she
wears jeans as the outfit of the demure, contrite beti (daughter). Thus, contemporary
jeans on film actresses are simultaneously body-hugging items that communicate
autonomy and desirability, at the same time as they speak of pliant youth and wholesomeness, allowing for a certain multivocality in the depiction of screen heroines.
Bollywood Sells: Brands, Desire and Film
The normativity of jeans on female stars represents a significant adjustment in the
status of denim as film costume. However, it is on male stars that the potential of
jeans to communicate assertiveness and sexuality is most developed, in arguably
proportional terms to the degree that women’s jeans have been ‘domesticated’.
Meticulously choreographed and beautifully mounted film song sequences are prime
‘advertising’ space for clothing commodities, where the perfected body and costume
combine in motion. As the opening song for Sanjay Gadhvi’s 2006 film Dhoom
2 unfolds, the viewer is treated to full-length shots of Hrithik Roshan, a star well
56 • Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber
known for his dancing, undulating in a pair of ripped jeans. In an even more striking
example, the lengthy sequence ‘Dard e Disco’ (‘Disco Fever’), from Farah Khan’s
Om Shanti Om (2007) features Shah Rukh Khan in no fewer than four changes of
jeans (culminating in the curious – but critical from a plot point of view – choice of a
refinery worker’s carpenter jeans and a hard hat). Earlier in the song, Khan emerges
from a pool of water wearing nothing but a pair of D&G jeans (in a scenario not unlike Ursula Andress walking out of the sea in Dr No).4 The intent is for the viewer to
admire Khan’s toned physique (whose acquisition is tirelessly described in promotional material for the film) in the same way that the female star is made the object of
gaze in conventional ‘item numbers’.
Such unapologetic display of the body unclothed but for a pair of jeans continues
into two current advertising campaigns that employ male film stars. In both cases, it
is noteworthy that the copy emphasizes the highly personal nature of denim clothing
(see Miller and Woodward this volume) to assure the viewer of the authenticity
of their testimonials. Wrangler’s recruitment of star John Abraham was part of its
‘brand overhaul’ to accentuate its appeal to urban youth (Kannan 2007). Abraham
models Wrangler jeans in a series of electronic and print advertisements where he
essays a languorous sensuality, reclining in an outdoor bathtub, riding a motorbike,
stretched out shirtless in his jeans on a beach, or even posing as a pool boy. In a
steamier video, he tangles with the less well-known actress Jiah Khan in her own
Wrangler denims, ending up in the same bathtub only this time apparently naked
(with the jeans discarded on a nearby tree branch).5
Akshay Kumar meanwhile was paid around $1.5 million (£900,000) to take part
in an extensive campaign for Levi’s jeans (Joshi 2008). Its provocative signal image
could be seen in late 2008 over the Levi’s store in Bandra (a suburb of Bombay,
home to several movie stars as well as a favourite shopping area) wherein Kumar
engages the viewer with a knowing smirk while a woman reaches around to unbutton his jeans.
The campaign as a whole relentlessly alludes to Kumar’s screen image of assertive sexuality, but the ads nevertheless constitute a fairly complex sexual portrayal
wherein Kumar is as important for making himself available for seduction as seducing. His appearance, in other words, is enough to incite women to ‘unbutton’ him,
a sign not just of his own carefree attitude to these sexual overtures but an entirely
new message about the acceptable limits of female sexual expression The campaign
included Indian and non-Indian female models, some better known than others, but
most partially concealed by the Kumar body displayed primarily for the imagined
viewer, starting to attend to the fly buttons that are the distinctive design hallmark
For all the pleasures these song sequences and advertisements presumably provide
for female viewers, and the vicarious experience of feeling desirable that they extend
to heterosexual males, these are not just occasions for the celebration of straight
desires (Kavi 2000: 309). Indeed, Gopinath (2000: 285) argues that song sequences
Screening Jeans in Bollywood • 57
IMAGE AVAILABLE IN HARD COPY
58 • Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber
– and the more extended performances that the Wrangler and Levi’s campaigns
include – are ‘place(s) of fantasy that cannot be contained or accounted for in the rest
of the narrative’ in which ‘queer desire emerges’ (Gopinath 2000: 285), suggesting
that the ‘outrageous eroticism’ of denim first explored by gay men in the US in the
1970s and 1980s (Rabine and Kaiser 2006: 244) has now travelled without much
interference into new cultural contexts. Nevertheless, the subversiveness of new
forms of heterosexual desire remain the most likely to provoke ‘pushback’. To revert
to the example of Akshay Kumar’s Levi’s campaign, there is a statement attributed
to him that explains the appeal of the campaign’s signature theme: ‘The word unbuttoned appealed to me. Unbuttoning is not an act but an attitude.’ He is also said to
‘have told the brand manager that not just the physical aspect of unbuttoning but the
entire campaign could be woven around the slogan live life unbuttoned or liberate
yourself. The concept is about freedom.’ Such an unbridled expression of rebellious
autonomy went largely without comment in a jaded city like Bombay until the 2009
Lakme Fashion Show, when Kumar invited his own wife, Twinkle Khanna, to do the
unbuttoning honours. All at once, one Anil P. Nayar filed suit against Mr Kumar for
‘indecent display in public’, an ironic accusation in light of the fact that this was the
first time he was being openly unbuttoned by a woman with a legitimate claim to do
so (BBC 2009). Evidently the emancipatory and erotic associations of the campaign
(and by extension of jeans) are at odds with moral stances that, while ridiculed by
many in the middle and upper classes, still exert influence over Indian public culture. Given the fairly explicit link between the structure of Levi’s jeans and their
presumed erotic function that is part of the campaign itself, the lawsuit (unresolved
at the time of writing), no matter its implications for Mr Kumar, only strengthens the
message about the sexual connotations of jeans, particularly when they enclose (and
threaten to expose) the fetishized body of a celebrity.
Emulation and Creation: Jeans In and Out of Film
In her introduction to a seminal volume on the feminist reading of film costume,
Jane Gaines (1990: 17) writes that the fashion ‘tie-up’ in Hollywood costuming
(or the translation of film costumes into ‘cinema styles’ offered for sale in retail
establishments) ‘prefigures the postmodern symptom of image-reality collusion: the
real dress becomes the counterfeit to the movie fictional original.’ Gaines is entirely
correct to point to the complex relation of the ‘real’ copy with the ‘authentic’ image
but she omits an earlier sleight of hand by which even yet another original may be
co-opted to ‘play’ a part as a costume during the film’s shooting. The pre-shooting
life of costume opens up a new critical dimension on the ‘ecology’ of filmmaking,
for ever since ready to wear clothing has been available in either the West or, more
recently India, it has replaced at least in part the making of costume from raw materials. The clothing and textile elements that go into the creation of a costume are
Screening Jeans in Bollywood • 59
f actors of production, subject to both aesthetic and practical considerations – whether it is obtainable, whether it fits, whether it furthers the commercial and rhetorical
goals of interests besides those of designer and director (for example, the actor, the
advertising company, the fashion house, the brand). What one can buy for a film
constrains what one can film, just as what one can buy after seeing a film constrains
the extension of identity into realms that film defines. In other words, costumes are
not simply the tangible outcome of a designer’s imagination, but of material practices that implicate a far greater range of social actors.
What the affluent Bombay shopper can buy is the same as what the assistant
costume designer or assistant director responsible for costume sees when they go
‘shopping’ for a film. The difference is that only one is shopping for him or herself;
the other is consuming on behalf of actors whose look they must imagine in an
entirely different way. From the lean times of the early 1990s, denim is now easy
to find in India’s metropoles. In Bombay the affluent have the luxury of the greatest
choice in department stores like Shopper’s Stop, where they can find entire floors
filled with denim jeans, shirts and jackets. In the Bandra branch in 2008, jeans were
stocked on two floors: ‘Fashion wear’ and ‘Denims wear.’ Significantly, men’s and
women’s clothes were displayed together by label, deviating from the usual pattern
in Indian wear of segregating apparel by gender. The ‘Fashion wear’ floor included
international labels in men’s and women’s jeans like Guess, Esprit, Benetton, Calvin
Klein and Gas. All the models in the advertisements that ringed the space – both
male and female – were white, except for the inevitable Akshay Kumar, whose same
Levi’s ad as an almost lifesize cut-out graced the top of the staircase. Ambient music
included classic rock standbys from Dire Straits and Jefferson Airplane, underscoring the American connotations that still appeared to cling to denim.
The ‘Denims wear’ floor displayed Indian brands including Provogue, AND (the
brand belonging to designer Anita Dongre), Remanika, Vibe, and Kraus. The foreign
brands on this floor were stalwarts like Wrangler, Pepe, Levi’s and Lee. On the same
floor was non-denim sportswear from Puma, Adidas, and Nike. On the walls this
time were several more photos of Indian stars like the actress Esha Deol endorsing
Provogue, but the models photographed in the foreign brands section were again
overwhelmingly white. The taste for non-Indian models is apparent in magazine
and newspaper advertising as well, suggesting that the associations of exoticism and
superior value continue to be attached to non-Indian bodies, even as a new, young
generation of attractive ‘Bollywood’ stars makes itself available for advertising.
Prices for jeans varied widely and showed the cachet of designer products. Thus
Indian jeans in ‘denim’s wear’ began at around Rs 8506 and climbed to around Rs
1,600, whereas Wranglers, Levi’s and Lee began at around Rs 1,800 and went as
high as Rs 3,000. At the very top of the order were Calvin Kleins, which began at
Rs 3,500 and went upwards from there. Glancing at the labels inside the foreign
brand jeans showed they were generally imported from manufacturing centres in
60 • Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber
IMAGE AVAILABLE IN HARD COPY
Boutiques and brand outlets for denim also punctuate the Mumbai landscape. A
stretch of the Linking Road in suburban Bandra is a popular shopping district that
sprouts shop fronts for Pepe Jeans, Wrangler, and Levi’s. In smaller markets like
Lokhandwala, another suburb of Mumbai and a favoured shopping area for middleclass consumers and film sourcers, small shops teem with shelves of sharply folded
denim jeans, and salesmen pull them out and toss them on the counter one after
another after in the familiar way of small retailers.
These jeans all averaged from around Rs 700 to 1,200. In these shops one finds
Asian imports, Indian-made jeans and, above all, fakes, like a pair of Diesel jeans
that I was told, in straightforward and only mildly apologetic tones, were knock-offs.
The jeans were not a particularly good fake, with poor quality stitching and the
product labels sewn in at what one can only call a ‘jaunty’ angle. Their cost was Rs
1,200 – obviously cheaper than real Diesel jeans (which retail for around $250 on
average in the US) although I cannot tell whether this was a good price for a fake.
Far cheaper jeans come from street markets where prices drop to around Rs 200.
Despite the remarkable growth of the clothing market in Bombay, it is not regarded by designers and stylists for the biggest Bollywood productions as the place
to buy clothes for leading characters and top stars. In this regard, Bombay is very
different from Los Angeles, which, although not a fashion ‘city’ on a par with New
York and Paris, is nevertheless its own fashion hub by virtue of the images of style it
produces, and as a centre of textile production (Rabine and Kaiser 2006). There are
also the carefully cultivated relationships in fashion and textile retail that facilitate
the complex reciprocities involved in giving clothes on a ‘trial’ basis with the option
Screening Jeans in Bollywood • 61
to return, granting permission to cart away multiple copies of single items, and so
on and so forth, without which the business of making costume would grind to a
halt. All these chains and connections necessitate vast numbers of cultural ‘brokers’
in the industry to mediate between production and shop front or fashion house, and
between designers, directors, actors and so forth. More recently, Los Angeles has
emerged as the key location for ‘premium’ jeans manufacture, where production sits
cheek by jowl with the star bodies on which the apparel appears.
In comparison, Mumbai has several failings. First, there are the limitations of
Mumbai as a commodity market. When costumes are bought for major characters,
or if the same costume is to be worn several times in the film, with variations in
wear or damage, then copies matching these states have to be obtained. In the North
American industry, the costume team can either pick up several copies of a garment,
or take it to a seamstress for copies to be made. In India, the first option is complicated by the fact that the stock of duplicates within a store is limited.7 Admittedly
a tailor can make duplicates but there may be insufficient fabric, or the actor may
insist upon ready-made – not stitched – copies (see Wilkinson-Weber 2010). I have
also been told that stitching is becoming a more expensive option and that readymades are likely to be cheaper, illustrating the impending crisis for film tailors if the
global sweatshop continues to undercut them.
The second problem is that Bombay does not have the full range of designer and
high-end label clothing that well-paid Bollywood stars have come to expect. Jeans
today are fast becoming the daily clothing of choice among stars, corresponding to
heightened awareness of and access to brand label jeans, as well as an upheaval in
dress codes that now favour an entirely new aesthetic in how stars present themselves in public (and in private as well). This is most striking in the case of male
stars, for whom jeans are now entirely appropriate attire in the most informal as well
as formal settings, taking to the extreme the potential of denim to allow the person to
both ‘dress up’ as well as ‘dress down’ (Woodward this volume).
The attachment of actors to certain kinds of clothing labels is formally incorporated into costuming practice in North America. When an actor signs a contract
for a picture, his or her measurements and brand preferences are immediately communicated to the costume designer. If demands are disproportionate to the actor’s
relative position in the acting ranks, then they are ignored. On the other hand, the
star with a sheaf of product endorsements brings not just a list of brand labels, but
the physical garments themselves as ‘free’ costumes. Several times I have heard
designers in North America mention jeans by name when they are discussing the
actors’ label preferences. The powerful can, and do, get almost whatever they want:
‘it gets to be $300 jeans. And all labels.’ They may even ask for jeans for their
friends who accompany them on set. Sometimes this is because actors blatantly
‘want to take home clothes at the end of the movie’ for their own personal wear after
the film is over, and jeans make for more adaptable, useful articles than excessive
or spectacular costumes. As a result, ‘the first thing an actor tells us is what type of
62 • Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber
jean he wears so he can take it home.’ No other item of clothing is mentioned as
frequently in this context, showing that jeans are uniquely positioned to span the
professional and the personal, the gap between character and actor, in part because
of their easy movement on and off set.
In India, stars who have long been accustomed to the personal attention of the
designer, or the personal service of tailors, now construct a personal association with
particular brand labels. Coming to a production with a list of brands may not yet be
common practice, but because stars favour having their own personal designer for
their film work, the designer is the one most likely to be entrusted with obtaining
their brand preferences. Jeans are mentioned more than any other item when an
actor’s likes and dislikes are discussed. One actor, I was told, ‘wears nothing but
Calvin Klein, he wouldn’t wear anything else. If I were to take Levi’s to him he
would throw it in my face, that he won’t wear it.’ In fact, ‘our actors are not used to
wearing Indian brands at all, if there is a tie-up with Indian brand, what do you do?
You need to use Diesel brands, you never descend that far.’ True, denim production
goes on in India – indeed, Arvind Mills, based in Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat
was at one time the third largest manufacturer in the world of denim cloth and finished jeans in the world (as well as the ‘ready-to-stitch’ Ruff-n-Tuff kit for rural
dwellers (Baghai et al. 1996: 47)). Many global labels are sold in India as franchised
products of Arvind (McCurry 1998). There are and have been several Indian brands
of jeans – Flying Machine is among the best known and oldest – and others have
sprung up in recent years. All these though are regarded as inferior to non-Indian
brands, even though they find endorsements from stars (for example, Provogue has
been endorsed for several years by actress Esha Deol).
In fact, so stubborn is the conviction among actors (and some directors and producers) that foreign is better that combing overseas markets for clothes sourcing
comes first in any big budget Hindi movie. Diesel, a favourite jean brand that is
globally well regarded, cannot currently be bought in India, for example (see Yan
2004): ‘For guys, they love Diesel, because it does look and fit very well. We work
with Diesel quite a lot’, said one designer. The speed of global commodity flows
notwithstanding, designers and actors view Bombay fashion as less ‘up-to-date’ than
European or American fashion. Top designers prefer sourcing from London or New
York, but if time is scarce, Dubai or Bangkok are the next locations of choice. To
quote another assistant designer: ‘For women, jeans we get from Bangkok, they are
probably copies but fabric is really good, they are stretch jeans, is good for all our
actresses. They are well made with a good fit. Bangkok is very nice, very street, very
SE Asian. All of the designers are there, DKNY, really cheaper, cheaper than Dubai.’
While the actor-as-star demands costumes that may merely masquerade as the
character’s clothes, as opposed to constituting them, it is important to note that
the character is not played by only one person. For example, there may be a stunt
double. It is highly unlikely that stunt doubles will wear costumes made to the same
standard, or of the same label as the star. Sometimes different materials have to
Screening Jeans in Bollywood • 63
be used to suit the rigours of the stunt, but more often it is not worth spending the
same amount of money on a stunt man or woman’s costume. The need for the stunt
double to match the star has been only loosely approximated in Hindi films in the
past, in part as a result of the exigencies of filming on tight or uncertain budgets,
as well as less stringent commitment to the codes of realism by which the various
manifestations of the character body should be seamlessly integrated. But in big
budget films that increasingly emphasize a ‘professionalized’ practice in which
costume is more carefully pre-planned, and the codes of realism are adhered to, a
more flawless integration of these ‘versions’ of the character is essential. Where the
designer and costumer used to go to the tailor for all duplicates, now they simply
buy items like t-shirts and shirts. The same is true of jeans. Designers do not always
feel confident that a tailor can perfectly render a product like jeans: ‘Sometimes you
make things, they don’t look good. When I pick up clothes, it does look natural. Like
a pair of jeans, if I make it’s not going to be as good as picking it up at a store.’ In
other words, the capacity of a local tailor is downgraded relative to (most likely) a
sweatshop worker. The same considerations are unlikely to deter the use of a tailor
to make a duplicate for a stunt actor, although I have no data to determine how often
this is done (using seamstresses to make duplicates of all kinds of clothing is freely
acknowledged by American costume producers). In both settings, it is the star who
insists on the label jeans with all of the ‘branding’ marks that confirm its provenience (labels, motifs, stitch pattern). In an inversion of the usual pattern in which the
personalized garment is more highly valued, stars – in their desire for a brand label
that differentiates a subset of manufactured jeans into an exclusive (although not
singular) category – get a standardized, mass-manufactured product, while the stunt
double who has a pair of jeans stitched gets a made-to-measure item.
Stitched duplicates are fakes of a kind, albeit fakes that have been integrated into
film costume practice for a very long time. If designers do turn either to fakes or
to cheap brands, this is not exclusive to stuntmen or junior artists. With the greater
availability of ready-made clothes it is not unheard of for stars to be ‘tricked’ (not
by designers, but by set workers like assistant directors and dressmen) into wearing
fakes instead of brand label clothes, and costumers may resort to all kinds of devious practices, even sewing in false labels to convince the actor that the garment is
authentic. These measures may be necessitated by either limited time or a limited
budget, but the evident glee with which ‘faking’ stories are told speaks to the antagonism that often exists, even if below the surface, between cast and crew, and pleasure
at severing the connection between star and brand that is otherwise axiomatic. In this
light, demanding an overseas provenance for their jeans – whether for personal use
or for wearing as a costume – may be the stars’ counter-strategy to the possibility of
accidentally wearing a fake. This kind of trickery depends not upon the craftiness
of a local tailor, but instead the simple fact that, as Miller and Woodward point out
(2007: 338) ‘jeans leap from $30 to $230 with little instantly discernable difference
in texture and style’.
64 • Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber
From the sporadic appearances of the early 1970s to the flood of images of the
present, denim has become a central signifier in popular Hindi film. Disrupting the
previous sartorial regimes in which men’s and women’s costume was sharply differentiated, jeans are worn today by both film heroes and heroines, and conform to
a range of expressions and characterizations from the demure to the openly erotic.
Jeans of almost all varieties – stone-washed, stretch, distressed – are by now familiar
components in the presentation of actor bodies (simultaneously as a character and
as a celebrity persona) as modern, desirable, free – ‘unbuttoned’ in the language of
Levi’s – and yet unashamedly Indian. In tandem with the broadening uses and meanings of denim in film costume is the sheer availability of jeans in the Indian marketplace, culminating in the past several years with the arrival of Western brand labels
in urban retail outlets. At the same time, jeans have become an essential part of the
actor’s off-screen wardrobe, where they strive for distinction from the mass of their
viewing fans by selecting expensive, foreign-bought brand labels. Overlaying for the
moment Woodward’s (this volume) differentiation of habitual versus non-habitual
clothing on to the categories of the actor’s personal versus their screen wardrobes,
it becomes apparent that denim plays a similar function in both systems. Only jeans
span the two categories on a recurring basis, blurring the lines between what is the
actor’s and what is the character’s clothing. And only jeans can extend out of the
intimate domain of the actor’s own clothing collection to claim a presence on the set.
If the actor insists upon brand label jeans, and is threatened by the use of a substitute,
it is because – as elsewhere – of the unique familiarity and comfort denim has to offer in comparison to other kinds of clothing.
Film costume is thus poised between the personal and the iconic; between the
demands of the label and the demands of the designer or the star (whose singularity
is simultaneously supported and subverted by the label); and between the massmanufactured brand and the devalued duplicate that is made to measure. Jeans on
film may dissimulate as well as simulate, since the high-priced brand is as likely to
take on the appearance of a common article as the opposite (in fact, it is more likely
to do so). On set, brands masquerade as the ordinary and ordinary jeans masquerade
as brands. Together they generate apparently stable, compelling images that elicit
corresponding consumption acts that themselves draw on a range of material alternatives to recreate the desired ‘look’. Through their consumption and acting practice,
designers, their assistants, and of course actors (from stars to junior artists) serve as
cultural brokers for the consuming audience, anticipating their consumption choices
even as they prepare to shape them. Just as their professional equivalents did for the
dissemination of the powerful image of denim via Hollywood, so they are doing in
a new setting, for a new, transnational audience. Unless, however, the viewer is an
affluent globetrotter (and only a very few are) the means to copy the star is removed
Screening Jeans in Bollywood • 65
by means of the star claiming unattainable forms of sartorial distinction, asserting
their position at the top of a starkly differentiated consumption hierarchy (Fernandes
Research for this chapter was funded by the American Institute of Indian Studies and
Washington State University Vancouver. I have benefited from comments on this
article by the editors. I am also grateful to friends and colleagues who have taken
photographs or otherwise reported back to me on sightings of denim in India. Finally
I thank Heather Lehman for her work on preparing the photographs that illustrate
1. Indirect evidence comes from analysis of the ubiquity of jeans in advertisements
and feature photographs in Filmfare magazine from 1969 to 1994. This research
confirms that depictions of denim dramatically increase from 1988 onwards.
2. For representative films in which these kinds of characters appear see, for example,
Guru, Maqbool, Lakhsya and Ta Ra Rum Pum.
3. The ‘dungarees’ defined and described in Hobson-Jobson (Yule 1903: 330–1) do
not appear to be related culturally to the appearance of denim since the 1960s in
India, whose visual and sartorial influence – if not necessarily manufacture and
fabric – come from outside the country.
4. The same allusion is also apparent in Daniel Craig’s emergence from the water
in Casino Royale, demonstrating the evident cross-cultural appeal of transposing
eroticized images of women on to male bodies.
5. Pitching for Macroman casual wear (an Indian brand), film star Hrithik Roshan
appears in promotional photographs modelling one of their singlets (vest).
However, the most striking part of the photograph is the tagline of the manufacturer
that appears to issue from the crotch of his distressed jeans. Whether this is
intentional or otherwise I am unable to tell since I have not found any more
adverts for this brand.
6. The exchange rate at the time was approximately 50 rupees to the dollar, and
about 77 rupees to the pound.
7. I have been told by designers in Vancouver, Canada that the US is without peer in
the sheer size of the stock one can find in department stores.
66 • Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber
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How Blue Jeans went Green: The Materiality
of an American Icon
Bodil Birkebæk Olesen
First they built the country’s infrastructure,
then they populated it with a collective identity
(Sullivan 2006: 6)
In his book from 2006, James Sullivan traces the history of jeans in America, or
what he terms ‘the American uniform’ (Sullivan 2006: 8), from their humble nineteenth-century work-wear origins to their present status as ‘the best-selling and most
volatile garment of them all’ (Sullivan 2006: 10). His comprehensive account, ranging from discussions of the origins of the name denim to its only recently terminated
recycled use in American dollar bills, from the ascension of ‘lifestyle brands’ like
Diesel and Lucky to their role in advertising, demonstrates the multitude of ways
in which ‘jeans have come to embody two centuries worth of the myths and ideals
of American culture’ (Sullivan 2006: 3). As his account makes clear, this particular
iconic relationship between a garment and a culture encompasses both the past and
the present, the symbolic and the material, imbuing any individual act of wearing
jeans with significance that transcends the act itself.
This relationship between jeans and American identity is a dynamic one that keeps
changing and expanding, and it is not restricted to the iconic repertoire described
by Sullivan. In this chapter I move beyond a predominantly semiotic perspective
by taking as my starting point the role of jeans in consolidating and transforming
American normative values, and more specifically their significance in transforming
such values as they include issues of ethical consumption and environmentalism. My
specific focus is on the so-called denim drives, organized by Cotton Incorporated
since 2006. In these drives American consumers are given the opportunity to donate
their old pairs of jeans, which are processed into eco-friendly insulation material and
used in charity projects. Discussing these campaigns in some detail, I place them in
a context of environmental concerns, a growing interest in ethical consumerism as
well as the increasing attention of corporations to improve and promote their public
image. I suggest that jeans constitute an ideal object of donation in these campaigns
– 69 –
70 • Bodil Birkebæk Olesen
because of their multivocality, and their well established role in materializing and
performing normative American values. I also trace the material transformation of
jeans into insulation material, more specifically the political and economic circumstances that influence the applications of such reclaimed fibre material. By doing so,
I show how the success of these campaigns also depend on the material properties
of the American uniform, and, ironically, on the popularity of the garment itself.
This account thus offers further insight into jeans’ significance in America while
also illustrating that in order to understand the contemporary dynamics of jeans
metamorphosis from blue to green we have to work with the entire range of its
properties, which include material propensities, social and economic contexts, and
symbolic and cosmological meanings of this material.
Symbolic Ubiquity and Material Omnipresence
As indicated by Sullivan in the epigraph that opens this chapter, one of the most
interesting aspects of the history of jeans in America is that while originally their
adoption rested in their use value, their continued popularity instead tied to their
sign value. It was the robustness, durability and availability at a low price that made
jeans the work wear of choice with nineteenth-century frontier miners and farmers, and this early adoption became articulated in advertisement as originality and
authenticity that continue to be important to the Levi’s as a brand. But while the
garment’s original, utilitarian status may be well suited for articulating an emerging
national identity, what is equally remarkable about jeans in America is the garment’s
ubiquity as a signifier in conjunction with the diversity of what it signifies (Davis
1989: 347–52; Rabine and Kaiser 2006: 236). The ‘basic building blocks of all hippie wardrobes’ (Melinkoff 1984: 163), an expression of gender equality for 1960s
American feminists, of ‘gang mode’ for hip-hoppers, the donning of the garment has
symbolized anti-establishment or alternative identity as often as it has symbolized
a national one. And the reference to the garment in virtually every American music
genre, in fiction, art, cinema and poetry – not to mention advertisement (Botterill
2007) and the growing body of quasi-academic and journalistic literature on jeans
(Finlayson 1990; Gilchrist and Manzotti 1992; Marsh and Trynka 2005; Snyder
2008) – has made jeans a signifier that is particularly good to think with in American
culture.1 This symbolic ubiquity is matched by the garment’s omnipresence in
American’s wardrobes. According to Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor research, Americans own an average of seven to eight pairs of jeans. In 2008, 37 per
cent reported that they have bought a pair of jeans last month and 35 per cent stated
that they planned to buy a pair next month.2 Moreover, Americans wear jeans four
days per week on average,3 and 75 per cent state that they love or enjoy wearing
denim. A slightly higher number of men and women (78 per cent) recently stated that
they ‘prefer to go places where I can wear jeans.’4
How Blue Jeans went Green • 71
From a sociological point of view what is equally fascinating, yet somewhat
less explored, about the ubiquity of jeans in American cultural and social life, is the
central role of jeans in the production and reproduction of a number of distinctively
American normative values that its omnipresence helps engender and maintain.
Here I am not simply referring to the way in which jeans constitute the ideal garment
for solving the conundrum of individualism and conformity in America (Spindler
and Spindler 1983: 64) (although a visit to any American college campus will confirm how this solution works for pretty much every American college student) but
rather to the existence and contents of an explicitly stated dress code. Not only do
Americans attach great importance to being correctly dressed in a number of different contexts, but the explicit reference to such a dress code – often, for example,
included in the official invitations to professional and academic conferences – works
to ensure that everyone can be properly dressed on socially significant occasions.
Remarkably, on informal social occasions such as weekend picnics with friends,
family, or even colleagues, despite the apparent lack of constrains regarding proper
attire, jeans seem to be not just what everybody wears but almost what everybody
should wear. While the inclination towards jeans on such informal occasions may
spring from the individual’s anxiety about ‘blending in’ or ‘dressing right’ on occasions that lack explicit rules, the donning of jeans also materialize the conceptual
distinction between work and leisure, as well as one’s adherence to the lifestyle and
moral values that the distinction entails in an American context. This role of jeans as
a marker of collective values is perhaps even clearer in another American practice:
a number of American workplaces allow a so-called causal dress day, most often
Fridays, on which employees can wear jeans at work. The seemingly ‘subversive’
nature of this dress practice, by being so tightly regulated, simultaneously acknowledges the legitimacy of a dress code and the necessity of social regulation, but also
articulates a particular relationship between work and leisure – and one’s voluntary
adherence to it – that the purpose of work, after all, is not the individual’s selfish
pursuit of material possessions, but rather the means to realize core collective values
in one’s leisure time.5
The connotations of work, leisure and the ultimately moral relationship between
them, as well as the central role of jeans as the materialization of one’s adherence
becomes even clearer when considering how this casual dress code has recently
been made an occasion for so-called community service. A growing number of
American workplaces engage in various schemes for which employees can wear
jeans on specified dates in exchange for a small donation to charity. To give a few
examples, since 2004 the employees at Sauk Valley Bank, a small bank in Illinois
with three branches and 171 million dollars assets, have participated in its Jeans for
Charity every Friday, donating two dollars to a pre-selected charity or organization.6
The Jeans Day Charity Initiative at accounting firm Deloitte & Touche’s Chicago
office allows its 2,500 employees to wear jeans on the last Friday of every month
when purchasing a five dollar sticker. The money collected is donated to a new
72 • Bodil Birkebæk Olesen
charity every month, chosen by the employees, a setup that, according to a spokesperson, ‘really helps create a sense of community’ and ‘give employees a voice’
within the corporation while simultaneously ‘creating connections to the Chicago
community’.7 Deloitte & Touche’s Jeans Day Charity Initiative was inspired by
the March of Dime’s Blue Jeans for Babies program. March of Dimes, a North
American health charity working to improve the health of babies, conducts this annual fundraising event in partnership with companies across the United States. Like
Deloitte’s programme, Blue Jeans for Babies affords employees the opportunity to
dress casually at work by purchasing a sticker, button or t-shirt to benefit the March
of Dimes. Since 1996, Lee, a leading American brand of jeans, has run the National
Lee Denim Day, on which it raises money for the Breast Cancer Charity. Under the
slogan that, ‘hope starts with your favorite jeans’ employees at any workplace can
register a team for the Denim Day, upon which they receive a free participation kit
intended to make the Denim Day a ‘fun and successful event’ and wear jeans to work
in exchange for a donation of five dollars.8 Jeans’ unique ability to materialize and
sustain normative values, however, is not restricted to the donning of the garment.
Below I shall describe a number of campaigns in which the individual donation of
the garment itself has become a new, innovative way of doing charity.
In 2005 Cotton Inc., the American cotton growers’ and exporters’ interest organization, launched their ‘Cotton’s Dirty Laundry Tour’. Part of a $27 million advertising
and promotion push it intended to sow loyalty among young consumers by positioning cotton as a versatile, easy-care option that is ideally suited for the demand
of young American college students.9 Organized as one-day campus events at ten
colleges across the country, and spiced up with music, fashion shows and games,
the tour provided basic information and activities about cotton garments and their
care to American youngsters who, as the organizers put it, ‘may be doing their own
laundry for the first time in their lives.’10
When this promotional push was repeated in 2006 it included an additional campaign under the trademark name of ‘Cotton. From Blue to Green.’ Also known as
the ‘denim drive’ the idea of the programme was simple: students were asked to
donate a pair of old jeans to the campaign and in return were given a five dollar
discount voucher that could be used when purchasing a new pair of jeans in local
participating stores. The more than 14,000 pairs of jeans collected in the campaign
were subsequently processed into Ultra Touch denim insulation, a so-called ecofriendly insulation material made of recycled cotton, primarily denim, and used by
the Baton Rouge branch of Habitat for Humanity, a Christian charity organization,
in the construction of 30 new homes designated for families that were displaced
by the Hurricane Katrina in 2005.11 Through this campaign, Cotton Inc., according
How Blue Jeans went Green • 73
to a press release, showed its commitment to the environment by ‘producing and
participating in . . . special projects that communicate the importance of minimizing
harm on the environmental footprint by being natural, sustainable, responsible and
renewable.’12 By creating this opportunity for college students to donate their jeans,
a representative explained, the denim drive showed students the benefits of a natural,
renewable fabric as well as how easy it is to do something for the environment and
contribute their own bit.
In 2008, the denim drive expanded to include retail partnerships. On 8 April
2008, veteran retailer National Jean Company and Earnest Sewn hosted a fashion
show in New York – admission requiring the donation of a pair of jeans at the entrance – to mark their Make an Earnest Difference five day charity denim drive in
National Jean Company’s New York stores, inviting jeans donations in return of
a 20 per cent discount on any new pair of jeans at National Jean Company. The
campaign culminated with in-store events at National Jean Company’s Long Island
and Manhattan locations – described as a ‘further incentive to drive in-store denim
donations and awareness of the Cotton. From Blue to Green denim drive initiative’
– on the following weekend where fashion experts and celebrities offered advice
and played judge for various fashion games for customers hoping to win a National
Jean Company gift card. The retailer partnership also included Guess by Marciano,
who throughout April 2008 gave a 10 per cent discount towards the purchase of new
jeans to all customers donating a piece of old denim at any of the store locations.
Guess by Marciano’s participation in the denim drive, according to vice-president
David Chiovetti, ‘symbolizes our commitment to the people and groups we interact
with . . . it illustrates the Guess by Marciano brand’s true DNA as being more than
just about fashion.’13
In 2005, prior to the denim drive, a somewhat similar campaign was run by the
Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation, the philanthropic foundation of Polo Ralph Lauren
Corporation, a leading design, marketing and distribution corporation of apparel,
including the well-known brand Polo jeans, home accessories, accessories and fragrances. Under the umbrella of the foundation’s G.I.V.E. (Get. Involved. Volunteer.
Exceed) programme, which provides employees with volunteering opportunities,
the foundation launched its G.I.V.E. Your Jeans a New Home initiative to collect
denim from employees, college students and from celebrities and musicians. While
the campaign’s campus events offered Polo Jeans at a discounted price to students
who donated their used jeans, campaign organizer Maria Tilley explained, a major
concern of the drive was ‘trying to get the message (of volunteering) out to students
and the community . . . to inspire and encourage community service through volunteerism.’ Whether or not Tilley considered donation itself an act of volunteerism
(and some students apparently volunteered quite a lot, donating four pairs of jeans at
a time), many students seemed to have been encouraged to volunteer because, as one
student put it, ‘60 dollars is a pretty good deal for jeans.’14 The campaign collected
more than 19,000 pairs of jeans, which were processed into Ultra Touch insulation. A
74 • Bodil Birkebæk Olesen
team of Polo volunteers, including Senior Vice President of Advertising, Marketing
and Communications David Lauren, helped install the insulation in a nineteenthcentury building in the South Bronx, which it sponsored in partnership with Habitat
for Humanity New York City and Bonded Logic, a partnership that gave much pride
to Ralph Lauren, according to David Lauren in a press release prior to the installment, as ‘this effort is consistent with the Company’s commitment to volunteerism
and to contributing in a meaningful way to underserved communities.’15
In March 2002, prior to its G.I.V.E. your Jeans a New Home Campaign, Polo
Jeans had run its ‘Red, White & New’ campaign, in which college students at twenty
US campuses could exchange an old pair of jeans for a discount on a new pair of
Polo Jeans from Macys.com. The donated jeans were given to Swift Denim for
recycling, and the profits donated, via the Lauren Foundation, to the American Red
Cross Disaster Relief Fund, the September 11th Fund, the Twin Towers Fund, and
the American Heroes Scholarship fund.16 According to Senior Vice President of
Corporate Management Ross Klein, ‘“Red, White & New” is our way of thanking
our college consumer and at the same time give something back to the community.
The interactive element allows the individual students to make a contribution and be
rewarded for their charitable act.’17
Charity, Strategic Philanthropy and Cause-related Marketing
As already mentioned, there is a strong moral undercurrent to American individualism and to the understanding of work and leisure that it entails. And while, as I described above, this implies that work really is a means to an end, so leisure activities
often include charitable elements. Church activities of various kinds, ranging from
bake sales, volunteering in soup kitchens, are among the more obvious examples,
but such activities also include sports events and activities such as bike races and
runs, in which part of the entry or participation fee is donated to various charities
(Myerhoff and Mongulla 1986). While certainly related to such charity, philanthropy
has also played a comparatively large role in the US in the twentieth century due to
the generous tax relief granted to corporate philanthropy (Bremner 1988; Friedman
and McGarvie 2003). A number of scholars have pointed to significant changes in
corporate approaches to philanthropy and marketing since the 1990s (McMurria
2008; Stole 2008). As corporations have realized the potential benefits of making
philanthropy part of their marketing efforts, a growing number of businesses now
try to integrate a social cause or issue into a brand’s personality or identity as a way
of accommodating to the desires of consumers to be generous and civic-minded
citizens, although in a way that is profitable for the corporations (King 2001: 116).
One of the fastest growing trends within such strategic philanthropy, as it has been
termed, is cause marketing or cause-related marketing, a type of marketing involving the cooperative efforts of a for-profit business and a non-profit organization for
How Blue Jeans went Green • 75
mutual benefit. A well-known and early example of such cause-related marketing is
American Express’ campaign to help restore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in
1983. The credit card company promised to donate 1 cent for every card transaction
and $1 for every new card issued during the last three months of 1983 to the cause,
and collected $1.7 for the restoration. While the monuments benefited, the effort also
gained enormous publicity, and following the campaign the company experienced a
28 per cent increase in the use of its credit cards (Stole 2008: 26).
In these pursuits of strategic philanthropy, the general trend has been for companies to use a narrow focus or theme to both maximize the impact of giving and
to align contributions with the company’s business goals and brand characteristics
(King 2001: 122). Such themes are often chosen for their broad appeal and uncontroversial nature, and they are often based on consumer research, in order to align
companies to causes that will make them look as good as possible in their consumers’ eyes, while avoiding any potential for looking bad through this alignment. From
a branding perspective, however, a corporate alignment with an ideal cause may
potentially turn out to be counterproductive to the establishment and consolidation of the brand itself. For example, several companies have used the term ‘dream
cause’ about breast cancer as a subject of cause-related marketing. The cause has
broad appeal: breast-cancer does not seem to have socio-economic factors that could
potentially entail discussions of race and class; it is easy to work with the Susan
G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation as a partner, and the pink ribbon has already
‘branded’ breast cancer. However, the growing number of corporations that have
chosen to align themselves with breast cancer and research also face the problem of
differentiating themselves and their brands from all those others who target the same
cause (King 2001: 129).
Cotton Inc.’s alignment with environmental concerns may at first seem to entail the kind of problems described above. Environmental concerns currently have
unusually broad appeal but a large number of corporations have already aligned
themselves with environmental issues (including Wal-Mart’s Acres for America
programme and General Motors’ partnership with the Nature Conservancy) As the
number increases, and an institution’s or corporations’ demonstrated effort to minimize their environmental impact is to be expected as part of good business conduct,
the expectations of a corporate commitment to improving the health of the planet
may in itself be insufficient basis for brand differentiation. In this light, Cotton Inc.’s
denim drive may not so much be a dream cause as a dream medium for a great
cause, with the additional benefit of simultaneously branding one’s product as a
great product. The collection of used jeans rather than money, and the donation of
these jeans to a good cause, not only allows Cotton Inc. to demonstrate its concern
for environmental and social issues, but also to position the product it promotes as
‘natural’ and therefore ‘good for the environment’ at the same time.18 While the
relatively innovative interactive component of jeans donation may contribute to
establishing the brand, it also dramatizes the notion of charity to the consumer by
76 • Bodil Birkebæk Olesen
facilitating an embodied experience of being an ethical consumer by literally ‘doing
something for the environment’ in the sense of bringing a pair of jeans and handing them over on location. Moreover, this compassionate act of environmentalism
requires minimal effort and sacrifice as it takes place in a context of music and game
events on college campuses or in clothes stores, and the sacrifice of giving up an old
pair of jeans is instantly rewarded with the opportunity to replace them with a brand
new pair – at a bargain price.
I would argue that an equally significant element of the drives’ efficacy is the
multivocality of the meaning of jeans themselves, as well as their ability to index
normative value. The ubiquitous evocations of jeans in films, advertisements, music,
and fiction simultaneously provides a repertoire of symbolic meaning to draw upon
in a dynamic way, allowing them to resonate broadly with, and simultaneously unify,
issues of personal identity, patriotism and charity/good moral conduct. And their
material presence, and the lived experience of belonging that wearing them facilitates, amplifies the experience of personal compassion and engagement that arises
from giving them away in the denim drives. In other words, while they are the ideal
garment for these campaigns because everyone has a pair to donate, their centrality
in normative rallying serves to amplify the idea that participating in these campaigns
is important, good, and productive. The multivocality of the American uniform and
its normative significance thus continue to inform the practices involving jeans even
as they become objects of exchange.19
From the Sociology of Clothing to the Engineering of Fibrous
However, this act of exchange also entails a transition for jeans from a garment to
a generic material. In the following, I describe the qualities of jeans that are central
to their utility as an insulation material. The main constituent of cotton and other
vegetable fibres is cellulose, a polymer, or macromolecule. It is the particular arrangement of these polymers into long chains in a fibre that determines its chemical,
physical and mechanical properties such as strength, elongation and absorbance
(Collier and Tortora 2000: 34). When a garment ceases to have use value for a consumer and is discarded, and when garment production generates large quantities of
trimmings and clippings with no utility for production, which are thus classified as
waste, from an engineering point of view such discarded items remain fibrous materials and therefore have potential for further applications. Cost is often paramount
to these applications. Although the range of applications is limited by the fact that
the fibres have been used for clothing, they often constitute a cheaper material than
virgin cotton fibre and they are therefore valuable in cases where the novelty of the
fibre is not crucial.20
How Blue Jeans went Green • 77
The economic and material potential of pre-consumer waste, consisting of clippings and thread, is often unleashed by returning such waste to its original fibrous
state. The fabrics and thread are subjected to the action of disintegrating machines,
which pull the rags apart and break them up followed by a succession of garnet machines of increasing fineness whereby the threads that composed the original textile
are unravelled into their constituent fibres. This process compromises the mechanical properties of the fibre, making it better suited for applications exploiting a variety
of cotton fibres’ other properties including stuffing in mattresses and pillows, carpet
underlay, and floor padding. For many of these applications the reclaimed fibre is
processed further into so-called nonwovens, which are sheets, webs or bats of fibres
that are bonded to each other by adding an adhesive such as resin, fusing the fibres
thermally or chemically, or by stitching them.21
In addition to the properties of the particular fibre and the technological possibilities for tailoring them to particular ends, possible applications are equally subject
to social values, supply and demand, and national and international legislation. The
use of reclaimed cotton fibre in various applications, for example, has changed continuously since the mid-1970s due to various political and economic factors. Cotton
fibre was a common content in carpet underlay and door panels in the automotive
industry until the early 1970s when it was replaced by synthetic fibre in an attempt to
reduce the weight of vehicles, thereby making them more fuel-efficient. However, as
the cost of landfill and the concern with environmental implications (and recycling)
are rising, so are concerns to find biodegradable and recycled solutions in the automotive industry. The sound-absorbing properties of carpet underlay is important:
noise inside passenger compartments can be reduced by attaching sound-absorbing
materials to various components such as floor-coverings, package trays, door panels,
headliners and trunk liners. One recent development has been the research into floor
coverings using natural fibre nonwovens, among them waste cotton, whose acoustical absorption properties are at par with existing products but that are bio-degradable
and therefore more environmentally benign (Parikh, Chen and Sun 2006).
Ultra Touch Insulation
This interconnectedness of fibre properties and political economic factors in determining the potential applications of reclaimed cotton fibre is important when
considering the Ultra Touch insulation material made out of jeans collected in the
denim drives. Manufactured by Bonded Logic in Chandler, Arizona, Ultra Touch
is a non-woven insulation material made with 85 per cent reclaimed cotton, mainly
from denim waste from the Mexican blue jeans industry. It is described as an ecofriendly insulation material that is free of the carcinogens and formaldehyde found
in conventional fibreglass insulation. The reclaimed cotton fibre, processed by an
independent American garnetter prior to its manufacture at Bonded Logic, is subject
78 • Bodil Birkebæk Olesen
to a treatment process that treats each fibre with a fireproofing solution. The material
is then mixed with polyolefin fibres, which, when the mixture is heated, melts and
bonds it together as a bat. It is then extruded for the engineered density and thickness
prescribed by the so-called R-value, a measurement expressing its insulation properties as its ability to resist heat flow, as the recommended insulation properties vary
for walls, ceilings and floors.22
While Ultra Touch has the same thermal qualities as conventional insulation material, as well as superior acoustical qualities, it is 30 to 50 per cent more expensive
than such conventional materials. As in the case with cotton insulation for automobiles, it is growing environmental concerns that ensure a market for Ultra Touch,
including a growing segment of consumers who have a desire to build homes using
materials that in various ways put fewer strains on the environment, as well as some
with a concern for the state of the indoor climate in their home: the formaldehyde
and other toxic elements in conventional fibreglass insulation are believed to trigger
asthma and allergies and, although such rumours remain unconfirmed, it is believed
that in-house research carried out by insulation manufacturers confirming this has
been kept from the public.
Such concerns are also embraced by a growing number of institutions, and while
they may be equally informed by concerns over their public image or the need to
put in good business conduct, it is now common practice among organizations and
institutions to highlight the eco-friendly materials of buildings whenever and wherever possible. To give but a few examples, Hackensack University Medical Center
made sure that it included, in its press release announcing the construction of its new
Women’s and Children pavilion, that it was made with blue jeans insulation.23 A
growing number of American colleges are now using their environmental awareness
as a way of attracting incoming students and, in 2005, Lewis and Clark College
– a private liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon – used Ultra Touch insulation,
among a number of other eco-friendly building materials, for its new social science
building as did University of Texas School of Nursing and Student Community
Center.24 Likewise, the Organic Valley headquarters in Wisconsin and the recently
built William and Flora Hewlett Foundation headquarters in California were both
insulated with Ultra Touch, the eco-friendliness of the buildings and materials a
major emphasis in the concomitant press releases.25
As mentioned earlier, it is the trapping of air within the material that gives it its
insulating qualities. A crucial property of the fibre for doing this is the length and the
fineness of the fibre, as it is the interconnected loops and curls that will trap the air.
This prerequisite favours the use of denim and other fabrics with a relatively small
number of rather tightly twisted fibres in their yarns. Extracting the fibres of such
coarser and less twisted yarns is also less costly than is the case with yarns with more
and finer fibres in their cross-section. Another factor is the compressional resilience,
of loft, of the fibre – the ability of fibre assemblies to return to their original thickness after being flattened or compressed. The particular yarn and weave used for
How Blue Jeans went Green • 79
denim has a less compromising effect on the loft of the reclaimed fibre compared
to other weaves and yarns, and the ability to return to the thickness of the original
virgin fibre. Denim is not the only fabric containing fibres with these qualities. Wool
fibres, as well as fibres in a number of other cotton fabrics, can have similar qualities. But the worldwide production of wool is marginal compared to that of cotton,
making supplies of cotton waste larger and cheaper.26 Moreover, mixing fibres that
are reclaimed from different types of fabrics makes it difficult to control the properties of the insulation product, a fact that favours using only one type of fabric waste,
consequently favouring a fabric for which supplies are readily available in large
As it turns out, denim fits these criteria perfectly. Not only does the garment’s
popularity mean that a staggering number of jeans are produced annually but the
particular process for cutting the fabric for jeans also generates a lot of clippings:
denim is woven in long pieces and rolled into long rolls. Then identical shorter
pieces are cut and stacked and cut in the exact shape needed, producing a lot of
trim waste. On the other hand, the manufacture of other cotton garments such as
t-shirts generates much less trimming. Additionally, as garnetters try to source their
textile waste from nearby countries in order to minimize transportation costs, and
Bonded Logic sources all its fibre material from one single garnetter in the US,
again to reduce costs, there are also currently a large number of jeans manufacturers
in Mesoamerica, some of them producing more than 20,000 pairs of jeans a day.27
In other words, the successful self-alignment of environmental concerns and jeans
donation that is central to the denim drives may be informed by a variety of commercial and ethical concerns, but it is equally sustained by the material propensities
of the fibrous phenomenon in question. While the previously existing environmental
awareness has sustained a market for Ultra Touch and thereby provided a medium
for a highly successful campaign, the chemical, physical, and mechanical properties
of cotton fibre is what enabled the product in the first place. But, ironically, the
popularity of denim and the multivalence of its embodied meanings also ensure the
necessary quantities of pre-consumer denim waste that sustains the production of
In their manifesto for a study of denim (2007), Miller and Woodward suggest that
the ubiquity of denim – its global presence – is key to its anthropological significance and relevance for ethnographic investigation. While its global presence speaks
to the socio-economic forces shaping our contemporary world, the specificity and
plethora of its local appropriations allows us to probe, perhaps with more depth and
sophistication than would be provided by any other study of a single commodity,
the condition of global modernity. This chapter has shown that, as we move beyond
80 • Bodil Birkebæk Olesen
a narrow focus on representation or the scrutiny of a singular domain or genre in
which jeans are found to inquire into their dynamic relationship with everyday,
sartorial practices, we can begin to see an additional dimension of such ubiquity,
which is particularly significant for jeans in America. This significance, as Miller
and Woodward also contend, is not simply that people everywhere wear the same
garment, but rather that within regional boundaries this ubiquity can become the
very medium through which specific values are created and sustained, contested and
circumvented. But what is worth highlighting here is perhaps the historical depth
and cultural breadth that is so unique to jeans in America, coupled with their moral
dimension and the manifold aspects of American-ness that wearing them entails.
There is, I believe, something unique, a unique capacity perhaps, to objects with a
very long and diverse cultural history and the significance, meanings, and value they
can create and sustain. Not only do almost all Americans wear jeans – this ubiquity
has considerable time depth, since they have worn them pretty much since the birth
of their country as a nation-state. And as my introductory quote by Sullivan suggests, this capacity is rooted in the fact that the garment is worn – that it is a material
entity. It was worn because it was durable and comfortable, then it was worn because
it once was worn by people who appreciated its durability and comfort, or because
James Dean wore it, or because so many people wear it that it makes you feel ‘safe’
and comfortable. And, as described earlier, the ubiquity of references to jeans in
America – in songs, in movies, fiction, ads, poetry, the arts – as well as their ubiquity
in particular social contexts – on campuses, at Sunday picnics, on Fridays in workplace charity events – has made jeans in America particular sedentary objects. That
is to say they are simply there, ready and present, for actors to draw upon in their
own expressive practices. As I have suggested, one implication of this sedentary
nature of jeans is that the normative values that are expressed through jeans in so
many contexts give it a unique mobilizing capacity for new projects that relate to
core American values. Values that figures such as Al Gore (2006) are working hard
to ensure will increasingly include environmental concerns.
In the case of the jeans-donation campaigns that I have described here, the concern with charity – containing varying elements of patriotism, victims of natural
disasters or poverty, doing good for environment, and concerns with the practices of
large corporations – the attempt to resonate or link up with values and ideals that are
central to American culture, and that such charity takes place through jeans is in no
way a coincidence. If one is trying to make charity appear as natural and ubiquitous
as a practice then it makes for a ready link to jeans. Having stressed the materiality
of jeans as key to their efficacy throughout this chapter, emphasizing their status as
a piece of material culture (Küchler and Miller 2005) and following this through by
focusing also on the trajectory of the garment once it is no longer worn, it is perhaps
only adequate to conclude that even when transformed to a fibrous insulation material, the iconicity of the American uniform continues to impinge on the material and
shape its agency.
How Blue Jeans went Green • 81
1. On the ubiquity of jeans in American music, see http://www.cottoninc.com/
lsmarticles/?articleID=168 (accessed 7 June 2010).
2. Denim Jeans – the US Wardrobe Stable. Cotton Inc. supply chains insight
brief, November 2008 http://www.cottoninc.com/SupplyChainInsights/
pdf?CFID=13608758& CFTOKEN=98847703 (accessed 7 June 2010).
3. Cotton Inc. Lifestyle Monitor Trend Magazines Denim Issue Summer/Fall
(accessed 7 June 2010).
4. Denim Jeans – the US Wardrobe Stable. Cotton Inc. supply chains insight
brief, November 2008 http://www.cottoninc.com/SupplyChainInsights/
pdf?CFID=13608758&CFTO KEN= 98847703 (accessed 7 June 2010).
5. Whether questioning the historical origins of individualism in America (Shain
1994), criticizing the tendency to homogenize such individualism (Kusserow
1999), or depicting how it informs social practice (Bellah, Madsen et al. 1985;
Gable and Handler 2006; Varenne 1977 ) a number of scholars nevertheless
argue that although individualism is a dominant value in America – and one that
is often considered an antithesis to collective values or aspirations – such individualism is subject to normative values about the good life, i.e. it is seen as the
means for working hard for the benefit of one’s family and one’s community.
6. See http://www.saukvalleybank.com/Jeans%20For%20Charity20-%20August.
htm (accessed 25 March 2008).
7. See http://www.winningworkplaces.org/library/features/blue_jeans_day.php
(accessed 7 June 2010).
8. See www.denimday.com (accessed 7 June 2010).
9. See http://promomagazine.com/news/cotton_tour_091505/index.html (accessed 7 June 2010).
10. See http://www.accesscotton.com/ (accessed 7 June 2010).
11. See http://promomagazine.com/news/cotton_tour_091505/index.html (accessed 7 June 2010).
12. See www.cottoninc.com/PressReleases/?articleID=460 (accessed 7 June 2010).
13. See http://www.cottoninc.com/PressReleases/?articleID=461 (accessed 7 June
14. See http://www.dailyfreepress.com/news/used-jean-sale-helps-insulatehomes-1.926892 (accessed 7 June 2010).
15. See http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EIN/is_2006_May_26/ai_
n26878043 (accessed 7 June 2010).
16. See http://www.fashionwiredaily.com/first_word/media/article.weml?id=614
(accessed 7 June 2010).
82 • Bodil Birkebæk Olesen
17. See http://media.www.centralfloridafuture.com/media/storage/paper174/
Of.A.New.Pair-224062.shtml (accessed 7 June 2010).
18. According to a press release by Cotton Inc., a factor behind the ‘Cotton. From
Blue to Green’ campaign was extensive in-house research showing that many
consumers wished to ‘do something for the environment’ but were unsure regarding how and what to do. In addition to the denim drive, the press release
explained, the organization had also worked hard to brand its well known (recognized by 85 per cent of Americans) Seal of Cotton logo as a ‘natural’ product
that therefore is renewable and good for the environment (www.cottoninc.com/
PressReleases/?articleID=460, accessed 7 June 2010). See also Jacobson and
Smith (2001: 162–5).
19. The engagement of corporations and organizations whose vested interests in
the continued demand for the commodities they produce or promote has of
course been subject to critique (for example, Smith 1996; Smith 1998; Todd
2004). It is worth noting that in the ‘Cotton. From Blue to Green’ campaign
environmentalism is presented as entirely compatible with consumerism as the
eco-friendliness of consumers’ behaviour depends entirely on how they choose
to get rid of a single piece of castoff clothing. What is conveniently left out
of this articulation of environmentalism is the strains that consumption puts
on the environment in various forms – natural resources, pollution and postconsumer waste – and the 68 lbs of clothing that the average American consumer throws away every year (http://www.textilerecycle.org/facts.pdf, accessed
7 June 2010).
20. The best known use of castoff clothing is, of course, its use as second-hand
clothing and various scholars have already discussed the way in which such
castoff clothing constitutes a cheap alternative for a number of third world
countries (Hansen 2000; Norris 2005).
21. See http://www.inda.org/Glossary.pdf (accessed 7 June 2010).
22. R-value is measured in Kelvin square meters per watt.
23. The goal, the press release explained, is ‘to keep patients healthier’. The press
release emphasizes the institutions ‘holistic approach’ to health, mentioning
also that only non-toxic cleaners are used in the institution, that floors are rubber instead of laminate and that hand rails are made without PBC. http://www.
sciencedaily.com/videos/2006/0507-blue_jean_insulation.htm (accessed 7 June
24. See http://www.schoolconstructionnews.com/ME2/Audiences/dirmod.asp?sid=
bondedlogic.com/news.htm (accessed 28 April 2009).
How Blue Jeans went Green • 83
25. See http://www.homegreenhome.biz/, http://www.bondedlogic.com/ultratouchfeatures.htm (accessed 28 March 2008).
26. The world, annual wool and cotton production in 2007 was 2.1 million tons and
25 million tons, respectively http://www.naturalfibres2009.org/en/fibres/index.
html (accessed 7 June 2010).
27. Interview with American garnetter, 23 April 2008. In 2000, jeans manufacturing firms in the region surrounding the city of Torreon in northern Mexico
produced an average of more than four million pairs of jeans a week (Bair and
Gereffi 2001: 1889). Columbia, Honduras, and Nicaragua are also home to
Bair, J. and Gereffi, G. (2001), ‘Local Clusters in Global Chains: The Causes and
Consequences of Export Dynamism in Torreon’s Blue Jeans Industry’, World
Development, 29(11): 1885–903.
Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A. and Tipton, S. M. (1985),
Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, New York:
Harper & Row.
Botterill, J. (2007), ‘Cowboys, Outlaws and Artists: The Rhetoric of Authenticity
and Contemporary Jeans and Sneaker Advertisements’, Journal of Consumer
Culture, 7(1): 105–25.
Bremner, R.H. (1988), American Philanthropy, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Collier, B. J. and Tortora, P. G. (2000), Understanding Textiles, Upper Saddle River,
Davis, F. (1989), ‘Of Maid’s Uniforms and Blue Jeans: The Drama of Status
Ambivalences in Clothing and Fashion’, Qualitative Sociology, 12(4): 337–55.
Finlayson, I. (1990), Denim: an American Legend, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Friedman, L.J. and McGarvie, M.D. (eds) (2003), Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility
in American History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gable, E. and Handler, R. (2006), ‘Persons of Stature and the Passing Parade:
Egalitarian Dilemmas at Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg’, Museum
Anthropology, 29(1): 5–19.
Gilchrist, W. and R. Manzotti (1992), Cult: A Visual History of Jeanswear: American
Originals, Zug, Switzerland: Sportswear International.
Gore, A. (2006), An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global
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Hansen, K.T. (2000), Salaula: the World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia,
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The Limits of Jeans in Kannur, Kerala
Not Global Denim
Within the context of a study of global denim, South Asia is significant in representing perhaps the only remaining major region of the world where the wearing of jeans
remains relatively uncommon. No one place can stand for South Asia, but an advantage of Kannur, a town in northern Kerala, is that at least for that state, it represents
in the minds of its inhabitants, a clear position midway between the cosmopolitanism of the metropolis and the conservatism of the countryside. As such, many people
in Kannur view it as on the brink of further change that may well see the demise of
much that is local and traditional, replaced by the inevitable rise of more cosmopolitan influences represented by cultural forms such as jeans. However, as this chapter
will argue, there are grounds for thinking that such developments are not inevitable
and Kannur may remain poised at this brink for a considerable time to come. This
chapter is not primarily concerned with the spread of jeans wearing but with the rise
of a conservatism that constrains such wearing.
The relative scarcity of jeans wearing does not constitute a relation or reaction to
Americanization because jeans have no such association. When asked where jeans
originally came from, or which region of the world was most associated with jeans
today, only a very small number, mainly from the elite of the town, or with relatives
living in the West, made any link to the US. As far as the vast majority of people
were concerned, jeans are an Indian phenomenon. Many people suggested they
were developed as especially tough strong trousers for mining purposes. Most assumed this was within India, but if not then Germany was the favoured location, or
sometimes the UK, very rarely the US.
Kannur is first and foremost part of Kerala, and the news and debates that take
place are dominated by the state which also represents the region where Malayalam
is spoken. From Kerala the next horizon is south India, especially neighbouring
Tamil Nadu, whose more impoverished population is the source of current migration
to the state. Most people have very limited understanding of Hindi, the language
most associated with the Indian state, and state politics certainly comes second
– 87 –
88 • Daniel Miller
to local politics. There are many studies now concerned with the rise of a wider
cosmopolitanism or sense of Indianess such as Mazzerella (2003) in relation to commerce and advertising and by Favero (2005) in a study of young men in Delhi (see
also Wilkinson-Weber, this volume), and some have applied this to Kerala (Lukose
2005). But in Kannur, the dominant image of foreign lands is the Gulf, where many
of them have found work. Kerala is a comparatively well educated state and the
wider world is well known, even to those who have not worked abroad. There is a
global Diaspora and in certain areas, other than blue jeans – for example cricket and
football – there is considerable knowledge and interest in this wider world.
The town of Kannur, with a population of approx 63,000, is divided into approximately 50 per cent Hindu 35 per cent Muslim and 15 per cent Christian, though
sources differ. The population is dominated by the Tiyyar caste (the same as the
Izara, excellently documented by F. Osella and C. Osella 2000). The traditionally
dominant caste, in hierarchical terms, is the Nayar (Fuller 1976). Muslims and
Christians tended at least in the past to be just as associated with caste hierarchy
as Hindus. Historically the older city of Kannur was ruled by a Muslim raja, or
quite often a female Bibi, while the modern town was developed by the British as
an administrative district of the Madras Presidency, including an army cantonment,
railway station and large jail. All of this has been cross-cut by dramatic political and
economic transformations. Kerala has democratically elected a Communist government regularly although usually alternately with other parties since 1957. Kannur, as
all of Kerala, is festooned with the flags and wall frescos of the CPI(M) (Communist
Party of India, Marxist) whose influence extends to almost every local organization
from women’s groups to trade unions to village self-governing panchayats. This
domination by communism, with its emphasis on land redistribution and relative
equality, led to the development of the economic Kerala Model (Jeffrey 1992; Desai
2007) which produced a higher life expectancy than the US and better literacy rates
relative to most of India. It has, however, also created inefficient and moribund statesubsidized enterprises and bureaucracies. There also remain considerable problems
of unemployment and suicides amongst farmers (mainly low caste and tribal) faced
with mounting debt.
Ironically, the most important consequence of higher levels of education was that,
combined with its own Muslim traditions, it qualified Kannur workers for relatively
well paid work in the Gulf. In turn this money has fuelled a construction boom,
rising land prices and flourishing local capitalism and consumption, conspicuously
evident in the palatial nature of many of the houses built by these returned workers
(see Whilete 2008 for Kerala consumption more generally). The tension between
these new forces of modernity whether communist or capitalist and traditional social
and religious differences, has made Kannur the main site within Kerala for political
violence. Killings at a low, but regular, level occur between the cadres of the CPI(M)
and mainly the RSS or extreme wing of Hindu traditionalist parties.
The Limits of Jeans in Kannur, Kerala • 89
There are virtually no families where jeans do not have a presence or where they
are not contested for one reason or another. In contrast to most regions of the world
outside of South Asia, where adult jeans wearing stands today at close to 50 per cent,
in Kannur around 5 per cent of the adult population wears jeans when walking in the
town (based on my own counts) – made up of 10 per cent of the male adult population and 0 per cent of the adult female population. Male dress is dominated by the
classic casual ‘pants’ that are the clear result of tailoring being simple straight-sided
trousers, typically in a dull brown, worn with a short-sleeve shirt in white or beige.
There are just a few named categories of trousers: casual, cargo, jeans, tracksuit,
and, for length, Bermuda, short and three-quarter. The word ‘denim’ is unknown
except as a textile. Denim jeans may include colours other than blue, with black and
brown as the most common alternatives (my street statistics, however, are based
only on the more distinguishable blue jeans). Around 25 per cent of men still wear
a dhoti or lunghi, that is an unstitched cloth, when walking in the centre of town.
Women’s wear is divided: with 43 per cent wearing sari, 33 per cent churidah (the
local name for shalwar-kamiz), 21 per cent burkha and 3 per cent a veil/large headscarf that is more than an ordinary scarf but not a full burkha (as they are known in
the north). On festive occasions a much higher percentage of dhotis are worn by men
and saris by women. At home, women tend to wear a rather shapeless ‘maxi’ dress
over a petticoat.
The exception here is children’s wear, in which a combination of cargo pants
with jeans is the dominant style of clothing for young boys. This is a very florid
version of jeans, with any number of pockets, which can appear in any part of the
jeans. Many of the items, which tend to be sold in sets of matched top and pants, are
in bright colours and include elaborate embroidery work, or printed detail. Some
of those that look like jeans are not actually made of jeans material, but in general,
the kiddie jeans of Kannur take the jeans genre to new gaudy extremes. This is the
start of a very evident generalization which is that denim jeans are graded largely
according to age. Jeans for young children are the most elaborately decorated, but
young teenagers still show a tendency towards embroidered patterns that stands out
in reds and white especially around the back pocket. They may display additional
cargo pants-style pockets and every kind of fading and distressing. This gradually
becomes muted, until plain jeans with limited decoration around the back pocket
dominate at the university and post-college level. After this jeans themselves become
relatively scarce, until by the age of 35 to 40 they lose out almost entirely to plain
casual trousers either, the lower price stitched pants or the high-class ‘executive’ and
pleated forms, including chinos, that are found in most offices amongst the higher
paid. This executive wear is often a formal government or company dress code.
This correlation with age, as almost everything in this chapter, is a generalization
with exceptions. Even a baby might wear entirely plain jeans (as was found in one
90 • Daniel Miller
expensive and elite shop in the city of Kozikhode) and one can find older men still
wearing jeans. This age correlation, however, does seem warranted in the main.
At the earliest age, young girls’ dress includes jeans, such as the cargo-style
denim used by boys, but also skirts in jeans materials and jeans trousers with very
bright embroidery, often in flower patterns with additional sequins. From around 9 to
12 years these include the distressed jeans that boys of that age are also wearing, as
well as feminized versions where the fading becomes, in effect, a two-tone combination based around a bright colour such as pink or green denim. Jeans as a material is
never as common for girls as for boys. As girls become older teenagers and potential
brides, jeans fade from the public arena of town. Jeans wearing continues in certain
contexts, however. For example at one school around 20 per cent of 13–15 year-old
girls wore jeans on the rare days when they were allowed to appear in non-uniform.
This decreased for those of 16 plus years. An exception is known to be the engineering college where it is said half the girls wear jeans, although on the day I visited it
was 100 per cent churidah because this was a non work day and in effect jeans had
become working clothes. This is compatible with not seeing them in town wearing
jeans, because most schools and colleges have buses that pick them up from near
home. Almost all girls possessed jeans, however, and would expect to wear them on
any occasion when they left Kannur, whether this was a school excursion or family
travel to other towns in India.
Learning from the Osellas
My analysis of this pattern is derived largely from analogy with the far more extensive research presented in the book Social Mobility in Kerala by Filippo and Caroline
Osella (Osella and Osella 2000, see also 1999) based on over three years intensive
fieldwork in a village in the middle of Kerala. This book documents the way the
numerically dominant Izava caste (equivalent to Tiyyar in Kannur) accomplished a
gradual rise in relative caste status, partly through differentiation from lower castes
such as the Christian Pulaya caste. The Pulaya readily colonized new fashions such
as the raga-influenced street styles of the local Malayalam film industry. In response,
the Izava become more conservative in dress, associating themselves thereby with
some higher castes.
Similarly I found that in Kannur it was the Muslim population that had become
associated with fashion, brighter colours and shiny materials and were also inordinately fond of jeans. Notwithstanding a growth in the use of black and purdah
in recent years, a woman in public wearing shiny materials, outside of a wedding,
would be thereby recognizable as Muslim. In contrast, Hindus, outside of weddings,
had become associated with dull and subdued styles. There has been considerable
interest recently in Muslim fashion but once again the situation in Kannur seemed
less connected to global Islamic fashion (e.g. Tarlo and Moors 2007), or indeed to
The Limits of Jeans in Kannur, Kerala • 91
Islamic theology (compare Sandikci and Ger 2006, 2007 on Turkey, Abaza 2007 on
Egypt). This aesthetic of shining, bright and glittering styles seemed more associated
with the ‘new money’ coming from the Gulf (Osella and Osella 2007a: 244).
For young Muslim men this relatively gaudy style was particularly evident in their
jeans. They tended to possess both more jeans and jeans of the latest styles. These
included low-waisted jeans, various forms of distressed jeans, including crushed and
faded jeans, and jeans with extensive colourful embroidery on the back pocket or
legs. Clothing retailers talk in terms of four seasons, comprising two Hindu festivals
of Vishu and Onam and the two Muslim festivals of Eid ul-Fitre and Eid Bakrid. It
is Eid that dominates clothing sales, amounting to between four and twelve times
the sales of non-festival weeks. They note that it was at Muslim, not Hindu, festivals
when they sold imported jeans, expensive and fashionable jeans, including the most
elaborately decorated jeans. My evidence was not sufficient to properly consider
the internal differences within young Muslim male dress (for which see Osella and
Osella 2007a: 245–8 on freak style and chinos).
Traditionally, disparagement by taste and accusations of vulgarity were more associated with caste than religion per se. Today Hindus are clearly trying to imply that
this Muslim preference for bright colours is more like the vulgar taste of villagers,
rather than town sophisticates. This becomes associated with an implied disparagement that almost amounts to infantalization, in that Muslim dress, and in particular
the more gaudy variety of jeans, is also thereby rather more like children’s wear and
less like that of responsible adults in the eyes of the Hindus. As the shops report, it
is not just that Hindus buy less expensive or fashionable clothes at festivals, but they
are also more likely to buy jeans and fashionable clothes for their children, whereas
the Muslim population buys these for adult males. Fashion certainly affects the
clothes of young children as in the influence of Bollywood and other film styles. For
example, in January 2008, the most recent Malayalam cinema hit film, Chocolate,
had led to a fashion for buttons in the form of open copper colour discs, which a few
months later were a trend in clothing for 4 and 5 year olds.
To some extent then it is then possible to transpose the Osellas’ arguments from
their village context to this town. One community may have refrained from following certain kinds of fashionable dress in order to retain distance from another
community, now closely associated with such fashions. Jeans are implicated in this,
where they are fashionable or elaborately decorated and distressed. There are, however, a number of significant differences and consequences when one looks in more
detail at the Kannur situation. The Christian Pulaya remain relatively impoverished
and oppressed in the village situation. By contrast, in Kannur, while the Hindu population, and especially the Tiyyar are numerically dominant, the Muslims are gaining
advantage in every other respect. Muslims traditionally ruled the region itself. They
are favoured for Gulf employment. They are now the conspicuously wealthy population of Kannur. When eating out at the expensive hotel restaurants in town, Muslims
clearly outnumber all other diners, but then they are in general the more outgoing
92 • Daniel Miller
population and are more visible in parks, and other sites where families can go out
for an evening for a stroll.
Notwithstanding that many Muslim women are either entirely or partly robed in
black, the rest of their clothing is often extremely bright and festooned with shiny
materials such as metallic embroidery and sequins. Given that, in addition, the men
are more likely to wear bright shirts, such as yellow and embroidered jeans, it is
Muslims that stand out as the mobile decoration of the town itself. It is not that jeans
per se are associated with Muslims. Curiously even the shalwar-kamiz has largely
detached itself from any such association (see Bahl 2005; Banerjee and Miller 2005),
though not entirely for Kerala as noted by Osella and Osella (2007a: 239). Rather,
jeans are subsumed within this larger aesthetic, so that more expensive, more gaudy
and decorated jeans are associated both with youth and with Muslim taste. When
Kannur Hindus make these associations there is some ambivalence to the gaze, since
these jeans were until recently a conspicuous marker of success and wealth and
public presence. This may well also be the reason why the Muslim population see
no reason not to flaunt their presence or an aesthetic that shines to the world. So in
listening carefully to conversations amongst Hindus it was clear that discussions of
jeans and shiny clothing expressed ambivalence and resentments which are growing.
Today everyone recognizes that the possession of brand labels, and clothing associated with the celebrities of the Bollywood film industry (see Wilkinson-Weber
this volume) represents a form of aspiration too dominant in the larger world, to
be ignored, or lightly dismissed as merely vulgar. After all, it is not just the young
blades of the Malayalam cinema, but also the venerable patriarch of Bollywood,
Amitabh Bachchan, who is likely to be sporting faded denim in a film role. It is
his son Abhishek Bachchan, who recently married Aishwarya Rai in the ‘wedding
of the century’, who appears in adverts for jeans. So, for example, a conservative
23-year-old Hindu, who knew that she would be married as soon as she finished her
MA, was starting to receive potential suitors. She assumed that ‘90 per cent’ of these
would come visiting wearing jeans. She would see this as a sign of their economic
stability and good character, as long as these were relatively plain jeans with a brand.
Although she knew little of the details of such brands, she would certainly try and
get a sight of these labels if she had the opportunity. As such this early interpretation
of an implied infantalization may be too simple. After all, children are mainly the
projection of aspiration and it is perhaps more reasonable to see the Hindu emphasis
on children’s jeans/cargo style and other fashionable wear as more a sign of their
A deeper understanding of this ambivalence surrounding jeans can be gleaned
from the more recent work of the Osellas. In their work on masculinity they discuss
the kind of teenager who wears highly distressed and elaborated jeans. They may
be dismissed as just typical teenage behaviour, but they may also be granted an element of ‘rude boy’ status; viewed as the kind of men who would try and ‘hang out’
with women – a more forward and potentially aggressive masculinity associated by
The Limits of Jeans in Kannur, Kerala • 93
Hindus with young Muslim men. The Osellas’ analysis of various sites of masculinity (Osella and Osella 2001, 2007b), for example the two main male heroes of the
Malayalam cinema (Osella and Osella 2004), suggests that the various ideal type
models of masculinity found in Kerala should not be seen as a simple opposition.
Rather they are analytically more a form of alterity. The various symbolic distinctions and stereotypes found expressed through religion, caste and gender form a
larger structure of possibilities that are pertinent to all (compare Miller 1998 on ethnicity and consumption). Given the new Gulf money, there are now several potential
routes by which these same young men can move towards the more responsible images of adulthood and fatherhood. As the Osellas show in the analysis of narratives
of progress (Osella and Osella 2006), these are often contradictory and cross-cut by
What the material from Kannur so far presented highlights is an ambivalence to
jeans that partly reflects the way a single sartorial dimension is caught up in a much
more multidimensional matrix of possibilities. We start with a simple relationship
between men and stitched pants. We then find a general correlation between age and
jeans wearing. We now see the realm of trousers elaborated to signify this increasing
diversity of masculine images, including the contrast of jeans with pants as executive style, but also between plain and highly decorated jeans. Unlike other trousers,
highly decorated jeans can be elaborated to match these more complex and fluid
internal complexities of male trajectories, as compared with the older conventional
plain brown stitched pants. At the same time jeans are incorporated in such a way
that there is still an overall and dominant trajectory. This allows jeans to remain as
a vehicle for the repudiation of irresponsible youthfulness by responsible working
adults enacted through a separation from, first, elaborated jeans and then jeans wearing itself.
This ambivalence about jeans is also captured in various instances where what
people say about them is clearly contradicted by other evidence. One example of
this is discussion of cost, although this also reflects the sheer speed of change in the
market. Virtually all informants describe jeans as the more expensive style of trousers. Hindus inevitably explain that Muslims have more jeans simply because they
have more money. There was a time when this would have been the case, and when
possession of jeans would have indicated a specific link with Gulf resources. Today,
however, jeans are probably the single cheapest option in trousers. Unbranded jeans
in the market can be found for 200 or 300 rupees (there were approximately 80
Indian rupees per pound sterling in January 2008). This is the reason why jeans sold
as cut material that still has to be stitched have largely disappeared, since a tailor
would likely charge around 170 rupees just for the stitching, which now is mainly
reserved for wealthy Gulf-based clients who find difficulty with the standard sizes
of ready-made wear. By contrast, casual pants are still often stitched. While branded
jeans can also be found in price ranges right up to 2,000 rupees, so would other
branded trousers. So jeans are as cheap, if not cheaper, than alternatives.
94 • Daniel Miller
Other factors make jeans considerably better value. Almost everyone believes
that jeans last longer than other trousers; perhaps twice as long. Jeans are said to
improve in appearance over time: both fading and even tearing might enhance their
appearance. By contrast, all other trousers look best when brand new, and if faded
or torn should be given away to the poor, or if cotton, can be torn for rags. Yet the
discourse remains that Muslims have more jeans because they have more money.
This essentially reflects a situation where Muslims do spend a great deal more on
clothing in general and have considerably more money as would be manifest in other
measures, such as, houses prices or expenditure on gold for weddings.
Although the source of this wealth is Gulf work, there is no concept of Gulf jeans.
Many who brought jeans in the Gulf assume they were originally produced in India,
although those inspected were mainly of Thai or Chinese manufacture. Most people
still claim that Gulf clothing was more expensive and of higher quality but some are
starting to admit that they were actually often cheaper, and of lower quality than at
least branded Indian jeans. Things have changed considerably since the time of the
Osellas’ fieldwork, when fashion came from the Gulf. No one in Kannur saw the
Gulf as having any influence at all upon current men’s fashions.
The Legend of the Married Woman in Jeans
This ambivalence about jeans is even clearer if we turn from caste and religion to
women, which dominated the question of who could and should wear jeans. Kannur
was generally presented as lying midway between rural areas where jeans wearing
amongst adult women would be largely forbidden and Indian metropolitan areas
such as Bangalore or Mumbai where they would be largely uncontentious. There
was a bit more uncertainty about larger towns in Kerala such as Ernakulam and
Kozikhode. For people in Kannur, the critical image was that of a married woman
wearing jeans in public. I was able to sit with people in the city centre who asserted
that if we were to walk outside we would immediately be accosted by such an image.
Similarly almost everyone could name some specific individual woman who wore
jeans in public, by reference to which village she lived in, or some distant relative.
Although no such women were ever seen walking in Kannur, the image of the married jeans-wearing woman had achieved an almost legendary status.
There was no consensus about this symbol of imminent change. Older teenage
girls at a relatively wealthy English medium school were split 50/50 as to whether
they thought it should be permissible for a married woman to be seen wearing jeans
in public. A young unmarried woman discussing the situation a mere five years
previous when she was eighteen described how upset her father had been when she
first wore jeans. College principles, guardians of women’s hostels and in-laws were
among the many, apart from parents, who were specifically mentioned as actively
intervening in this control over women’s dress. A wife, whose husband was in the
The Limits of Jeans in Kannur, Kerala • 95
Gulf, wore his jeans, but only in the privacy of her home. Unmarried older teenage
girls almost all said they possessed jeans but only wore them when travelling outside
of Kannur, which was now almost entirely accepted, depending upon how they are
worn. Jeans, partly covered with a long loose kurta/blouse was fine. But jeans with
a short blouse and certainly any kind of tight blouse, especially if a woman has
medium to large breasts, is seen as a sign of potential ‘loose’ behaviour,
These concerns make sense as part of more general control over women’s behaviour. It may help to imagine these traditions as analogous to Jane Austen’s novels,
(though a better guide would be Ancient Promises, a novel by Jaishree Misra).
Unmarried women are not expected to walk unaccompanied after nightfall, or to be
seen too often in association with the same male – even a college friend from the
same neighbourhood travelling together to school is likely to be warned off after a
while. Anything that might lead to innuendo, and therefore affect marriagability, is
an issue. For higher castes, or middle and high-income women, marriage follows
immediately after education and is usually arranged. After marriage, women may
still be forbidden work, even when their husbands are increasing away for decades in
the Gulf. In as much as love marriage as against arranged marriage has provided the
mainstay of cinema drama now for decades, so too the tension between tradition and
change in women’s roles is clearly present within most families.
This mythic image of the married woman in jeans objectifies both a threat and
promise. Some men reported that their main sexual fantasy remained the ideal of the
demure, innocent female, in traditional dress, who finally achieves and appreciates
sexual experience, thanks to the fantasist. But a man who preferred sex with women
on top noted that he and others with similar preferences tended also to have erotic
dreams of women in jeans. Jeans signifies both a loose woman but also a strong
woman, potentially both repellent and attractive to men, and most likely both. This
male ambivalence is compounded by the number of young men who, at least in
their youth, were active within communist cadres, or were told by their parents only
to study and win a place in college; both of which situations favoured austerity in
relation to sexuality, but also repressed desire. In the conclusion, I will return to the
question as to whether this means that further change is imminent.
Jeans, Brands and Functions
These larger associations between social parameters and jeans represent historical
forces, some longer term, some of the last few decades. At the same time, jeans are
subject to all sorts of short term dynamics. The shops are as much concerned with
fashions that last a year, if not less. Jeans in general were not much in fashion in
early 2008. The current trend is a form of casual pants with single colours but textured fabric. Some forms of distressing and fading are very ‘last year’ while other
styles of back-pocket embroidery are trendy for certain age groups. Bollywood, and
96 • Daniel Miller
to a less extent the local Malayalam and neighbouring Tamil film industries are the
main influences on fashion, along with current TV series.
There are no enclosed air-conditioned malls in Kannur, given the cost of electricity, but the town is dominated by a three-storey pink palace known as City Centre,
which at least has an escalator, even if it never works. Here is found Citymart, which
sells the most expensive jeans to be found in Kannur. Citymart was originally established as a franchised outlet for Arvind Mills (Paul 2008: 107–15) founded in
1931 in Ahmedabad, Gujerat, the centre of India’s textile production. In 1987 the
company decided to concentrate on denim and by 1991, with production at 100 million metres per annum, it had become the world’s fourth largest producer of denim.
It also became India’s largest textile producer. As an international denim producer it
manufactures a very wide variety of blended cotton, forms of fabric, and the range
of distressed treatments that make up much of the contemporary jeans market. Yet
between 2000 and 2004 the company was in financial crisis, from which it is only
Seen from Kannur, while denim is now an established part of local clothing, it
still remains at 5 per cent of the adult population, around a tenth of what would be
found in most countries. The vast majority of jeans sold in Kannur are cheaper than
Arvind brands and indeed unbranded. Arvind ventures such as Ruf & Tuf, a pack of
jeans material for local stitching, worked well for a time and are still well know to
lower income groups, until all such stitching became uneconomic compared to cheap
unbranded jeans. Citymart has now gone multi-brand. Arvind remains an important
example of what Mazzarella (2003) documented as the Indianization of branding.
Since at Citymart one finds Wrangler, Pepe and Lee, all of which apparently compete, but are in fact all Arvind Mills brands, and are thought of by consumers as
Indian brands. These sell for around 1,600 rupees, and it is mostly only wealthy
families who have even heard of them. Another section of the shop is devoted to less
expensive jeans of 600–900 rupees. These are again divided into three main brands
including Newport, another Arvind Mills brand. Advertising for Newport by the
Bollywood film star, Akshay Kumar (the same star discussed by Wilkinson-Weber),
was the campaign most recalled by consumers. Otherwise they mainly mentioned
Indian labels such as Killer, Live-In, Sturdy or Hard Currency, which are found in
many more shops, including other shops in city centre that are less expensive than
Citymart and sell at around 500–700 rupees. In the case of Live-In, there is a shop
exclusive to that brand. Most of these brands come out of Mumbai or Bangalore. The
situation is confused since virtually every pair of jeans is sold with a label that looks
like a brand. In many shops there are almost as many different labels as there are
jeans and so these labels are essentially meaningless. Jeans in the ordinary shops of
the bazaar and the bulk of jeans for those who had no direct link to Gulf money sold
at around 400, but jeans could be found even below 300 if one searched. These are
probably made in the Erode and Tirupur areas of Tamil Nadu.
The Limits of Jeans in Kannur, Kerala • 97
The most fashionable shop in town, was experimenting in new styles of display,
augmented by t-shirts from heavy metal groups such as Iron Maiden. Its entire stock
was imported from Bangkok. They claimed no brand, but provided different and
elaborate styles of distressing and embroidering. Brand itself may be localized. For
example, one business sells a brand at full price in some shops. But most of its
trade is based on materials bought as textile from the same source, locally stitched,
with the addition of a cheap fabric version of the original metal brand label. These
cheaper local copies are made with the agreement of the brand itself. This strategy
for stretching the market seemed more common than the production of fake label
jeans, but most low-income consumers showed little interest in brands. Women and
children almost all wear unbranded jeans.
I had thought that no denim was produced in Kerala, but the region of Kannur
is well known as a centre for handloom production. One local company, Ambadi,
has for many years produced high-value handloom furnishing fabrics for companies such as the Designer Guild. Companies have used their fabrics for furnishing
at both Buckingham Palace and the White House. Ambadi had used conventional
jeans material in some of these products, although it had a problem locally sourcing
enzyme-washed fabric with sufficient consistency for furnishing. Recently, it had
experimented with handloom denim. If a market could be found, it is capable of
producing handloom, organic, fair trade, plant Indigo dyed denim. A stark contrast
with the appalling conditions that I was told were associated with some of the Tamil
sites that manufacture the cheapest jeans.
The final discourse, pertinent to constraints on jeans wearing, concerned functionality and suitability. Kerala has several months of intense monsoon during which
it seems almost impossible to dry any clothes at all. Jeans were notoriously slow
to dry and uncomfortably heavy when wet. Similarly jeans were seen as thick and
heavy and not well suited to the hot season. They were said to be more appropriate
for the cold season, but Kerala doesn’t really have a cold season. There are a just few
weeks in December to January when the weather is a few degrees lower than usual.
Jeans are worn despite such issues.
Jeans washing has become the site of more open conflict between men and
women and between young and old. The problem is evident to anyone who has spent
any time in travelling in India. Along with bird calls and train whistles there is the
common distant thwack of clothes being beaten against rocks as part of what seems
an endless task of clothes washing. The problem of jeans is that they are heavy when
wet. So almost every woman who doesn’t have a washing machine suggests that
she suffers now from permanent back ache as a result of the introduction of jeans in
particular. Most young men shrugged this off as simply an unfortunate but inevitable
effect of fashion. Some men stated clearly that they never wore jeans, or no longer
wore jeans out of deference to the health of their mothers. In only one case it was
because the man was doing his own clothes washing.
98 • Daniel Miller
There is a particular significance of a site such as Kannur for the global denim
project. Even if there are a hundred and more countries that can be properly characterized as subject to processes that we term ‘globalization’ or ‘Americanization’,
the majority of the world’s population live in the two regions of China and South
Asia. These are both of such size and internal integrity that they cannot easily be
subsumed under this generalized discourse. Similarly the colonial legacy concerning
indigo in India has faded entirely from memory and is unknown to people today. At
this highest end there is some influence from Bollywood and this use of branding
by Arvind Mills, which mediates global trends. To understand the constraints upon
jeans in Kannur we need largely to focus on Keralan social dynamics.
I have taken my cue from the exemplary anthropology of the Osellas. Both their
original model of groups repudiating fashion in order to distance themselves from
others, and their recent work showing the complex intersection of factors such as
age, Gulf money, masculinity and modernity. My own fieldwork is of much smaller
compass and less nuanced but there are some possible contributions to be made by
concentrating on this single genre of jeans and its relationship to Kannur specifically.
The first is the general association between jeans and movement. I don’t want
to imply a coherent cosmology or simplified symbolic system applicable to all, but
there is clearly a consistent linkage between jeans and the movement from local to
external space. As usual there is a pragmatic legitimation for this. Jeans are said to
be ideal as travel wear. They are relatively tough and may be worn several times
before being cleaned. Jeans tend to dominate at the annual school excursions. They
are what younger women wear when going out of Kannur; however, this argument
linking jeans to pragmatism only goes so far. They are almost invariably seen as
the appropriate wear when visiting a larger metropolitan site such as Bangalore and
Mumbai, more because they are viewed as sites of jeans wearing. Then they may
be worn when going out to visit relatives. An ideal time to wear jeans was said to a
party for someone about to go abroad.
The linkage to movement and mobility implies a temporal as well as spatial dimension. Many clearly assume that there is some inevitable trend towards modernity
in which Kannur is set to emulate more metropolitan Indian sites and jeans become
eventually as common here as there. Perhaps – but there seems to be another side
to this coin. The more impressive evidence comes from the various forces that work
in the opposite direction. The resistance constituted by the differentiation of Hindus
and Muslims in which the fashion following of the latter reinforces the conservatism
of the former. Also there is the degree to which women wearing jeans remains this
significant absent presence in Kannur itself. So that, even if most younger women
have them, even if they wear them at college, thanks to special buses and surveillance they manage not to be wearing them in the public space of the town. This
became almost a leitmotif of my work, such that by the end of fieldwork, friends
The Limits of Jeans in Kannur, Kerala • 99
were constantly ‘looking out’ for this jeans-wearing adult woman in town for me to
speak to, with promises to phone in any sightings.
As in many parts of the world there are political, religious and other discourses
that respond to imaginations of modernity by moving in the other direction towards
the revitalization of tradition and custom. Kannur is clearly positioned as the site of
a certain grounded tradition. A smallish town, nowhere special, Kannur, is ideal as
a place that people come from; a home that, even if they never return, since Kannur
has little to offer to those that have seen the world, remains important as this point
of origin. This is not as extreme as Olwig (1996) found in one Caribbean island that
is increasingly constructed for its visiting diaspora. But in Kannur the positioning
works well even for the population that never leaves. The specific location between
rural and metropolitan gives Kannur its particular structural position as a place
where change stops. As a female schoolteacher put it, ‘so far no one could change
from our culture. Even though people wear anything in the Gulf, when they come
back they change to our traditional dress.’
People allow Kannur to exercise such discipline over them because in return it
provides a relatively simple and stable objectification of something that is perhaps
more valuable, given the increasing complexity and nuances of possibility that lies
in the jeans-wearing world that they travel to. In South Asia, where men have worn
shirts and trousers for more than a century, it has obviously been women who have
remained the objectification of tradition in dress (Banerjee and Miller 2003). As a
result most women, whatever their desires and beliefs, continue, at least for now, to
feel very uncomfortable with the idea of actually wearing jeans within Kannur. For
men the situation is parallel to that described by Johnson (1997) for the Philippines,
in that local distinctions act to limit the sense of being penetrated by outside forces.
By creating a clear gradation of jeans wearing and jeans varieties based on age, and
making the repudiation of jeans an evident sign of growing maturity, the overall
percentage of jeans wearing for men as well as women, remains relatively slight.
So this chapter was largely concerned not with why people wear jeans in Kannur
but why they don’t. It started with an insight from the Osellas about how the acceptance of Western fashion by lower caste groups creates conservatism amongst
those who seek to differentiate themselves from such cases. The chapter expanded
from that example to suggest a series of analogous cases where dominant groups use
their repudiation of jeans to repudiate what they see as problematic dynamics within
previously dominated groups. This is evident in the gradual simplification and then
rejection of jeans by older established men, seeking to assert their new status of responsibility and security. It is also there in the distancing from the most fashionable
and flamboyant jeans associated with Muslim men, by the numerically dominant
Hindu population, who also try and associated such brightness and decoration with
the vulgarity of rural bumpkins and with infants. Finally, we see this in the constant
policing of the potential eruption of the-jeans-wearing-married-woman by the dominant male population. The issue is not that of an outside, which is represented by a
100 • Daniel Miller
distant America or West. As so often, that symbolic potential can be mediated and
mutated into something far more pertinent and local – here combining the potential
of youth, women and Islam within the single genre of blue jeans and the capacity of
this garment to assert and to disrupt.
Many, many thanks to Lucy Norris and her family Dirk and Florian for their help
and hospitality during this fieldwork, which took place during December 2007 and
January 2008. Also to Seema, Shibin and Venu, plus the many people of the town
of Kannur who agreed to give their time to discuss jeans. A photo essay based on
this research may be viewed at www.ucl.ac.uk/global-denim-project. Thanks to
Lucy again for her detailed comments upon a draft of this paper. I also thank Sophie
Woodward for her comments.
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Bahl, V. (2005), ‘Shifting Boundadies of “Nativity” and “Modernity” in South Asian
Women’s Clothes’, Dialectical Anthropology, 29: 85–121.
Banerjee, M. and Miller, D. (2003), The Sari, Oxford: Berg.
Chopra, R., Osella, C. and Osella, F. (eds) (2004), South Asian Masculinities, Delhi:
Kali for Women/Women’s Unlimited Press.
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Osella, F. and Osella, C. (1999), ‘From Transience To Immanence: Consumption,
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in Conflict, London: Pluto.Osella, C. and Osella, F. (2001), ‘Contextualis
ing Sexuality: Young Men in Kerala, South India’, in L. Manderson and P.L.
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Women: Delhi.Osella, F, and Osella, C. (2006), ‘Once upon a Time in the West:
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from South India, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
‘Brazilian Jeans’: Materiality, Body and
Seduction at a Rio de Janeiro’s Funk Ball1
The ‘Calça da Gang’, or ‘Brazilian Jeans’ are a specific style of trousers that has
been widely recognized in cosmopolitan contexts. Expanding upon the general symbolism of Brazilian culture, ‘Brazilian Jeans’ are thought of not just as sexy, but as
having an ability to make the wearer more sexy. The foundations for this idea lie
in the original context from which these particular jeans arose. They were and they
remain the main female attire at Rio de Janeiro’s Funk parties. In confronting the
jeans in this context and looking at media discourse that surrounds them, we can see
what it is about them that gave rise to this wider belief in their power and potential.
Media discussion of jeans at Funk Balls is quite clear that the object itself could in
and of itself produce a body. More particularly they explain the success of the style:
these trousers could ‘give a bum’ (bunda), a much-valued part of the female body
in Brazilian culture as a whole. This feature became its most conspicuous attribute
when it subsequently developed as a global style through its consumption by upper
class people to be appropriated by hegemonic Brazilian denim manufacturers and
finally exported as Brazilian jeans (Mizrahi 2003). Having in mind this mythology
built around the object itself and moved by aesthetic and anthropological interests I
had regarding it – I arrived at the Funk Ball. The Funk Balls are events that take place in the sports grounds of the favelas, a
kind of shanty town, or at disused sports clubs outside the main communities. Those
festivals, although mostly attended by young favela inhabitants, are also a tradition
of Rio de Janeiro nightlife. Every youngster living in the city will have attended one
of them or at least danced along to its music, Funk Carioca. The term Carioca refers
to Rio de Janeiro, the city of origin of the rhythm that emerges from a re-signifying
process, with roots in North American Soul and Miami Bass. By the end of the
1980s, it was accompanied by Brazilian lyrics, and it was in the Rio de Janeiro’s
favelas that it acquired its final shape, producing a genuinely made-in-Brazil contemporary electronic music.2
As soon as I arrived at the party some preconceptions had to be undone. The first
and quite significant one was that the style of trousers that I had recognized by the
– 103 –
104 • Mylene Mizrahi
term ‘Calça da Gang’/‘Brazilian Jeans’ and which is the subject of this chapter, is
actually designated by a different local category. The trousers at the Ball are called
‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’ (‘Calça de Moletom Stretch’), a terminology built upon
the name of the fabric, moletom, and its stretching capacities. Until then I had considered the trousers as a regular pair of jeans, which is how they were described
in the media and by their most famous producers, the Gang brand. So, unlike the
terminology employed by the Brazilian media, which drew attention to one of the
producers of this style, the grass-roots category led me to direct my attention to the
materiality of the object – that it is made of a fabric that is not denim but simulates
its appearance. The terminology at the Ball was also an encompassing one, emphasizing a wider style defined by the materiality of the fabric and referring to its larger
cultural context. The Gang brand, as seen at the Ball, is merely one of the producers
of this style. There, it was the style itself that mattered and not who was the creator
of the style. I, in accordance with my interlocutors, also started to care less about
finding out who was its first producer, even if we can say that there was in fact one.
My main aim in this phase of investigation into Funk Aesthetics was to examine
in closer detail what became the key context of production of the taste that has given
birth to the ‘Calça da Gang’, known in international contexts as ‘Brazilian Jeans’.
The terminology employed by global media3 refers to the distinctiveness of a style
created in Brazilian lands rather than to jeans actually produced by Brazilian hands.
The latter are the focus of Pinheiro-Machado’s chapter in this volume. Her work
focuses upon the consequences for producers and retailers and the implications of
particular brands.4 The present chapter, by contrast, deals with the native category
‘Calça de Moletom Stretch’, which implies a decentring of the centrality of the
brand and an orientation instead to issues of creativity and style.5
This chapter attempts to show that it is from the materiality of the objects (Miller
1987) and their qualities of agency (Gell 1998) that one can access the logics governing their uses and related taste. By focusing on a specific piece of clothing that,
in my understanding, epitomizes some of the main features of the way women, and
also men, deal with clothes and body in the Funk universe, I do not intend to deny
the importance of the classificatory systems of goods (Lévi-Strauss 1966; Sahlins
1976). On the contrary, events in my fieldwork urged me to build an overall and
systemic whole formed by the clothing used at these parties. Yet, the data made it
evident that the relation between the objects, their symbolic qualities, would not
suffice as a way of explaining the meanings attached to these ‘Trousers’. Rather, the
ethnographic account requires the reconciliation of several theoretical approaches
more than taking them as exclusive.
Having, as an underlying conceptual point, the notion that all meaning is assigned locally (Geertz 1983), the clothing will be placed here in dialogue with other
aesthetic events in the festival, such as professional performances, music, song lyrics and dance. This approach allowed me to establish a triangle within which my
argument is constructed: an ethnography of clothes, the body and dance, where each
‘Brazilian Jeans’ • 105
of these does more than merely overlap with the others – in the end they fully merge
together (Latour 1994, 2005).6
For reasons concerning the politics of power governing the site I had chosen to do
my fieldwork on, I was told by the party’s manager that I should not talk to the dancers at the events. If I wanted to do my research there I should carry it out in a discreet
and silent way. Not daring to question this, I went to the top of the stand facing the
dance floor and started to watch the festivities from there. My project of considering
the objects through their materiality and agency had to be postponed, at least for a
little while. However, what seemed to me a rather menacing instruction produced a
good position from which to grasp the dynamics ruling the party and gave me the
map of the context of production of the taste and the aesthetics I was to investigate.
In order to satisfy the classificatory eagerness that had hit me, the product of the pure
observation, I built a system of oppositions, resulting from the contrasts observed
at the party. This systematization of the aesthetics that I had observed produced the
beginning of my own clarification of the logic governing both the taste and the social
relations at the Ball.
My initial perspective focused upon the notions of attire and spectacle as a means
to apprehend the aesthetics of the party. The clothing is taken as forming a wardrobe,
as in a play: a set of clothes made for a specific presentation, with characters differing from each other according to their different social roles and the contrasts
between these. The Funk Wardrobe is approached as a set formed by relations of
opposition, established by the various elements that constitute the group of clothing
and body ornamentation. The object, from this point of view, is not considered as an
independent entity but as an element belonging to a relational system and therefore
must derive its meaning from the chain of oppositions established between the other
elements of the grouping (Lévi-Strauss 1963). The temporal and spatial divisions of
the Ball allow one to say that this is also experienced as a spectacle by the dancers,
with moments of climax, formations that make us think of a pas-de-deux, separation
between audience and artist and intervals.7
The party starts at midnight and the songs played are the ‘Funk Clássico’, a
category designating older Funk Carioca songs with more naïve lyrics, and the
romantic ‘funk melody’. The groups of dancers are divided by gender and, occasionally, we see large mixed groups. We can also see some pregnant women, often with
their tummies uncovered and exposed, sometimes dancing and rebolando, swaying
their hips from side to side. In addition, we can see contrasting pairs of girls dancing
together. Around one o’clock in the morning the Funk songs played are contemporary and dominated by dance rhythms. Their lyrics revolve around two main themes:
the frequently violent daily life at the favelas and the relationship between men
106 • Mylene Mizrahi
and women. At this point, the sports ground is already crowded, and the spectacle
we are watching comes to its peak. The trenzinhos (little trains), which are moving
queues formed by dancers mainly of the same sex, start to move. They sinuously cut
the mass of youngsters dancing on the floor, allowing the viewer to enjoy the show
as they snake past. A song called ‘One o’clock’8 celebrates this moment of zenith.
Soon, groups of professional singers and dancers will present themselves and their
choreography and style of clothes offer a synthesis of the qualities of the aesthetic
forms observed among those present at the party.
The venue has two environments. The main one is at the sports ground and is host
to the Funk ambience. At the very beginning of the night, and in the middle of it, soft
hip-hop music is played in the same sports ground. In a different smaller and warmer
environment the romantic and a slow variation of the Samba rhythm called Swing or
Pagode Romântico is played and danced. This second space is sought by youngsters
mainly at two times: as soon as they arrive at the club, when the sports ground is still
empty and the hip-hop is being played, and in the middle of the night, when funk
again gives space to hip-hop and a sort of interval is produced. This allows a short
break during the party: go to restrooms, check on the appearance of one’s hair, buy
candies, drinks, cigarettes and food, and relax in the romantic area.
The female Funk dance is predominantly composed of sensual movements. The
girls rebolam, swing their hips in circular and side-to-side movements, also driving
them backwards. They may also move their hips forward, according to the songs
lyrics. The boys, in turn, are more parsimonious in relation to the erotic content of
their dances. Some of them may swing their hips, trying to catch the girls’ attention.
Usually those boys wear no shirts, leaving their bodies to be watched. But they also
mock the girls, mimicking the way they dance by throwing their hips backwards.
But if sensuality in male dancing is not an exception, it is also not a norm nor is it its
distinctive feature. What predominates in the boys’ dancing are strong and straight
movements, made with their arms and legs, the opposite of the sinuosity of the
female body when dancing.
Encounters in the trenzinhos produce a proper opportunity to observe this contrast
between bodies, dances and aesthetics. While the girls exaggerate the sinuous movements, the boys emphasize angular movements. They push their shoulders forward
at the same time as they move their hips in diagonal and opposite directions. The
female trenzinho is softer. The girls swing their hips, while they stroll. Sometimes
they stop and push their hips backwards. They also perform a movement that goes
through their whole bodies in the vertical. A sinuous line, like a snake, invades them,
winding from the top of the head down to their stomach and hips. At times, this
sinuous vertical line is accompanied by a horizontal one, made by one of the arms
that waves in the air, beginning with the hand.
The typical male style of dancing corresponds to the clothing that the boys wear:
global brand sneakers, like Nike, Adidas and Puma, long polyester shorts, and mesh
cotton t-shirts, both of them baggy, that is, away from the body. They also might
‘Brazilian Jeans’ • 107
wear caps, again conspicuously showing the brand logo, or leave their heads uncovered to show their hair, adorned with amazing abstract and figurative motifs. These
designs are produced by dyeing the hair or by shaving it with razor blades. This is
the typically funkeiro way of dressing and adornment at the party, inspired by the
A second style to be distinguished within male attire corresponds to the guys
wearing very wide jeans trousers and often remaining at the party without their
shirts, which can be mesh cotton t-shirts, as used by the funkeiros, although distinctively featured by the fact that they are fitted to the body. These two singular styles
of clothing are related to equally different body looks. The funkeiro style is used
by the magrim, the ‘skinny ones’. The second style is used by the bombados, the
muscular boys, referring to the idea that they acquire their well-shaped bodies not
only by exercising but also by taking bomba (bomb), meaning anabolic drugs. They
work out the ‘whole week’ to be able to display their bodies at the party, as they told
me. Hence the preference for tight shirts, that highlight the muscles of their torso, by
contrast to the wide trousers concealing their legs, which are, as they say, ‘as thin as
the legs of a sabiá’, a species of bird.9
Eric and Emanuel are two representatives of the styles described above and each
of them has a group of friends. Following their daily lives, I could note how the body
and clothing aesthetics also related to different ‘lifestyles’. However, a similar division cannot be made for women’s clothing. The girls’ attire is difficult to synthesize.
Contrary to what was observed among the boys, I did not note amongst the girls a
108 • Mylene Mizrahi
relationship of continuity between the forms of dance and dress nor an aesthetic
homogeneity in a grouping of friends.
Take, for example, the clothes of a group of friends. Lívia wears a short, strapless
dress, in white polyamide and Lycra mesh, printed with a pattern of large red and
green flowers. Sofia wears a version of the ‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’: a clingy,
knee-length black piece, with big stars formed by the small perforations made on
the surface of the fabric. As a top she wears a white bodice, a corset, also very
tight and made of a polyamide and Lycra blend. Irene’s outfit is red, and she wears
a short sleeveless top and short godet skirt, made of the same material as Sofia’s
bodice. Her friend wears a mini-skirt of dark regular blue denim, without elasticity
or adornments, accompanied by a tight black top, again in polyamide and Lycra
‘Brazilian Jeans’ • 109
mesh. Another girl wears a version of ‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’ without any detail,
and a loose top made of pink silk fabric, with no elasticity or ornamentation.
Regarding the analysis of the boys’ attire, the classificatory approach proved to be
productive. It was possible to identify in their taste a logic that was likely to produce
a communication system in which the goods act as ‘bridges’ and ‘fences’ (Douglas
and Isherwood 1979). In other words, I noticed a strong correlation between the
clothing styles, the appearance of the body, the dance movement and ‘lifestyle’.
However, I could not observe the same homogeneity when approaching the girls.
Besides that, the extensive repertoire formed by the girls’ garments made it evident
that any systematization alone would not be enough to elicit the logic governing the
set of clothes. It was time to leave the top of the stand and go down to the dance
floor, and register the girls’ discourses regarding the uses of clothes and body adornments. To understand the significance of their clothing I had to look more closely at
individual choices and materiality. To grasp the meaning of this aesthetics I also had
to experience the party producing it.
The Stylistic Trademark of the Female Attire
This second part of my analysis leads through a complementary theoretical perspective that arose as my fieldwork developed. A temporary transfer of the party to an
adjacent sports club was accompanied by the disappearance of the restrictive and
intimidating figure who had initially been my host. More importantly, at the new location the funk ambience was created on a roofless terrace, which, unlike the sports
ground, was not divided into different planes. As a result, I was thrown into the
midst of the party and began to be ordered by the new architectural form. The absence of physical boundaries put me in proximity with the people and made me see
that pure observation and simple classification was not sufficient to account for the
richness of the stylistic universe that I was following. When looking at a girl I could
not tell anymore what was guiding my eyes: her body, her clothes or her dance. I
could not tell because the whole thing, the ‘actant’ (Latour 1994, 2005), resulting
110 • Mylene Mizrahi
from the interaction of person, thing and movement, captured my mind. So if I had
the intention to consider how the objects silently order our steps in the world, the
world of the objects made me answer the call of materiality and follow the conceptual turn promoted by Miller (1987, 1994a) and Gell (1998).
This is where the ‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’ reappear. The ‘Trousers’ actually
look like a regular pair of jeans and their fabric is made out of a blend of cotton and
Lycra, having, therefore, a composition identical to regular stretch denim. Never
theless, the threads of the fabric are spun as a jersey, allowing the fabric to stretch
in both vertical and horizontal ways, while the regular denim-Lycra blend can only
stretch horizontally. There are here two main points to be retained, both of them following from the materiality of the object. One is the choice of simulating blue jeans
because the fabric can acquire any desired colour, although the great preference has
always been placed on those appearing to be jeans. The other point concerns the
malleability of the trousers. I will focus first on this latter aspect.
The fabric ‘moletom stretch’ produces a pair of jeans extremely comfortable for
dancing and their elasticity, according to what the girls say, is strongly connected to
the freedom of movement the ‘Trousers’ allow. In addition, the reduced thickness
of the fabric allied to its clinginess enhances the round Funk body that is by itself
emphasized by the sinuosity of the dance. The garment has to be thin in order to
produce little volume over the body, working as a second skin and revealing the
body’s curves. This blending with the body is also achieved through the design of
the garment that, no matter what the version of the style, never has back pockets,
highlighting the bum even more. The pockets, when present, are in fact only represented by stitches, being yet another source of simulation. The ‘Trousers’, rather
than producing forms, enhance a body that is in itself curvilinear. As the girls at the
‘Brazilian Jeans’ • 111
party said, the ‘Trousers’ do not ‘give a bum’, but you must have one in order for it
to be beautified. Thanks to their stretching capacities, the ‘Trousers’ can be used in
sizes smaller than usual, promoting in this way a tensor effect.10 For these reasons,
thin and slim bodies do not benefit from the ‘Trousers’ effects, becoming even more
straight and curveless when covered by this garment.
Besides that, the fabric, as it is thicker than most regular jerseys, is able to support
baroque craft elements – such as rhinestones, tacks, embroideries, lace fragments
and other materials – and be elaborated by the ‘holes’ (buracos), produced by the
insertion of eyelets, fishnet material, incisions, rips, shreds, and through perforations forming abstract or figurative motives, such as stars, hearts or butterflies, also
possibly adorned by rhinestones, allowing the flesh to be exposed. These embellishing resources produce a garment well suited for the extraordinary sphere, both for
the richness of its aesthetic elaborations and the sexiness of its looks. Finally, the
‘Trousers’ can have a flare or boot cut, can be knee-length, like tight Bermuda shorts,
or mid-calf. Despite all those variations, they all remain authentic ‘Moletom Stretch
Trousers’, a style the particularities of which is intrinsically associated with the
112 • Mylene Mizrahi
materiality of the fabric. Here, jeans have never been ‘blindingly obvious’ (Miller
and Woodward 2007).
According to Gell (1998), by referring to a style we are also referring to an object,
because a particular style is formed in the interconnection of the artifacts and any
unity of a stylistic whole refers to the corpus of artworks. The objects and motifs are
all transformations of each other. As a holographic image, which has the information,
albeit attenuated, of the totality of the hologram, any unity allows for the reconstruction of the corpus of artifacts defining the style. A collection of artworks, from this
perspective, is ‘not a collection of separate objects, but just one object with many
parts distributed in many different places’ (Gell 1998: 167). Gell’s perspective is
quite attuned to that of the Funk girls. As I have already mentioned, at the Ball, more
relevant than the creator is a whole style defined by the internal relations among its
different versions. What limits the ‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’ is the fabric and the
designs made upon its surface. Those are ‘the limited dimensions upon which the
variability of a domain is expressed’ (Miller 1987: 128) and by which this particular
style is defined.
‘Brazilian Jeans’ • 113
If we compare the ‘Trousers’ with alternative pieces of clothing worn by the girls,
we see that they can be once again more appropriate for dancing. This is clear from
the girls oral and body discourses. The girls might wear skirts that are basically
of two types: loose or tight, but always short. One corresponds to those known as
‘Darlene’, made from thin and light mesh, with a tight band surrounding the area of
the hips, from which a loose and godet flounce hangs.11 The other style of skirt used
is the regular and tight miniskirt, usually having the appearance of jeans, possibly
made of denim, stretch denim or ‘moletom stretch’.
Flávia and her friend Marcinha do not like to use loose skirts for dancing because,
they say, there is always a ‘stray hand’ trying to touch their bodies. For instance,
Irene, on the same night she was wearing the red outfit I described above, consisting
of a ‘Darlene’ skirt and a short sleeveless top, became upset because some boys
stopped behind her and insisted on watching her dancing. For this same reason Vera
justifies her taste: ‘I, myself, do not like [to use skirts to dance]. I like to enjoy
myself [me esbaldar] while dancing. You know, we put a hand on our knee, then the
person behind us ends up seeing our backside [fundilhos].’
The skirts, in general, leave the girls excessively exposed, although some may
not care about it or may even enjoy it, as we will see later on. They may use tiny
Lycra shorts to protect themselves, as Lívia did on the night she wore her white
strapless dress. The ‘Darlene’ skirt has the advantage of not clinging to the body like
the tight mini-skirt does, physically limiting the movement of the body when dancing. On the other hand, the ‘Darlene’ skirt makes its user more vulnerable because
it goes up and down with the dance movements. The ‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’, in
turn, protect the girls from the boys’ approaches. Furthermore, the tight mini-skirt,
like the regular denim trousers, constrains the movements of the legs. The former
114 • Mylene Mizrahi
restrains the thighs and the latter does the same to the knees. Finally, the shortinho,
tiny shorts made of denim, which was once quite representative of the Balls and the
girls’ taste and aesthetics, is today out of fashion.
The ‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’ also have to be considered in relation to the male
universe in order to expand our understanding of their meaning. The basic tight/loose
opposition, or the distinction observed from the proximity or remoteness of clothing
to the body, unfolds at different levels: the high-heeled sandals and clogs used by
the girls compared to the boys’ flat sneakers; the synthetic fibre predominating in
women’s clothing, synthesized by elastic Lycra yarn, as opposed to the ‘natural’ cotton t-shirts for men; and the long and ‘natural’ girls’ hairstyles versus the short and
arteactual boys’ style. There are also contrasts in the type of movement performed,
and another important difference concerns the state of mind expressed at the party.
While the boys have the habit of mocking the girls, the girls, even when performing
more energetic movements, have a concentrated and disdaining expression.
Boys and girls seek to achieve comfort through their clothes but they do it
through local values and ideas about beauty and gender, and the pair of opposites
tight/wide must be understood from the perspective of the body. The elastic female
attire attends the needs of the female body in motion, enhancing a certain valued
type of body, while giving comfort to it. A reverse logic governs the male clothing.
The boys also seek comfort but as owners of slim and angular bodies they achieve it
by, at the same time, filling the outline of their silhouettes with broad and non-elastic
clothing. Ironically, it is rather the male clothes that produce a body upon their users’
silhouettes, not the other way round, as the media discourse assumes.
The second and minority style among men, the one of the ‘pumped boys’ (‘bombados’), with muscular torsos and thin legs, has a logic that is at a half-way point
‘Brazilian Jeans’ • 115
between the ones governing the girls and the attire of the ‘skinny’ boys, and helps
to illustrate both of them. We saw that these boys wear extremely tight t-shirts on
their torsos, so that even the smallest movement of their arms, as Emanuel told me,
‘already shows the muscle’, meaning that it reveals the round forms of the body. In
this way, the bombado’s taste presents a dynamic similar to that which governs the
female one. On the other hand, the extremely wide jeans trousers also worn by them
conceal their skinny legs while drawing a new silhouette, being in this way close to
the reasoning guiding the clothing choices of funkeiros.
The Seduction that Makes the Ball
The Funk Balls in Rio are parties divided by gender and ruled by seduction. Girls
and boys mutually provoke each other, often in a ritualistic manner, in such a way
that the atmosphere of attraction ends up generating an environment sometimes
similar to an arena where two antagonistic groups face each other. Seduction at the
party brings the genders closer by opposing them, letting us elaborate on same-sex
and cross-sex gender relations (Strathern 2001).
Friday, the girls say, are ‘full bag days’, for they leave home and to go to work
carrying hair conditioners, body lotion, deodorant, perfumes and make up. In the
evening they leave their offices and go straightaway to meet their boyfriends, lovers or ‘stayers’ (ficantes), the latter being a transitory position that might or might
not evolve into the status of a boyfriend. On the other hand, Saturday nights are
occasions for leaving home carrying as few things as possible. When dressed up for
a Funk Ball the girls’ clothes frequently do not have pockets, as we have already
seen in the depiction of the ‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’. As a result, they may carry
116 • Mylene Mizrahi
mobile phones, lipstick and some money tucked in their necklaces or bras, or in the
purse of the anthropologist accompanying them. At the ball it is important to have
one’s hands free in order to dance unconstrained. As a boyfriend may also constrain
a girl’s enjoyment at the party, someone’s boyfriend may be called mala, a ‘suitcase’,
an annoying and heavy object that does not leave your hands free. The boys express
a similar idea. Eric told me that at the Ball one cannot stand still: you cannot ‘stop’
(parar) but have to spend the whole night ‘spinning’ (rodando), meaning that he has
to circulate all the time, making it impossible to be attentive to only one girl.
Saturday nights are meant for going out with same-sex friends, without having
the opposite gender as company. The chance of going to the Funk Ball and expressing the distinction between the genders can turn the sports ground into what appears
to be an arena where a clash between rival groups will take place. And the main
weapon of the conflict is, in the case of the girls, the body aesthetics through which
they exercise seduction and test the power they might have over the other sex. And
the more girls gather together, the greater the effect on the boys.12
In one night, Lívia, my main interlocutor during fieldwork at the ball, and her
friends, formed a group of eight girls. On several occasions a group of boys gathered around them, ostensibly watching them. They, as expected, pretended not to
see them, and kept concentrating on the performance of their steps. They formed a
circle, and for a while kept crouching down and moving their hips back and forth,
vigorously and frantically, almost touching the dance floor and always in accordance
‘Brazilian Jeans’ • 117
with the song’s lyrics. On nights like these, they leave the party pleased for having
‘drawn attention’ to themselves (chamado atenção). A girl can also seduce individually, but again with the pure and simple objective of exercising seduction, and in
this way feel that she has power over the boys. One night at the party, Sofia was
wearing a loose white ‘Darlene’ skirt, and was warned by Lívia about the boy who
had already been dancing behind her for a few minutes, trying to touch her bum
with his genitals, playing with her skirt as it moved up and down. Sofia seemed not
to worry about it. She let the boy become tired of his game, which was also hers.
Another interesting situation had as a protagonist a girl dancing with friends on one
of the steps of the stands facing the dance floor. She sees a boy approaching from
the floor to watch her and this makes her enhance even more the sensuality of her
dance. The boy, still on the ground, stops in front of her, while the girl, being above
him, stares at horizon, pretending not to see him. A friend of the boy also arrives and
he lays his forehead on his friend’s shoulders, as if weeping. The girl keeps dancing,
caring even more about the provocative portion of her dance. The situation is then
undone by the approximation of the girl’s friend, as if he was her boyfriend. The boy
on the floor leaves and the girl goes on dancing with her groups of friends.
Once again, the encounter between female and male trenzinhos gives a good
measure of the sociality (Strathern 1991) constituting the party, involving both conflict and connectivity. I have watched and enjoyed this while I was experiencing the
Ball with the girls. The situation created was likely to be classified as a performance,
118 • Mylene Mizrahi
giving a good measure of the relations established between men and women, both
involving seduction, provocation, jocularity and contempt.
Two guys lead a male trenzinho. They choose a girl and stop in front of her, making strange movements with their bodies, as if wanting to scare her, while it is clear
that their intention is to play. The expressions on their faces tell us that it is certainly
a joke. Both of the boys flex one of their arms, placing their hands on their own
shoulders. In this position they bring their arms close to their eyes, as if they were
an instrument by which it is possible to look at a specific point of the girl’s body: a
telescope or a gun, the sight of which is the elbow. And in this way they ‘film’ the
girl. A little further on, they stand face to face with a trenzinho of girls. They stop in
front of it, preventing its passage, with their legs wide open and extending their arms
up and down. They form a single and allegedly fearful creature with four arms and
four legs. The girls, in turn, dance without even looking at them. They perform their
circular movements, gently rolling their hips and ignoring the provocative boys.
They stare at the horizon, without outlining any expression, either of discomfort or
delight. The female composition goes on. It stops in front of a group of bombados
who dance with sensuality and conspicuously display their bodies. The girls release
a unison ‘uuuuu’, admiring them, and continue to move. They see another cluster of
boys and by pretending not to see them they pass through them. The girls have their
‘Brazilian Jeans’ • 119
hair, arms and waists touched by the boys, who do this most of the time in delicate
ways. This is the time to be flirting or gently declining invitations for a date.
The strong contrast formed by male and female aesthetics materializes the rivalry
and the seduction embodied in Funk sociality. The ‘Trousers’, by summarizing the
features valued in women’s attire, relate aspects of corporeality and are also enmeshed in notions of personhood. They present the relation between the genders and
the atmosphere of seduction governing the party, for at a Funk Dance one is either a
man or a woman from the perspective of the body.
By way of conclusion, I would like to elaborate upon some aspects of the ethnographic account I have just made. I will start by returning to a female piece of clothing that I mentioned briefly. The shortinho, once quite fashionable at the Balls,
became representative of an era when the girls had a narrow range of alternative aesthetic choices. In the 1990s there was even what was once called Baile do Shortinho,
an evening when, as the name of the party denotes, the girls were invited to wear
such garments. The arrival of the ‘Trousers’ at the Funk Balls was concomitant to an
enlargement of the material culture choices available for consumption by Brazilian
popular classes. From a different perspective, the market started to recognize the
weight and impact that popular classes’ demand and consumption could have on
their global revenues. The ‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’ represent an era of self-assertion by working classes, a feature that can be better understood by focusing once
more on the female Funk attire.
The composition of the girls’ outfits reveals a central concern with their formal
aspect. As Paola, Lívia’s cousin, said: ‘there must always be something matching.’
This internal coherence of the set, of its formal elements, which Modern Art has
tried to turn into its distinctive trace, as Geertz (1983) has shown, is also present in
this ‘popular taste’.
On the night I first met Shirley, a very pretty eighteen-year-old mulata, she
was wearing a version of ‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’ dyed and washed in order to
imitate the blue jeans fabric. Her trousers were adorned by flowers spread all over
their surface, produced by small perforations made in the fabric, ‘holes’ that were
sparsely adorned by rhinestones. Shirley’s shoulder top was tight and made of Lycra
and polyamide mesh, in an acid hue of green, printed with small white dots that
decorated the areas close to the necklace and the top’s lower portion. She was also
wearing a white belt, with a heart-shaped buckle made of silver metal, painted by
white and green. On her feet she wore a pair of white wedge sandals, and on one
of her hands she had a ring and few bracelets in the same shade of green seen on
the other garments. The green and the white colours were also present on the cap
120 • Mylene Mizrahi
covering her black hair, enlarged by braid-like extensions. As a finishing touch, her
eyes were highlighted with green eyeshade.
I could go on giving many more examples describing this same pattern governing
the assembly of a Funk outfit. But the point I would like to make is that both the
baroqueness of the ‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’ and the formal aspect present in the
overall looks speak against a ‘Taste of Necessity’ (Bourdieu 1984) that supposedly
inclines the working-class choices to build a ‘pragmatic, functionalist “aesthetic”’
(Bourdieu 1984: 376). According to Bourdieu, taste is ‘a virtue made out of necessity’ (Bourdieu 1984: 177), and the members of the lower classes are condemned to
an aesthetic of absence (Bourdieu 1984: 178) as their taste is limited both by budget
restrictions and by their incapacity to be autonomous in their aesthetical choices,
following the trends dictated by high classes and in a constant process of imitation.
The production of taste at Rio de Janeiro’s Funk parties, on the other hand, denotes a different tendency from that deployed by Bourdieu. Both their formal aspect
and the locality of the production speak for a relative autonomy from any hegemonic
taste in the conformation of Funk Aesthetics. Similar reasoning can be made when
relating the way corporeality is conceptualized at Funk parties comparative to some
other Rio de Janeiro contexts.
Following Mauss’s (1979) notion of ‘body techniques’, an extensive bibliography has been created dealing with corporeality in Rio’s elite, claiming that both a
homogenization of body appearances (Malysse 2002) or a ‘civilizing process’ (Elias
1978) govern the spread of a ‘corporeal fashion’ (Goldenberg and Silva Ramos
2002). At Funk Balls the emergence of the female attire as a ‘second skin’ then
seems to correspond well with a broader Rio de Janeiro’s and even Brazilian taste.
However, the presence of fat, thin or very fat girls, always wearing tight clothes,
seems to indicate a nexus between body and person quite different to those observed
among Rio’s elites.
The aesthetic choices at the Ball obey a structuring taste that has been guiding
both clothing and corporeality at Funk Balls since their origins. Although having a
restricted supply of material culture, the girls at the Ball always prized tight clothes
and the exposure of their tummies and bums, as related to me by Veronica, a woman
who frequented the parties in the 1990s, or as previous records attest (Goldenberg
1994; Vianna 1988).
The appropriation of the style here under concern, as I have shown before
(Mizrahi 2003), is compatible with the dynamics of Brazilian culture, which, rather
than corresponding to a trickle-down effect (Simmel 1957), subverts this logic
into an upwards direction. There is a bubble-up trajectory that converts Brazilian
popular culture expressions into symbols of national identity (Fry 1982; Vianna,
1999). Besides that, through their neo-baroque aesthetics the girls state visually that
they don’t want to be situated in a reified place of poverty associated with lack and
absence. On the contrary, the visual potency of the ‘Trousers’ and their aesthetics
assert that if they want to be recognized, this should be in accordance with their own
‘Brazilian Jeans’ • 121
taste. The ‘Trousers’, in this way, can be seen as a representation of the new status
acquired by Brazilian popular classes in the overall Brazilian economy.13
But the ‘Trousers’ do not only represent the Funk party girls, or the atmosphere
of seduction and desire present at the Ball. They effectively carry this power: the
power of eroticism, seduction and provocation. They are the ‘Trousers’ that ‘attract
attention’ (chama atenção) and ‘no matter where we pass everyone looks’, as the
girls say. Those expressions are used by them to deploy the effects they cause while
wearing the ‘Trousers’, or when generally speaking about something that instigates
the eye and awakens interest. It is the whole thing, body, clothing and dance, which
causes the beautiful effect while it is in motion.
As is evident from comparison with other contributions to this volume, the nexus
between materiality, corporeality and personhood is constructed locally. The male
Berliners discussed by Ege adopt the same ‘carrot-cut’ jeans, no matter whether
they have muscular or skinny bodies, which implies that in his case the body is
less relevant and that there is a non-dialogical relation between materiality and
corporeality. By contrast in the case of the female Italian consumers analysed by
Sassatelli (this volume) perfect jeans are those that can ‘hide some [. . .] curves and
downplay the hips’. In the case of Funk, boys choose styles in accordance with their
particular bodily features, while girls seek garments that externalize and enhance the
voluptuousness of their bodies. Which is why this chapter focuses on issues of both
corporeality and personhood that synthesizes the materiality of the clothing and that
of the body. In modern Brazilian contexts, as Lagrou (1998, 2007, 2009) has shown
for the Cashinahua people, Amazonia, you cannot avoid the nexus between object,
body and personhood while dealing with art and aesthetics.
Before concluding this chapter, I would like to stress one last aspect. At the beginning of the section headed ‘The Stylistic Trademark of the Feminine Attire’ I
isolated two aspects related to the materiality of the style as being relevant for its
meaning. At that point I mainly elaborated on the malleability of the fabric. Now, I
want to dwell on a second aspect, that of the possibility of simulating the appearance
of denim and playing with the meaning of its symbolism. The fact that the most valued versions of the style are those in which the fabric copies the look of jeans speaks
for the centrality that fashion has for these youngsters and shows that appearance
deeply marks their identities, as Miller has shown for Trinidadians (Miller 1994b).
The style we have been analysing stems from a dialogue between the local and
the global, producing an aesthetic that could only have emerged in Rio de Janeiro.
The materiality of the ‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’ is tied to a particular context of
production, making it exemplary of the notion that the intrinsic values of the objects
are used within a cultural logic (McCracken 1988). It is a mark of locality of the
Funk context (Appadurai 1996), given by the Funk corporeality in its encounter with
a global taste, expressed by the omnipresence of jeans in different world cultures, as
the chapters throughout this volume assert. It is precisely the materiality of the fabric
that allows the merging of local and global logics.
122 • Mylene Mizrahi
If the media discourses, expressing the ambiguities involved in the style’s appropriation by high and middle classes and celebrities, simplify and explain the success
of these ‘Trousers’ merely by reference to their effect upon the body – giving them
a bum, the grass-roots discourses reveal by contrast that the object in itself does not
have any such meaning. Different confluences have produced the ‘Moletom Stretch
Trousers’ and the girls at Rio Funk Dances should be considered as its most authentic creators. If it were not for their appropriation and the consumption of the style,
the invention would never have been echoed or reproduced. If the girls are inspired
by the hegemonic taste, as suggested by the idea that this is the simulation of denim,
they also demonstrate the possibility of consolidating identity through mimesis and
producing difference by the act of copying (Taussig 1993). The incorporation of
the jeans as an element in their particular aesthetics is one more expression of the
encompassing way Funk culture is invented and the ability their creators have to
manipulate representations, as I have argued (Mizrahi, 2009). And this desire for the
new and the change gives assurance that new trends will always be incorporated and
created by young ‘funkeiros’.
‘Brazilian Jeans’ • 123
1. All the pictures and the drawings used in this chapter are my own.
2. The rhythm has achieved a wide circulation, becoming one of the more loquacious
symbols of Rio de Janeiro. You can dance funk all over Brazil – at popular classes
venues, at expensive nightclubs, at middle class concert houses – and in Europe.
3. See, among others, Elle America, February 2002.
4. In fact the funk ball is not necessarily relevant to the kind of participants who are
the subject of Pinheiro-Machado’s chapter.
5. The native category ‘Calça de Moletom Stretch’ is compatible with a hierarchy
of jeans brands at the Funk ball, something I have discussed elsewhere (Mizrahi
2006a). For the present chapter I consider the three categories ‘Brazilian Jeans’,
‘Calça da Gang’ and ‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’ as analytically equivalent, their
usage reflecting differences in social contexts. They also express a process of resignifying the object in its circulation, as its meaning becomes modified along the
trajectory, reflecting differences in manufacture, consumption and ambiguities
within and outside of the Funk Ball (Mizrahi, in preparation).
6. In the present account I elaborate mainly on the results of my Masters thesis
(Mizrahi, 2006b), through which I established a discussion on the meaning of
feminine and masculine clothing. The fieldwork was carried out in a specific
Funk Ball, between July 2004 and November 2005. I have accompanied a group
of girls and boys, by going with them from home to the party, visiting them in
their work offices and when shopping for clothes and body adornments. They
lived in different favelas, although they worked and went clubbing together. On
the other hand, my PhD thesis is built upon the deconstruction, made possible
by the fluidity of Rio de Janeiro’s social boundaries, of reified categories such
as individual and society, and relates this same aesthetics of the body to music
creativity and the connective dimension of art, in order to deploy Funk Carioca
as a product of a wider cultural context, given by different social groups and
geographical areas of the city. This second fieldwork was accomplished through
the network of relations of a Funk Carioca artist, Mr Catra, during May 2007 and
7. Cavalcanti (2006), while elaborating on Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, argues that
the spectacle differs from the festival in that in the former there is a separation
between the viewer and the artist, while in the latter there is a blending of both
aspects. Actually, at the party I have studied, a fusion of these two concepts is
produced, since the tenuous line between professional and amateur dancers is
often dissolved. In my Masters thesis I show in detail the aspects that allow me
to talk of the party as a spectacle as well as those that can be analysed from the
perspective of the festival.
8. Uma Hora, by M.C. Frank.
124 • Mylene Mizrahi
9. For a thorough analysis of the boys’ tastes and their own strategy of relating to
the other sex see Mizrahi (2007).
10. This feature was used by media discourses to describe the trousers as a
Wondrebra for the ‘bum’.
11. The native category ‘Darlene’ was created based on the name of a female character of a famous Brazilian soap opera at that time.
12. The boys, on the other hand, state their power in a more literal way, mainly
by the use of brands, that relate them both to the girl as to their main rival, the
‘playboy’, the middle-class educated young male. Brands are used by male
‘funkeiros’ in this double confrontation of alterity (Mizrahi, 2007).
13. This change of status and weight was accompanied by studies investigating
the weight and role played by popular classes in the consumption sphere of the
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Brazil, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Indigo Bodies: Fashion, Mirror Work and
Sexual Identity in Milan
Sexuality is the domain of intimate embodied relations where particularly strong
emotional bonds are forged. Sexual matters have to be dealt with in all cultures but
they are characteristically managed in different ways. Bodies may be sexualized via
a number of social practices, including beauty treatments, exercise, body decoration
and clothing (see, for example, Entwistle 2000; Guillaumin 2006; Waquant 1995).
Such sexualization always occurs against the backdrop of a much more general cultural imagery with which an individual may or may not conform. In contemporary
Western societies, many have noticed not only the growing presence of sexualized
spaces (bars, clubs, gyms, etc.) (Green 2008) but also of sexualized body images in
everyday life, mainly due to, among other things, commercial imagery (Bordo 1993;
Wernick 1991) and popular media, including fashion magazines for both women and
men (Frith et al. 2005; Gauntlet 2002). These increasingly play with fantasies of seduction and eroticism, with clothing as a potent signifier of sexualized subjectivity.
Sexualized clothing includes not only obvious items such as corset-like underwear,
laces, stilettos, furs or leather, which have obviously been the apex of fashion and
fetish (Steele 1996), but also quite mundane, everyday items such as denim jeans.
Of all mundane clothing in Italy, denim jeans have been the most overtly sexualized – especially as their marketing was extended to women. Since the early 1970s
the Italian fashion industry has made the link between women, jeans and sexuality
quite explicit, with a particular emphasis on very tight jeans ‘enhancing’ the female
shape in a series of images taken from behind (Fiorentini 2005; Volli 1991). Oliviero
Toscani’s campaign for Jesus Jeans (1973) epitomized by a photo of a woman’s
bottom in Denim shorts – coded by the provocative claim ‘who loves me, follows
me’ – showed potently how fetish elements, projecting reference to genital sex onto
the whole embodied self, have been associated with both denim fabric and denim
jeans. Since then, the image of a sinuous, curvy female in tight jeans and high heels
has become the archetype of female seduction: nothing is more sexy than a woman’s
bottom ‘filling up those Jeans’, sings Vasco Rossi in a popular recent rock song characteristically titled ‘Play with Me’ (2007): ‘How long do you spend inside that pair
– 127 –
128 • Roberta Sassatelli
of Jeans/You wear them not, you possess them/and when I see the movements you
make/You know I cannot resist.’ The song’s video is an apotheosis of fetishism, in
which the woman’s bottom in denim stands for her fashioned, sexy self.
In this chapter, I explore how, in practice, denim jeans contribute to the everyday sexualization of the body. Despite their codification as potentially sexy, jeans
remain mundane, almost ubiquitous items, perceived as remarkably versatile for all
practical purposes in ordinary life. They are subject to fashion dynamics, and indeed
represent an important segment in the fashion industry. They thus provide an excellent spot for the exploration of sexualization as an ordinary practice that emerges
from – and aside to – normal daily rounds, as much as it is performed in specialized
places or choreographed in a myriad of glamorized symbolic forms. I will introduce
my discussion by initially considering how Denim’s relationship to fashion illuminates its relation to embodied subjectivity and individuality more generally. As
argued by Steele (1996: 4) fashion is a ‘symbolic system linked to the expression of
sexuality – both sexual behaviour (including erotic attraction) and gender identity.’
However, rather than developing a semiotic approach, considering how the fashion
system plunders fetishism or sexual subcultures for inspiration, I explore how the
expression of sexuality (attraction and gender) is mediated by a particular clothing,
denim jeans, which enjoys a particular status within the actualization of fashion
in everyday life. In other words, I start naturalistically from reported practices of
meaningful ordinary use of an ordinary item such as jeans, interrogating the chains
of meanings that link identity, embodiment and sexuality. The mediating role of
denim is revealed as subjects perform what I define as ‘mirror work’ to negotiate
their own body perception in relation to normative ideals of beauty and sexuality. As
I shall show, denim jeans afford a perception of ‘fitness’ that articulates comfort with
compliance as well as authenticity with adaptability. Feeling fit is crucial to feeling
sexy: something that is articulated via gendered notions of seduction. The evidence
is drawn from ethnographic interviews1 conducted with youths from Milan in their
homes, and in particular in their bedrooms, allowing access to their wardrobes and
easier discussion of embodied and visual matters.
Jeans as Super-fashion and Personal Patina
Pondering over her wardrobe, Francesca, a stylish, freshly graduated woman in her
mid-twenties, says that, whilst they are ‘vital’ to her, ‘Denim jeans just sit with the
rest [of her clothes]: they are just in the middle of the mess, but I take them out much
more often, so always know where they are’ (Interview 15). These few words allude to the particular position that jeans – normal and yet special – occupy in young
people dressing practices. This partly reflects what youth from Milan participating
in the study has considered the almost unique relation that occurs between denim
jeans and fashion. Jeans are perceived as being in a dialectical tension with fashion:
Indigo Bodies • 129
they are both fashion and anti-fashion, and to some degree also transcend it. As one
of the interviewees has claimed: ‘Denim is always on fashion, and at the same time,
jeans follow fashion, because according to fads, they change their shape and model’
Most interviewees were quick to recognize that jeans are shaped by fashion
dynamics. In recent times close-fitting jeans have become fashionable: the ‘latest
trend’ is perceived as ‘very tight, on the ankle’, ‘slightly low waist and tight’, ‘no
funny colours, but fitting down the whole leg’, ‘a very tight-fitting shape that seals
legs, bottom, calves and goes down very tight to the ankle.’ Jeans thereby defined
as ‘fashionable’ are suitable for special occasions, such as parties or dining out.
Despite this conformity around current fashions, most interviewees were also clear
how difficult it is to pin down jeans as fashion. They ‘change, but they are always
fashionable’ was a general response. The transformative sameness of Jeans was
highlighted by the minutiae of their variations, and the simultaneous presence of
different fashionable finishing or cuts. As maintained by Flavia (Interview 23), a
medical technician in her mid-twenties living with her boyfriend in a small but
central flat; ‘in my opinion jeans fashions change very fast, so in my wardrobe there
are bell-bottom jeans and tight ones, both kinds were once trendy and perhaps they
still are’; on his part, Ivan (Interview 29), a 26-year-old radio journalist, says ‘to be
considered fashionable jeans have to be always different, new, but there are no fixed
rules: some details change but in the end they are always jeans.’
Denim jeans thereby occupy a particular position in what I call the clothingidentity symbolic space (Figure 6.1): coinciding with a heightened sense of individuality as against both fashion and anti-fashion on the one hand, and normality and
eccentricity on the other.
Let’s explore this a bit further. ‘Following fashion’ in Denim has always been
juxtaposed to and qualified by reference to ‘personal style’ or ‘individual taste’,
with the suggestion that whatever the specific trend followed, this also matched by
what one has ‘really’ or ‘always liked’. We could, of course, write this off as yet
another pseudo-individualization typical of all commodity semantics (Baudrillard
1998). Still interviewees have qualified jeans as against other clothing precisely
Figure 6.1. The clothing-identity symbolic space.
130 • Roberta Sassatelli
by reference to individuality, stressing embodiment and the sedimentation of
memory on the garment as a specific quality of jeans. Jeans – thus we hear – must
be personal, a sign of one’s individuality – or as said by Chris (Interview 36), a
twenty-five-years-old student, they need to facilitate a sense of the ‘I’ in a dialectical
relation with fashion: ‘I imagine myself as an individual, who distinguishes himself
by using fashion in his own way.’ To stress this, in quite a few cases, the compliance
of a pair of jeans with the latest trend may even become a reason not to buy them.
Jeans ‘fully express a transgression desire’, precisely because the more they are
consumed the more they become yours: ‘they are fast as life, they are rebellious,
you can sit everywhere, on the floor or anything, throw them anywhere, you don’t
have to bother, they can only become more part of you’(Interview 15, 26-year-old
graduate female clerk). Yet, transgression is not articulated as eccentricity, namely
the desire to be different for difference’s sake. Blue as freedom and reminiscent of
the 1968 counterculture (Volli 1991), they embody informal relaxation, articulating one’s own peculiar enactment of normality, itself conceived as ‘easiness’ and
‘versatility’. Males especially considered that they desired jeans to remain ‘against
the tide’, even though they were positively perceived as ubiquitous and affordable
for all. Thus a few suggested that they preferred more ‘normal’ jeans, which last irrespective of fancy fads, and stressed that their preferred jeans were all but ‘eccentric’
in a way that heightens individuality. Favourite jeans quite often ‘do not simply pass
unobserved, but they are not too conspicuous either [. . .] they are no fuss, simple but
not just banal’ (Interview 11). Indeed, here are some broader excerpts from the field:
Fads or brands do not affect my choice very much. Now, the jeans I wear, yes being
themselves a not very flashy pair of jeans they express my desire for transgression so
they are describing a bit my relation with fashion. I see them more as jeans just for me,
not necessarily for people looking at me, [they are] jeans expressing the will of getting
out from the fashion logic, according to which we have to be in a certain way for the
(Interview 23, clerical worker in her mid-twenties)
Considering where I bought them and how many pairs there were, I think those were
fashionable jeans, you could tell that their line was well-thought. As I said I was listening
to seventies music and, in theory, seventies clothing is not fashionable. But you could
tell that those jeans were a modern version of a seventies model and, despite the fact
that I really liked them, this fact [that they were fashionable] has even reduced a bit my
preference for those jeans . . . [Jeans] in their essence need to remain a bit like personal,
against the tide.
(Interview 32, student in his late twenties)
Overall then denim jeans are viewed as timeless rather than merely a reflection
of the latest style:
Indigo Bodies • 131
Jeans are always fashionable, I don’t think that jeans will never go out of style, you
know, jeans are eternal, as long as they are a basic classic model, because in the moment
I have a bell-bottom jeans, a pair of narrow jeans, faded jeans or jeans with cuts.. maybe
they really correspond to particular periods: Seventies, ‘paninari’ [a posh northern Italy
youth culture of the 1980s] . . . So yes, these jeans are peculiar, but they will surely be
in fashion again sooner or later, so we shouldn’t throw them away, but the more a pair
of jeans is classic, the more they fit with every situation and period. (Interview 20,
university student in her mid-twenties)
It appears that jeans are implicated in the dynamics of fashion, but ultimately transcend, such dynamics.2 Jeans may therefore be said to be conceived as superfashion.
Youths from Milan are quite conscious of fashionable cuts, finishing, colouring and
discolouring, as much as they are well aware of brands. Unbranded Jeans, or less
heavily promoted brands, are generally recognized as more prone to personalization,
while heavily promoted ‘posh’ brands come with a more precise bag of meanings,
which may or may not become vernacularized.3 Most recognize a certain cut, colour
or finish helps them to relate to a group, to feel part of an imagined community of
taste, something that is said to characterize all clothing. Someone who has to a hang
out with ‘punk-style people’ feels better ‘wearing a baggy pair of jeans’, another
states that if ‘I have to go out with my boyfriend for dinner, I would wear more posh,
jeans’, or even that ‘more sexy, low-waist jeans are perfect for a party night.’ But
once again this is tempered by an insistence upon their individual nature and relation
to one’s own perceived body shape.
In most cases, a person’s favourite jeans were those that better ‘represent’ or ‘fit’
oneself. Not just the body but also one’s own life experiences. What really matters
– says a male electrician in his mid-twenties (Interview 28) – is that ‘they suit my
style, they fit me well, that’s all’; and this is because, specifies a male university student in his early twenties (Interview 35), ‘nothing really makes me feel at ease as my
jeans, they are like telling people who I am, but not that blatantly, as everyone wears
jeans [. . .] they just fit me, and I feel more self-confident.’ As they are used for many
seasons, and rarely thrown away, denim jeans become, with time, an index of one’s
individual peculiarity: the patina of time is not so much deposited on their surface
as a sign of belonging (to a family, a group or a clan see McCraken 1988; Sassatelli
2007); an individual patina effect develops around the imprint in the Denim fabric
of one’s own embodied peculiarity, which tells of one’s own personal life experiences and relations, both quite often described with reference to the intimate sphere
of friendship or love rather than more public social belonging.
Individual patina is central to that part of our interviews when we asked to see
people favourite jeans, to recall where and when they acquired them as well as occasions of wearing by showing us old and recent photographs. All interviewees
identified a favourite pair of jeans, which were often bought hastily, but then gave
rise to quite a vivid realization that they were ‘just 100 per cent perfect’, ‘the jeans
for me!’ All these favourites were highly individualized in their minds: with a past,
132 • Roberta Sassatelli
a present and a future. The occasion of purchase was specifically recalled and the
bodily sensation felt during the try-out was often reported in some detail. Favourite
jeans endure the passing of time, going through a set of transformations and modification due to wearing and tearing. In most cases, favourites had been worn till they
were ‘literally wasted’, with numerous mending and patching, prolonging use and
I used them so much that, at a certain point, they had cuts on the back, but I made my
mother sew them and I used those pair of jeans again, maybe with skirts, so you couldn’t
see the sewing . . . but I kept using them, because I liked those jeans so much . . . they
were perfect and, in the end, when they were falling apart, I was forced to throw them
(Interview 22, female student in her mid-twenties)
They were over used, I wore that pair of jeans so many times. I tried to use them again,
despite the fact that they were cut, well, first I used them with cuts, then I tried the classic
remedy of my grandmother, patch, but the result was a bit ugly and eventually they got
cut in some other part and I had to throw them away.
(Interview 29, male shop assistant in his mid-twenties)
Time had effectively helped in establishing a deep emotional relation with one’s
own favourite pair, expressed as ‘loving’ or ‘being fond of my jeans’. Thus, even
when they can no longer be worn, the idea of throwing them away is unthinkable.
Anyway, anytime, they are imagined as a memento to be kept: ‘if they were just destroyed’ – says Giovanni a technician in his mid-twenties (Interview 16) – ‘I would
be very sorry to throw them away because I’ve been wearing them for ages. If I will
not be able to wear them again for any reason, for sure I would never throw them
away. No! I would feel too sad about it.’ Likewise, the idea of losing one’s own
favourite jeans is typically described as painful, to the point that one interviewee
declared that he ‘would miss a piece of my life, really!’
While we may like an old pair of slippers, refuse to throw them away and yet not
have the courage to wear them publicly, worn-out jeans are publicly acknowledged.
Unlike other clothing, time congealed in the discolouring marks and the imprint of
repeated usage on the jeans surface is considered as added value. Our respondents
agreed that jeans are made to ‘age well’, recognizing a feature that has been vastly
exploited by the clothing industry, to the point of mechanical distressing, the standardizing mimicking of personal usage and even the commercial glorification of personalization (something made explicit by the Swedish company Nudie in their Web
site which is a gallery of worn jeans and the tales they tell about the wearer) (see
Miller and Woodward 2007). When used for a while, a pair of jeans may become
‘nicer’ and more ‘aesthetically pleasing’, suggests most of our interviewees.4 It ‘fits’
better, because it blends with one’s own body visibly and yet subtly:
Indigo Bodies • 133
I have many pair of jeans with cuts, to be honest I would probably use them till they were
falling a part except if the cut was one of those that shows everything underneath . . . I
like the pair of jeans with some cuts, they even tell a bit who I am.
(Interview 21, female student in her early twenties )
. . . a used pair of jeans has more ‘flavour’, they taste more like you do, and moreover,
jeans are not as some classic male trousers, [but] something that when used are also more
(Interview 30, designer in his late twenties)
There are two aspects to this personalization, which may be summarized as comfort and display: the former works at the level of embodied experience, the latter at
the level of performed embodied identity A favourite pair of jeans gets better with
use as it affords physical sensations of ease. The fabric gets softer, and bending and
moving is more natural: they soften but retain something of their ‘strong texture’ as
denim, which one interviewee said ‘offers some resistance to your body.’ A worn-out
pair also ‘tells a story’ about the wearer. It carries along the many experiences of
the wearer, enriching his or her present identity by adding some kind of temporal,
biographical depth – something that appears to be particularly appreciated by young
people: they represented ‘a part of me’, ‘a period of my life’, a ‘step in my life’,
‘my adolescence’; they have ‘followed’ one’s own ‘growth’, going through all the
‘self-revolutions’ in tastes and dressing style. As Marina (Interview 10), a clerk in
her early twenties has mentioned, ‘I have made no voluntary modification, but it
has aged: I had to mend it as it got shredded on the back below as I stepped on it, it
is very light blue, you see, but it has really become my favourite [. . .] I prefer them
now.’ Claudio, also in his early twenties (Interview 17 ), suggests that his favourite,
worn-out jeans ‘makes me feel I have had a life.’
Fitting and Making Fit: Mirror Work and Beyond
To illustrate principles of choice and use, and to characterize denim jeans, youth
from Milan have all stressed that they, more than any other item of clothing, work
like a ‘second skin’ – something that is comfortable and protective and yet enhances
the body. Their favourite pair of jeans is perceived as both ‘fitting’ uniquely one’s
own embodied self and ‘making’ one ‘fit’ better the world around, stressing the best
of oneself on the backdrop of perceived body ideals.
How is this sense of jeans as second skin achieved? It entails both covering certain body parts and revealing others. Jeans appear quite ‘special’ in their capacity to
‘hide imperfections’ while, simultaneously, ‘underlining’ body shape, enhancing it.
Purchase decisions are typically made after trying out a few pairs, with such covering/revealing rationale being identified as the master principle of choice. This was
134 • Roberta Sassatelli
universally recognized by females, and repeatedly articulated in their descriptions
of jeans shopping, all of which portray vivid scenes of encounters with mirrors and
well, I said, ‘wow, these fits me nicely’, finally as I want, my hips look lees wide, my
bump is rounder’ . . . I looked slender like I wanna be, they made an impression on me,
just like a click in my head.
(Interview 4, female promoter in her mid-twenties)
. . . I said to myself, well they squeeze my love handles, so I will wear on the top
something hiding this problem, something large but short . . . because anyway thighs
look thinner , so I can avoid putting on a jumper tied to the waist in order to hide the
bottom, as I usually do with my other trousers!
(Interview 21, female student in her mid-twenties)
Facing the mirror with the ‘right pair’ of jeans on may elicit quite strong feelings
of ease and self-confidence – something that is typically described with words such
as ‘suddenly recognizing myself in a better shape’ or ‘finally looking as I want to
be.’5 The best jeans, we heard, make you feel you look your very best from the very
first try-out, and subsequently gain value as they add a form of personal patina over
time. Accounting for such sentiment one interviewee, a twenty-something student
with a plump figure (Interview 20), remarked: ‘it’s difficult to explain, but if I have
to imagine myself at the top of my shape, self-confident and happy, I see myself
wearing that particular pair of jeans.’ This very first impression left by a favourite
pair of jeans when looking at oneself in the mirror may leave such a deep impression
as to orientate one’s own use of, and emotional engagement with, the mirror in the
time to come.
To look at oneself in the mirror is a practice full of meanings. The mirror does not
simply reflect the self – it reflects it through a particular view, which is informed by
expectations as to subjectivity and body ideals as well as by broader cultural notions
on how we must look at ourselves, when and for what purposes. The mirror has
somehow to be activated through what I call ‘mirror work’ (see also Sassatelli 2010).
By mirror work I mean the work that a subject has to undertake to use the mirror
in ways that are appropriate to the scene, fit his or her notions of self, and negotiate
with received body ideals in a game of revelation and concealment of body details.
Looking at oneself in the mirror can be daunting even in the solitude of one’s own
bedroom, and quite demanding on self-esteem. It is certainly crucial for clothing
practices both at home, and at the point of purchase during shopping. Now, as one
of our interviewees has said, one’s own favourite pairs of jeans provide an anchor
for self-confidence during mirror work: ‘if I’m in a wrong mood I say “my God
that’s ugly!”, but also in those cases if I’m at least wearing those particular jeans I
feel a bit better’ (Interview 29). Jeans are perceived as all-matching and all-purpose,
Indigo Bodies • 135
and favourite jeans often condense such qualities: as one interviewee said of his
favourite jeans, ‘they represents me, as I am very easy, I feel fine in all situations
and that jeans is like me, if I want to sit on the ground no problem, if I am in front of
Scala [the Opera theatre in Milan] and I want a coffee where it costs 8 euros, I do not
feel ashamed to get in with such a pair’ (Interview 1).
What such stories imply is that one’s own favourite jeans are versatile and resourceful. They work as an instrument through which a tension between elitism and
equality is played out (Davis 1989) and their status as ‘slang’ in the fashion language
(Lurie 1981) may be read as purposeful informality. However, they are versatile
also because, many of our interviewees insist, they are felt as enhancing one’s own
body shape: ‘I look good in them, which makes me feel good and self-confident,
which is as much as you can ask from any clothing for whatever occasion, even if
it may not be the absolutely most adequate choice’ (Interview 1).6 We should not
dismiss similar, apparently banal, statements, but explore them as evidence of the
role that embodiment plays in clothing practices. As Flavia, a working girl in her
mid-twenties, maintained (Interview 6), ‘I already know those jeans fit me perfectly,
maybe I look at myself in the mirror to see how I look combining them with something else.’ Jeans are thus not only used to reduce the complexity of choice in a
clothing market that is allegedly more vast and varied; they somehow help face the
mirror paradox, which is that you may avoid looking in the mirror if you anticipate
an image that is too far from your ideal embodied self, and yet you won’t achieve a
proper sense of your style as a negotiation of such ideal if you do not look at yourself
in the mirror. As such jeans function as a ‘coping mechanism’ (Goffman 1967),
helping to keep one’s own anxieties about the body (excesses, softness, flabbiness,
etc.) at bay, consequently performing adequate clothing practices.
Ironically, in some cases, jeans become so objectified as the basis of mirror work
that the actual use of the mirror may become secondary. As Davide, a clerk in his
mid-twenties (Interview 3) says, ‘it happens that I look at my self in the mirror, but
after a while it’s habit, anyway you know for sure that those jeans are fitting you
well, so you are confident’; or in Lucrezia’s words (Interview 12):
with those jeans I can do without a mirror, which is good, you may be short of time and
you never know really how you will feel facing it, [but with these] I can concentrate on
details, like a belt or something, taking for granted the rest is in shape.
In such cases, rather than a coping device to meet up with fashion and style demands, denim jeans may become ‘a cognitive shortcut’: ‘I can stop asking me if I am
fine, if I will look fat, I know they are comfortable and make me look good . . . they
make my life easier’ (Interview 15).
Narrations of mirror work also reveal a contrast between ideals of male and
female embodiment. Females tend to stress a universe of meaning that is rooted in
negative notions such as ‘protection’ or ‘safety’. Trousers are usually mentioned as
136 • Roberta Sassatelli
providing for a sense of security. Denim jeans in particular, for all their getting softer
with time, are perceived as relative ‘hard’ in terms of keeping one safe, something
rooted in the very materiality of the garment: strong, tough, enduring, thick, impenetrable. As mentioned with a touch of humour, ‘let’s just say that wearing a pair
of jeans is not like wearing a bikini, it’s a form of safety, I would say that jeans are
first of all a protection’ (Interview 20). This negative element, keeping danger and
fear at bay, is thereby developed in aesthetic terms: the element that best accounts
for the preference for jeans as against other clothes is their capacity of hiding those
body curves perceived as ‘excess’. With the ideal body being recognized as slender
and curvaceous at the same time, impressions of thinness are at premium. This may
be pursued both by containment – with tight-fitting models that ‘contain’, ‘enclose’,
‘press a little’ or even ‘squeeze a bit’ those female body parts, such as the bottom and
the upper tights, which are often perceived as too big – or by envelopment – with
baggy pairs that help adjusting body proportions, adding volume at the bottom of the
legs. In both cases, the desired impression ‘to look thinner than I really am’, to ‘hide
some of my curves and downplay the hips’ is achieved.
Males, for their part, tend to stress a universe of meaning that is qualified by
positive terms: the choice of jeans depends not so much on their capacity to hide
imperfections or reduce size, on the contrary, they are qualified more forcefully as
stressing one’s own body and augment an impression of strength, force and bulk.
Thus, Matteo, a designer in his later twenties (Interview 30), says that he does not
‘think that my pair of jeans can hide any imperfection: I didn’t chose a large model,
but very tight [one] that is marking the body curves instead of hiding them.’ By
and large, whilst females reported to prefer ‘slimming-down’ jeans, males were
concerned precisely with the opposite, conceptualizing a good pair of jeans as one
which adds body, rather than diminishing or squeezing it. Yet, slenderness is, to
a degree, a myth shared by all. Fat is surely not appreciated by males either, who
likewise fell the cultural pressure towards slimness, and may themselves undergo
severe diets in order to comply with such ideals, resulting on occasion, in a heightened pleasure in wearing skinny jeans that show-off one’s own achieved physique.
Such as in the case of Daniele, an artist in his mid-twenties (Interview 27), who
likes jeans that stress the ‘slenderness of the legs’: ‘in the past I was fat and now,
being thin, I want to underline the goal I reached with so many sacrifices.’ Typically,
though, a strong and muscular body – ‘big but not fat’ – is a source of masculine
pride, as Franco, a university student in his late twenties (Interview 32), admits: ‘I
am quite happy having big thighs, large and with strong muscles, I like when you
can notice my legs and this fact affected even 70 per cent my decision [to buy this
model of jeans].’ Typically, for heterosexual males, well-fitting jeans, not too skinny
(‘otherwise they are embarrassing’), hard but comfortable, are considered ideal:
their strength against the body allows for an heightened perception of one’s own
body prowess and potency, their enveloping but not squeezing fit underlines figure in
a way which is recognized as appropriately masculine.7
Indigo Bodies • 137
Females’ rhetorical emphasis on ‘hiding imperfections’ bears witness to the
heavier burden of normative aesthetic ideals on women’s bodies; compared to those
of males, women’s bodies are felt to be much more under scrutiny, a potential source
of criticism, and of value judgements quite consequential in terms of social acceptance and recognition. Young women were more aware of the aesthetic demand on
their bodies, emphasizing thinness, in combination with sexual attraction represented by the idea of ‘curves’ – some body parts, essentially the bottom, the hips, the
thighs, were indicated as a major concern. Aesthetic demands in choices of jeans for
women were more obviously related to eroticism and sexual attraction. Rather than
using denim jeans to feel less conspicuous as females, deploying masculine codes
to disguise femininity, women mainly appear to translate and selectively adopt these
codes to stress femininity. The performance of a ‘feminine figure’ in jeans happens
mainly via a seduction frame. To this end, feminine curves have to be mastered, both
stressed and controlled, in a dialectic between expression and repression of sexuality, which has been associated with contemporary rules of seduction, shaping the
sexualization of the body within fashion and consumer culture (Baudrillard 1997;
Steele 1996). Thus, although the female body may effectively be squeezed into a
tight-fitting pair, even with the help of a lower than recommended size, the generally
reported feeling is one of ‘comfort’. Comfort, in this case, is explicitly related to
making one’s body fit aesthetic body ideals, rather than comfortable freedom of
movement, which is more the notion of comfort indicated by males as complying
with their masculine embodied self ideals. Heterosexual males indeed appeared to
achieve a masculine look by downplaying seduction: their main concern was to look
good without looking gay, thus rather than a seduction frame they more typically
activated a (traditional) masculinity frame, stressing activity, movement, potency –
as opposed to the more passive ‘gazed on’ position that females seemed to opt for,
even with jeans.
Feeling Sexy in Unisex Clothes: Sexualizing Jeans
It is partly the particular role jeans play in mirror work that leads the striking majority of the participants in the study to consider jeans as a ‘second skin’, whose
attributes are characterizations of an explicit sexual nature. Jeans are something that
is either tight to the figure or produces a frisson on the naked skin – in both cases
stressing one’s own perception of one’s own body as something sexualized. Jeans
appear as heavily sexualized items, especially among youth. This indeed seems to
contradict their otherwise mundane, unisex nature. Let’s explore.
Denim jeans were a staple of our interviewees’ wardrobes, both male and female
and they were considered a remarkably ‘unisex’ item ‘fitting perfectly every body’ in
terms of gender. Yet, males, and especially females, tended to express their liking of
jeans as sported by others in explicitly gendered terms, which quite often adumbrated
138 • Roberta Sassatelli
heavily gendered notions of attractiveness. So we hear young women saying that ‘a
man in jeans is always more attractive’, that they ‘like a lot men wearing jeans’ or
the idea that ‘any man, even my father, looks better in jeans’, or that ‘on men, jeans
that are a bit tight on the bum and then large on legs . . . those make me crazy.’ They
also, quite often, mentioned other women ‘looking good in jeans’, highlighting more
stringent aesthetic demands and stressing that ‘especially if she [the exemplified
woman] has the right figure, if she is a beautiful girl, with jeans it’s just perfect!’
Young Milanese men differed in their remarks according to their sexuality. While
homosexual males tended to mirror women in their liking of close-fitting, bottomshowing models on themselves, heterosexual males concentrated their remarks on
women. They considered women very attractive in jeans, stressing the sexual imaginary that is associated with certain models and styles of wearing – and in particular
they appreciated the emphasis on ‘the hips’ that jeans are said to afford the female
figure: ‘I like a woman with tight and low rise jeans because a woman deserves
to have tight jeans.’ Quite often heterosexual males also mentioned their liking of
‘dresses’, ‘skirts’, ‘anything which lets a bit of skin on view . . .’
Heterosexual males’ and females’ reference to body shapes or parts that are portrayed as erotic adumbrates the gendering of jeans and their latent power as a sexual
tool. However, sexualization of jeans occurs mainly as a practical accomplishment
and with the help of a number of material and symbolic qualifiers besides body parts
or characteristics, including style of wearing, accessories and places:
In my opinion jeans are a very sexy garment, always in relation to what kind of person is
wearing them, because jeans are sexy if the person wearing them have naturally the right
figure, I’m not among these people but if I have to think about the usual ‘super model’, I
always imagine her wearing a very tight pair of jeans and high heels. I never think about
a ‘hot girl’ not wearing jeans, also when I go to clubs I see all them wearing jeans, so I
always put together ‘hot girl’ and jeans’
(Interview 8, clerical worker in her early twenties)
That particular kind, with the low crotch and lower pockets, was improving my behind.
Maybe it was lacking a bit on the legs, making them look shorter, but it was sexy in my
opinion. Well I was seeing myself as sexier with those jeans than in classic jeans.
(Interview 29, musician in his late twenties)
Sexualization is aided by specific body features that denim jeans at the same time
enhance and produce. A ‘right figure’, for females, is essentially captured by the
formula ‘slender and curvy’ often quoted by our interviewees. The specifications
for a male figure appear less normative and precise, but, as suggested, slenderness,
together with muscularity and tallness are often mentioned. These body characteristics facilitate sexualization, but in combination with specific models. Low-rise jeans
have often been mentioned as particularly sexy, and so are very tight ones, especially
Indigo Bodies • 139
for women (and gay men). Prevalent both among males and females is the image
of close-fitting jeans that blend with ‘body curves’ and ‘mark the female figure’,
its femaleness as indicated by the inaccessible accessibility of a heavily sexualized
bottom. The reference to the fact that ‘in women jeans mark the bum’ is ubiquitous.
Males are quite explicit in linking this to sexual imaginary, extending the reference
to genitals, and applying it to both men and women: ‘tight jeans mark the private
parts of men and also of women, you can see everything beneath so the result is very
sexy [. . .] even though a great part is left to the imagination’ (Interview 28). Still,
close-fitting or skin-showing jeans become particularly sexy if worn in combination
with certain accessories: ‘It always depends on which item you combine them with,
if you wear just jeans alone they are not sexy, but if you wear them with a particular
t-shirt and a certain pair of shoes they can absolutely be sexy’ (Interview 22). High
heels or a special top can make even ‘baggy rapper jeans’ sexy. Images of sexy jeans
are also, quite commonly, accompanied by the visualization of special places and
occasions, such as, prominently, a party or a disco dance.
Jeans are often reported as being a ‘perfect choice for dancing’, both by males
and females. On such occasions, youth from Milan appear to use denim jeans in an
overtly sexualized manner, taking on different meanings depending on gender and
sexual identity: heterosexual males in the study have generally stressed denim jeans’
‘comfort’, downplaying its seduction potential; females in general, and homosexual
men in particular, referred more directly to their seduction potential. All stress that
denim jeans are a ‘passport for any situation’, which allows them to face any contingency, thus providing security and attraction. Young females often use jeans for
a first date, even with a ‘stylish guy’ who may be difficult to please, as it’s a ‘safe
option’. As one of the female participants said:
it is the item I wear more often to go dancing, especially if I am unsure which kind of
place is it. I wear these and I know I will feel comfortable. [. . .] Like recently to go to
Plastic [an alternative Milanese disco pub] I had to meet up with a guy whom I knew
little, and the place is full of weird people, so, I choose my favourite jeans, a black top
with naked back, and very high heels boots, nothing special, but a very sexy combination
(Interview 15, hostess in her mid-twenties)
Jeans are not only unisex items – they are also perceived as potentially very sexy.
They fit both male and female bodies, but, as a second skin, they draw attention to
the sexual potential of male and female bodies, thus stressing their aesthetic compliance with heavily sexualized body ideals. The cultural imaginary that surrounds
denim is deployed to this end (Botterill 2007; Volli 1991). Several participants in the
study stressed that jeans are very sexy because ‘they have this wild and jaunty element’, and despite their mass diffusion, they ‘still have this way of being a bit wild
and cowboy’s’, they bring to mind memories of the ‘American West’, the ‘frontier’,
140 • Roberta Sassatelli
an ‘untamed’, ‘natural’, past where life was more real, strong and free. As previously
noted, jeans may also express transgression and in this case sexualized transgression, mainly as a way to convey an image of erotic openness. This is particularly
evident among females, who often refer to seduction as a course of action through
which they interpret jeans on special occasions:
sometimes I wear those jeans having the idea of provoking a bit, of being a bit more
open, let’s say that if I stand in a certain posture wearing those jeans, I can have a glance
more from my boyfriend, so it is a transgression in the way of me being sexier than usual.
(Interview 7, clerical worker in her early twenties)
I’m wearing those jeans because I want to show up more, if I weren’t aiming this as
result I would wear a bell-bottom jeans with a jumper, instead I decide to wear tight jeans
with high heels shoes and a top: that makes an impression, it says something like I am a
bit more into a seduction game
(Interview 13, male in his mid-twenties)
All in all, in what appears as an appropriation of the sexual imagery that surrounds the advertising campaigns of well known brands such as Dolce and Gabbana
or Diesel (see Sullivan 2006; Volli 1991), the gendering of jeans is predicated on
uneven sexualization and eroticization: just as heterosexual males felt fit – and that
they were fitting their social personae – with jeans that helped perform a masculine
look, downplaying seduction, heterosexual women tended to feel this way when
their jeans could also be easily translated into a seduction tool. They all agreed that
their favourite jeans are a safe bet for seduction, and that they are often deployed,
with accessories and demeanour, to get sexual attention or simply be ‘appreciated by
boys’. Often conceptualized as a matter of insinuation and imagination, seduction in
jeans relates to how the body is framed by jeans (especially ‘curvy slenderness’) and
construed as anticipation of what is out of sight. Denim jeans seem to provide the
seduction game with some normalizing anchoring. In contrast with a miniskirt, for
example, jeans are ‘less explicit’, they work ‘subtly, without giving off too much’.
They are still somehow perceived as an originally male item that is appropriated
by women as a symbol of explicit ‘liberated’ sexuality that can, nevertheless, be
inoffensive: they do not open the female body to the male gaze uncompromisingly,
they have to be activated by women (with a pose, a laugh, a word, an accessory, a
hole in the fabric that allows a little skin to be seen, etc.). It is thus left to a woman
to play with her own sexualization. In a duality which is characteristic of fashion
more generally (see Simmel 1904; see also Davis 1989), such sexualization is itself
at once highly individualized and normalized, as shown by the ‘ordinary’ nature of
denim jeans as against explicitly ‘sexy’ clothing that would do without individual
activation. Rather than being objectified once and for all in an outfit that petrifies
sexual meanings beyond their wearer’s intentions, seduction in jeans requires the
Indigo Bodies • 141
wearer’s continuous keying of his or her own body as sexually charged, stressing,
yet again individuality and agency.
In this chapter I have explored denim jeans as a culturally thick item of material
culture, which is deployed, more or less willingly, to perform identity, sexuality and
seduction. Just as sexuality is predicated on personal identity, and indeed conceived
as its most intimate aspect, the sexualization of jeans cannot be seen in isolation. It
builds upon a foundation that is constructed in jeans’ much wider relation to fashion.
Within the clothing-identity space, denim jeans are perceived as a particularly strong
index of individuality. Each washing turns a new page, time imprints its memory on
an increasingly uneven and paler background which follows the movements and the
shapes of the user’s body just like the washing’s discolorations adumbrate embodied
experience. As such, jeans appear as a ‘second skin’: as one voice from the field explained, ‘they have a story written in the fabric which is your story.’ But they do not
just reflect one’s one story, or one’s one body. They reflect a continuously activated
and carefully preformed authenticity, foreshadowing the possibility of neutralizing
fashion while playing with it (superfashion and personal patina), as well as the opportunity to enhance one’s own sexual attractiveness by providing a sense of fitness,
with culturally sexualized clothing that both fit oneself and make oneself fit broader
Favourite jeans are heavily implicated in the visualization of a better, easier,
and sexier, embodied self – a fit self. We shouldn’t be surprised of this slippage of
meaning, fitness after all having been originally defined as the capacity to survive
by reproduction, presumably attracting partners. They are both an everyday item
(charged with meanings such as ‘natural’, ‘simple’, ‘relaxing’, ‘normal’, ‘modest’,
‘casual’) and a heavily sexualized item, often deemed the ‘sexiest of all’, especially
for women. This duality is intrinsic to their sexual potential: it takes away pressure
from the erotic investment of the body, stressing a nonchalant seduction that promises to remain free and playful, always in the hands of the seducer. Of course, these
dynamics are quite heavily gendered: jeans minimize defects and stress appreciated
body parts or characteristics, but men are more concerned with expressing bulk and
strength, whereas women are more concerned with concealment and containment.
Such negative terms are turned into positive ones once a woman feels her favourite
jeans have helped her to achieve the appropriate curvy slenderness, and she is willing to deploy them as a seduction device. In its turn, the successful deployment of
seduction is the ultimate guarantee that an appropriately sexy feminine figure in
jeans has been achieved. The ability to create a sexualized image that draws the
gaze to one’s own body comes from all the previous mirror work in which a certain
degree of confidence has been negotiated through jeans, precisely as they are felt
as increasingly personal and fitting one’s own expected social persona. Just as they
142 • Roberta Sassatelli
express people’s ability to both pay respect to fashion and remain transcendent of it
by commanding personal patina and superfashion qualities. Denim jeans are thus deployed to perform what is perceived as individualized sexualization in the prescribed
forms of dichotomic gendered codes.
1. This chapter draws on material collected as part of a larger research initiative that
is being pursued by the author with a number of her final year MA students using
ethnography, ethnographic interviews and visual methodologies. Among these
students, I especially thank Simona Ettori, Federica Galeazzi, Niccolò Motta and
Michele Pilloni for their passion and precious help in collecting the empirical
material here analysed. This paper, in particular, relies on 40 in-depth interviews
with youths from middle-class neighbourhoods in Milan. The interviewees were
aged 20 to 29, twenty males and twenty females, predominantly heterosexual,
although a number (nine) of male homosexuals have also been included. The
interviews took place between the winter 2007 and the spring 2009, lasted between
1 and 2 hours, with quite a few being furthered by a shorter follow-up to pursue
some of the more intimate issues. I wish to thank all participants in this study for
their willingness to share with us their experiences. A resounding thank to Daniel
Miller for his unfailing support and helpful editorial advice, and much gratitude
to Rossella Ghigi and Nicoletta Giusti for their careful reading and comments.
2. These arguments are reinforced by the reported practices. Describing their
shopping for jeans or their picking up a pair from the wardrobe to wear, our youth
from Milan is willing to appear fashion-conscious, but likewise mentions ‘taste’
or ‘what fits me best’ as the ultimate motivation. Particular makes of jeans may
be ‘the last arrivals in the shops’, may ‘feature everywhere in fashion magazines’,
but these circumstances are described as just providing the chance to realize one’s
own taste and aspirations. For these reasons, even old jeans may be still be used,
and quite frequently, ‘even though they are not so fashionable anymore’.
3. A verbalization of one’s own relation to brands was also specifically pursued in the
research. Many of our interviewees referred to specific brands, even though they
tended to stress other factors as major determinants – and in particular ‘the cut’ for
identity representation and ‘price’ for purchase decision. The symbolic universe
recalled by the brand is recognized as largely managed by the manufacturer and
its promotional techniques, whereas the cut is said to allow individual bodies to
speak for themselves. Body shape itself makes it difficult for brands to construct
an imagined community of alike users, all identified with the brand image.
Brands can also be misleading if considered as a mark of identity, as they only
signify identity in conjunction with body demeanour and self-presentation. In
many cases, even when the brand was considered important, verbalizations have
Indigo Bodies • 143
stressed personalization. So branding is articulated less in terms of imagined
communities, brand values, quality guarantee and more in terms of a dialectic of
In a few cases, the wearing and tearing of one’s own favourite denim jeans implies
a diminishment of value, because ‘newness’ appears as a value, and general
wear‑ability may deteriorate greatly with time. ‘Even if is true that the fact that
they are damaged means that a pair of jeans went trough many experiences with
you and this fact is nice – says a female student in her mid-twenties – once they
are really old, and damaged, it is not like you can wear them everywhere like
when they were new’ (Interview 20).
Comfort as the feeling that one is able to meet, to a degree, one’s own body ideals
is prevalent in the (female) description of wearing a lower size than usual: ‘I had
a wonderful feeling, really wonderful, because after a tough diet, during which I
suffered a lot, wearing a light colour pair of jeans, tight and size 40, fitting me so
well, it was a great satisfaction’ (Interview 21). Of course a double-exploitation
game can be initiated around this, with fashion companies playing with sizes
to provide easy satisfactions, and costumers deliberately orienting themselves
towards brands that allow them to feel slimmer by generous sizing.
To notice the fact that the vast majority of our interviewees considered that
denim jeans were the most versatile clothing, but likewise felt that versatility
stopped short of very formal occasions, which were heavily gendered: mainly
graduation ceremonies, job interviews and marriages for women, only marriages
for men. Denim fabric partake this destiny to a large degree: for females, a fashion
accessory in denim (such as a bag) may indeed be used in a job interview to
provide a touch of ‘easiness’ or ‘originality’.
Gay respondents differed markedly in both their strong liking of tight jeans,
their generally greater attention to fashion and their willingness to play with a
seduction frame in the sexualization of their clothed bodies. On the other hand,
heterosexual males were characterized by concerns such as those expressed by
Matteo (Interview 30) who declared: ‘I have a pair of jeans in the closet that
are surely rule-breaking, but that I think are hard to wear just because they are
extreme. Instead my favourite jeans are classic, showing leg, calf and bum but
they are not so tight. These ones that instead are in my closet. I still didn’t dare to
wear them as they are really tight and much more rule breaking.’
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Jeanealogies: Materiality and the
(Im)permanence of Relationships and Intimacy
I wear his jeans when I’m on my own in my flat . . . I don’t know why . . . I guess it makes
me feel like I’m still close to him, kind of comforted . . .
Georgia, a woman in her early twenties living in London, is wearing the jeans of a
man she is in an ambiguous on-off relationship with when she utters these words
to me. After spending the night with him at his flat, she borrowed them the next
morning to keep warm on the journey home and continues to wear them when she
is back in her own flat. Wearing the jeans, she feels he continues to be, in some
part, present with her and makes her more able to deal with the ambiguity of her
relationship to him. During ethnographic fieldwork that I conducted into women’s
wardrobes in the UK, several women I worked with wore their boyfriend’s jeans,
and ‘boyfriend’ jeans themselves are currently a well established category of jeans
in the UK. Georgia’s example raises the ways in which clothing is used to negotiate
women’s relationships to others. The very appearance of cloth and clothing is one
that lends itself to associations with connectedness, with rich metaphorical potential
in terms of the weaving together of people, and the fabric of their relationships. The
connectedness of woven cloth is extended both to metaphor and also to anthropological attempts to see the process of weaving and exchange of cloth as symbolizing
kinship relationships (Weiner and Schneider 1989). The embeddedness of clothing
in people’s relationships is, however, not given the same attention by Weiner and
Schneider (1989) for clothing in the West and the wider context of fashion. Instead,
clothing in the contemporary UK is subsumed under fashion, and concomitant associations of image, appearance and individualism. It is the contention of this chapter that, in the context of the UK, the relationships people have to clothing are not
reducible to wider contexts and values of individualism. This chapter will focus
upon the material acts of wearing, donating and borrowing denim jeans, as a means
through which relationships to others are negotiated.
One of the predominant relationships in the provisioning and gifting of clothing
in countries such as the UK and US is that between mother and daughter (Clarke
– 145 –
146 • Sophie Woodward
2000; Corrigan 1995; DeVault 1991) as particular taste patterns are inculcated,
and as an act of love, although this relationship may become more contested as the
daughter moves to adulthood (Miller 1997). In my initial ethnography on women’s
wardrobes there was a clear contrast between the long-term gifting of clothing over
time between mothers and daughters and the lending of clothing between relatives
or long-term friendships and more short-term clothing exchanges (Woodward 2007).
The type of clothing lent and the expectations of whether it will be returned immediately or not served to create and reinforce the relationship. In this chapter, I focus in
the main on a particular kind of relationship, between women and their boyfriends.
In light of this focus, it may appear somewhat unexpected to use the trope of the
genealogy, which seems to imply a structured family history. When this structured
formalized set of relationships is mapped onto the passage of clothing, it would
imply that clothing, or jeans, would be similarly rigidly structured as they are used
to define relationships between generations. Alternatively, at the level of broader
cultural histories, to talk of a genealogy of jeans, a ‘jean-ealogy’, conjures up associations of the lineage of denim jeans as descending from Levi-Strauss in the late
nineteenth century and the well established histories and stories of denim jeans. The
jeanealogy suggested in this paper is somewhat different from either of these, as it
forms part of my broader orientation to clothing in the context of the UK, which is to
focus upon the everyday and ordinary practices of selection, wearing and choice of
clothing. The meanings that arise from the jeans do not originate from the creativity
and authorship of the designer but instead through the ways in which denim is worn
and exchanged and as it comes to enable and materialize everyday relationships.
Therefore, the jeanealogy is understood in a much more fluid, less formalized sense
than conventional notions of the genealogy would allow for.
The notion of fluidity in personal relationships is emphasized by writers on intimacy within contemporary British society. Giddens (1991, 1992) suggests that
the changes in the labour market amongst other social changes – for example sex
is no longer wed to procreation – means that there is a shift in the structuring of
relationships and a transformation of intimacy. In his account, this leads to a greater
diversity in relationships, and the ‘pure relationship’ that is ‘entered into for its own
sake’ (Giddens 1992: 58). At the core of Giddens’ idea is what Jamieson has termed
‘disclosing intimacy’ (Giddens 1998: 1), where the relationship is negotiated and
maintained through the verbalization of feelings and desires. Whilst there are many
critiques of Giddens’ ideas, in relation to the emphasis upon choice and ignoring
persisting gendered inequalities, the primacy given to the verbal and spoken is of
particular concern in this article. I opened this chapter with the spoken words of a
woman I worked with ethnographically; however, these words carry meaning when
situated in the context of much wider observations of her practices. These words
are not ones she would ever articulate to the man she is seeing. As material culture,
the jeans do not reflect the relationship, but her wearing of his jeans are a medium
through which she is able to articulate that which she is unable to verbalize to him. In
Jeanealogies • 147
her critique of Giddens, Jamieson (1998) discusses the multiple layers of intimacy,
as verbalizing feelings are only one expression or aspect of intimacy. The jeans may
therefore externalize contradictory aspects of a relationship, for example in terms
of dependency and independency. A similar contradiction is exemplified in the pure
relationship, expounded and idealized by Giddens, which is not bound by tradition
and entered into freely, yet simultaneously carries within it the possibility for this
union to breakdown. In this chapter, I will suggest that clothing effectively externalizes the fragility of a relationship, which dovetails with Weiner’s claims, albeit in a
very different context, where she suggests that the ‘softness and ultimate fragility
of these materials capture the vulnerability of humans, whose every relationship is
transient’ (Weiner 1989: 2).
Personalization through Wearing
The material upon which this paper is based comes from ethnography carried out
in London and Nottingham over a fifteen-month period of women’s wardrobes (see
Woodward 2007 for full details of the methodology and research findings). There
were twenty-seven women in total in the research sample, recruited through snowball sampling. Over half of the women were connected to each other through kinship, work, or friendship groups (three networks in total). To suggest that denim
jeans offer the possibility of connections to others seems to pose something of a
paradox, given that they are cited by many women I worked with as being an item
of clothing to which they have a very personal relationship, a point we have elaborated on in the introduction to this volume. There are pairs of jeans that women
would not let anyone else wear – for example, when women have found the elusive
‘perfect jeans’ or a pair that they have worn over such a long period of time because
the intimate personal relationship that they have to the jeans would be disrupted by
someone else wearing them. However, several of these same women also wore the
jeans of their boyfriends or partners. In many cases this is due to the larger body size
of their boyfriends, as women are easily able to fit them. By virtue of the denim carrying the former wearer, women are able to negotiate a relationship to someone else,
and in some instances use it to expand upon their own personal aesthetic.
Authenticity and Masculinity
Steph, the first case study, is a woman in her early twenties who is originally from
Ireland and wears her boyfriend’s jeans regularly. Although he is still living in
Ireland, and as such is not present with her all the time, Steph is not wearing the
jeans as a sentimental reminder of him but primarily to expand upon her own wardrobe. This is part of a wider tendency that emerged from the main ethnography,
148 • Sophie Woodward
where women do not necessarily treat items gifted or passed on to them as cherished
heirlooms or items that reify a particular person or relationship. Although the act
of wearing serves to establish a connection to others, as the relationships to others
are externalized in items of clothing, women are able to use these same relationships to expand the possibilities of who you can be through clothing (see previous
discussions of this in Woodward 2007). Women may be able to expand their usually
personal aesthetic through the taste of a friend or their mother. This strategy, at the
micro level of the wardrobe, is mirrored in the wider practices of wearing vintage
or second-hand clothing (see Clark and Palmer 2004; Gregson and Crewe 2003 ),
where it is possible to imagine the narratives behind the garments. It is an affordable
way to expand upon the possibilities of what can be worn and it allows a perceived
stepping outside of mainstream fashion.
Wearing her boyfriend’s jeans, for Steph, is part of her wider attitude to clothing
as she states on numerous occasions that she loathes the high street (despite buying
items such as her skinny jeans from there). Over two years, she gradually made her
boyfriend’s jeans a part of her wardrobe, first wearing them when he left them in her
flat as he stayed over, and now, she owns two pairs that he has had to relinquish to
her, it would seem, permanently. She wears her jeans almost every day alternating
between wearing her boyfriend’s jeans, and her other skinny drainpipe jeans (which
were the fashion at the time when I was working with her), which she wears with
trainers and her ‘rocker’ t-shirts. Different types of jeans are the basis for her to create very different daily looks. Steph’s boyfriend is around four inches taller than her;
he is narrow hipped, but wears the jeans loose on him. On her they are low slung, and
she has to hold them up by wearing a chunky belt. They are straight-legged jeans,
and are so loose fitting that they do not cling to any part of her body; the legs are
too long that she has to turn them up on the outside. She wears the oversized jeans
with fitted pink or cream silk camisole tops, and soft silk-mix, angora or cashmere
cardigans. Although the jeans are unmistakably men’s jeans, as the crotch starts half
way down her thighs, the combination with the pink camisole, and the soft angora
cardigan in pale colours means that the overall look is far from masculinized. In
many other cases, jeans are valued through the personalized way in which a pair
of jeans adapt to the wearer’s body. For Steph, these particular jeans, through their
voluminousness, serve to emphasize the smallness of her body. The only place that
the denim has started to wear down and soften is at the base, where she trips over
the edges of the turn-ups. In adopting a masculinized style of jeans, and rejecting a
conventional femininity that jeans might allow, she serves to emphasize her vulnerability and delicateness as she constructs an alternative mode of femininity (such
as in Holland 2004). The femininity that is articulated through the jeans serves as
a repudiation of the hypersexualized, semi-clad masquerade of femininity that is
present in many mainstream representations of young women (Levy 2006).
Steph exemplifies a core contradiction many young women embody between the
desire to be fashionable through participating in fast fashion and simultaneously
Jeanealogies • 149
wanting to reject and repudiate the fashion mainstream and the femininity it embodies. Her verbalized dislike of high-street fashion becomes practice through shopping
in charity shops, and also in wearing her boyfriend’s jeans. She is able to thus deal
with the potentially alienating features of mass fashion in terms of both the rapidly
changing temporal cycles and its perceived inauthenticity. Although authenticity is
a highly contested term, it was used by many women I worked with in discussing
their relationships to clothing. It is a term through which they articulated their own
practices; the authentic is often perceived as being in opposition to commercially
produced styles. This opposition is problematic when seen in the light of the ways
in which commerce appropriates and represents everyday consumption patterns. In
the case of denim jeans, this happens through processes such as distressing, where
the abrasion of the fabric through wearing is replicated through commercial design processes. It also happens through the selling of ‘boyfriend jeans’ in various
high street stores, as they tap into the borrowing practices that women partake in.
Boyfriend jeans are both a commercially produced style, and are also, in Steph’s
case, based upon borrowing her actual boyfriends jeans, as she tells me they are the
‘real thing’, as they come to seem more authentic by virtue of once being worn by
her boyfriend. In wearing men’s jeans she is also drawing upon the original narratives of denim jeans, which, in its origins, is a masculinized trajectory. The jeans she
borrows are pure cotton (with no elastane fibres, as is the practice with the majority
of current women’s jeans), which serves to accentuate the authentic connotations of
the masculinized, pure cotton, blue denim. She has worn the jeans on and off for two
years now, and the jeans have become more personalized through both her boyfriend
and Steph wearing them. This process over time allows her to step outside of the
constantly changing temporal cycles of fast fashion. They can be seen to form a
rejection of the alleged speed of fast fashion, as they acquire their meaning through a
slow process of abrading and being worn down. The jeans become personalized not
by directly taking on her body shape (as is the case when women wear more fitted
jeans over a period of time). Instead as the jeans are worn down at the base as they
drag on the floor and so the relationship between her body and the jeans is different
to that which her boyfriend had (as the worn-down area of the knees falls below her
In the preceding example, the jeans are seen as authentic because they were not
bought by Steph as the commercial women’s wear category of ‘boyfriend jeans’
but belonged to her boyfriend. In other examples in my fieldwork, authenticity is
evidenced in the histories of wear that are apparent in the fabric. It derives from the
patina of age, which is present in denim where the fabric has abraded and become
softened as the soft white cotton fibres show through. This wearing can be either
150 • Sophie Woodward
a personalized process, as they are worn habitually over a long period of time, or,
in the example to be discussed here, of someone who not only wears the jeans of a
former partner but jeans that have been worn by several members of her extended
family. Vivienne, a former political campaigner and researcher in her fifties living in north London, has one pair of jeans that used to be black denim but are now
worn down to a faded grey colour, with soft white patches, where the soft cotton
fibres have worn through. These jeans are fourth hand and were given to her by her
daughter’s boyfriend (formerly worn by her daughter, and her boyfriend’s father).
In the previous example of Steph the jeans externalize the relationship between two
individuals and in a broader sense this is what boyfriend jeans encapsulate. This
example serves to highlight the ways in which multiple relationships, and also forms
of intimacy, may be present within one item of clothing. Jamieson (1998) has argued
that the intimate relationship between two people, as exemplified by Giddens’ pure
relationship (1992), has been idealized in contemporary society. This idealization
has served to obscure, in Jamieson’s account, the multiple forms of intimacy – such
as practical caring, dependency, sharing – within any one relationship and within
many different forms of relationships. So too here, the journey of the jeans does not
reify one relationship, but has incorporated several family members. The jeans do
not carry any one person’s body, but are gradually altered by each wearer in turn.
The jeans have passed between more than one family, making a connection between
Although, in the previous example, Steph is not treating the jeans as something
to be preserved as they are – she still refers to them as her boyfriend’s jeans (even
though they have been longer in her possession). They are strongly associated with
the former wearer and, as they are loose and baggy, they have not taken on Steph’s
body even through repeated acts of wearing. In the case of Vivienne’s jeans, they
are not used to remember a specific person, but rather by being worn by a series of
people, each person leaves their traces on the garment as it materializes the network
of connections between them. The vestigial traces of the wearers are present within
the worn down nature of the jeans, yet as the jeans have been passed between people,
these traces overlap and it is hard to identify any individual pattern of wear. The
jeans come to materialize the passage of time and the construction of the family. The
connections between people that are being discussed here are very different from
formalized notions of a genealogy. Weiner and Schneider (1989) cite Gitting’s research into funerals and the transition in the seventeenth century to people having to
provide their own black drapes for funerals. They discuss this as a point of transition
for clothing in the context of the West as it ‘no longer expressed the continuity of
the groups with ancestral authority and their reproduction through time’ (Weiner and
Schneider 1989: 11). What this does not account for is the informal passing on of
clothing or gifting of items, which establishes a connection between generations or
between family members. Even in a climate with dominant values of individualism,
this always exists in relationship to wider social relations in which it is embedded
Jeanealogies • 151
from which it arises. The individual is always constituted relationally, seen through
clothing practices in the wearing of borrowed and gifted clothing. As these relationships develop and change throughout the life course, Stanley (1992) has questioned
and challenged the conventional way that biography is understood as the story of an
isolated individual. Instead she argues that significant others cannot be reduced to
the position of ‘shadowing figures’ as the biographical self is constructing through
relationships to others. This is seen as much within the wardrobe a woman owns,
as women draw in their relationships to others in their clothing choices. This is
reflected within an individual item like Vivienne’s jeans, which carry many different
wearers. Each individual personalizes the item and the one pair of jeans interconnects many different people.
In both the cases of Vivienne and Steph, the wearing of the jeans of others allows
a stepping outside of fashion, borrowing clothes from others is an alternative sourcing strategy to the high street. This is part of Vivienne’s wider strategies towards
clothing, as she owns very few new items of clothing, with many being so old and
worn that they are falling apart, as her daughters often pass items up to her. Although
this distancing of themselves from fashion can be linked to buying and sourcing
from second-hand shops there is a point of difference as bought second hand involve
an imagined, anonymous narrative. For Steph, she is wearing jeans that connect her
to one other person, and for Vivienne, the jeans allow her to become part of a woven
network of the narratives of a series of people. It allows her to define herself through
her connectedness to others; it is jeans that allow her to do this most effectively as
it carries the personalized traces of the wearers, yet the jeans have now softened so
much in places that they are threatening to disintegrate all together.
The Impermanence and Fragility of Relationships
Vivienne’s jeans have lasted long enough to carry the imprint of several wearers, but
they will not last forever. The simultaneous durability and fragility of denim will be
explored through this final example of Georgia, a woman in her early twenties. The
jeans in questions cannot be called her ‘boyfriend’ jeans, as she has an ambiguous
relationship with a man whom she has been ‘seeing’ for over six months. He refuses
to use the word ‘boyfriend’ and she is unsure whether he is seeing other girls; they
meet up regularly, yet the lack of definition of their relationship means she feels uncertain as to when he will come and see her next.
This example highlights the problems with Giddens’ (1992) pure relationship,
which is based upon the freedom of choice of two individuals, who are self-reflexive
over their feelings and desires, which leads to a relationship between equals.
Numerous critiques of Giddens, such as Jackson (1996), suggest that this fails to
account for the persistence of inequalities. As Duncombe and Marsden (1999: 103)
note, what contemporary relationships characterize more widely is not the equality
152 • Sophie Woodward
that Giddens so optimistically touts, but that sexual differences persist. Georgia
exemplifies this, as she confides on occasion that she wishes he was her boyfriend.
Although she harbours this wish at the moment, while he thwarts her desire for
a steady relationship, this situation may well change were he to capitulate. For
Georgia, a key part of her social relationships are friendships with other women, a
key topic being the hopelessness of men. This highlights a problematic and complex
relationship between public narratives, personal narratives and everyday practice.
There are public stories about gendered expectations of relationships – for instance that ‘all women want commitment’ and ‘men want to sleep around’ (Hollway
1984), another one being ‘all men are bastards’, which Georgia at times highlights.
The narrative she adopts does not negate the fact that she simultaneously expresses
a desire to be connected to this particular man, and how these public narratives of
‘wanting a good boyfriend’ seep into her own expectations. This also highlights a
paradox between a possible desire for independence, being single and bonding with
her female friends, and also the desire for connection. Dependency and connection
to others start to raise questions about the ‘pure relationship’. This example also
problematizes an understanding of relationships based merely upon the verbal, as is
assumed in notions of ‘disclosure’ taking a central place in a relationship, which does
not allow for contradiction. This is similarly true for the notion of reflexivity: wearing his jeans may also signify an absence of reflexivity and a desire, on occasion,
to allow a material connection to this man, without verbalizing her contradictory
experiences and feelings. These may be too complex to articulate. This reflexivity is
also not gender neutral; Hochschild (cited in Heaphy 2007: 142) develops the idea of
emotional labour in particular workplaces that some women have to master as part
of their jobs. Heaphy (2007) has argued that this is as true at the level of relationships, where the expectation is for women to be more reflexive.
Even when Georgia’s man is not in her flat, he is still present by virtue of the
items he has left there. Some are left deliberately, such as a toothbrush and a warm
winter jumper, and others are items she has bought back to her flat when she goes to
see him. If they go out one evening, and she goes back to his house, so as not to look
like a ‘dirty stop out’ (her words) the next day, she borrows a pair of jeans or a shirt.
For days after, she may carry on wearing the jeans, but only around the house, until
he reclaims them on his next visit. He is over six inches taller than her, and so, as
in the first case study, when the jeans are worn they hang loose from her hip bones,
and drag over her feet unless she rolls them over at the top. When she first puts them
on, they still carry his scent, and are softened by him wearing them. The jeans are
still animated by the last time he wore them as they have loosened around his knees,
carrying the smell of his sweat and aftershave, as if they are a living garment making
him seem present in her flat still. The size and looseness of the jeans emphasize her
vulnerability as the jeans carry her absent lover’s ghostly presence. She is able to
feel comforted by wearing the jeans in the face of the uncertainty of whether she
will see him again. She wears them when she feels her most vulnerable, and as she
Jeanealogies • 153
can still remember the feel of his body and arms around her, the jeans wrap around
her body too as they mediate his presence and his absence. When she feels her most
vulnerable, she is only able to partially verbalize this, as instead it is materialized:
her simultaneous vulnerability and connectedness to him, as the jeans act as a form
of security and stability that the relationship itself may not offer. The jeans have
taken on his body shape and his scent and in wearing them it is as if she is able to
inhabit the second skin of his jeans.
She only wears the jeans in the house and, even then, it is only on occasion and as
such wearing his jeans is in many ways very different to her usual relationship with
her clothing. Wearing the jeans helps her to negotiate the uncertainty of this particular relationship. There is a strong assumption that clothing in the contemporary UK
is about ‘expressing yourself’, or is linked to individuality (see Woodward 2005
for a critique of this). In this instance, Georgia is adopting a completely opposite
strategy: she is relinquishing her claims to be an individual in this moment, and
instead wants to attach herself to her absent lover. When she is alone, after he has
left her – this is when she feels vulnerable. Wearing clothing owned by others (or
in other occasions gifted) enmeshes the individual back into social relationships: in
this case her relationship to him when they are apart. As I have already discussed,
the self is always constituted through multiple relationships, yet on this occasion it
is only one relationship that she can conceive of herself through, and the clothing
allows her to continue the connections to him. Wearing his jeans allows a simultaneous acknowledgment that she feels comforted and also her sense of vulnerability.
She is also implicitly acknowledging that the relationship itself is not permanent.
The connections between clothing, social relations and permanence have been explored, albeit in very different contexts, by Weiner (1989). In two examples, in the
Trobriand Islands and Western Samoa, she explores how cloth is used to symbolize
kinship relationships and groups and how these same kinship identities are ‘translated into political authority’ through clothing, (Weiner 1989: 33). Her discussion is
useful in highlighting how the properties of cloth are such that, in each case, they
effectively manage to materialize kinship relationships and their connections to
authority. The cloths she refers to in the Trobriand Islands are bundles of banana
leaves (which involve extensive labour) and women’s fibrous skirts (which are
distributed after someone’s death). Women’s cloth wealth ‘serves as the anchoring
matrilineal force, demonstrating the success of regeneration in the face of death’
(Weiner 1989: 40). In the case of Western Samoa, where chiefs’ rankings are also associated with certain descent groups yet are not given by birth, the cloths she refers
to are fine mats made from pandanus fibres, which are delicately plaited and soft as
fine linen (and are more demanding to make than Trobriand bundles). The question
Weiner (1989: 62) addresses through both of these examples is why cloth, which she
terms ‘soft wealth’ is utilized as a symbol of authority and kinship identities, and
not ‘hard wealth’, which would serve as a more permanent record. Weiner argues
that it is precisely the impermanence of cloth that makes it effective as it captures
154 • Sophie Woodward
the vulnerability of power. The cloths utilized in each case have some permanence,
when they outlast an individual life-span, yet the characteristics of cloth are such
that ‘as it rots and disintegrates, bring to the histories of persons and lineages the
reality of life’s ultimate incompleteness’ (Weiner 1989: 63).
Although this is a very different context from the one I outlined earlier in this
chapter, the ideas about how cloth effectively materializes permanence and impermanence can be applied to the issue of the way in which denim mediates relationships
to others. Denim carries the former wearer on numerous different levels; the most
fleeting way being the traces of the living body directly after wearing, as the fabric
is still warm from the body and carries its scents, which disappear as the jeans are
washed. The fabric itself also carries the wearer in a more permanent way through
continued wearing, the moving body leads to body- and usage-specific patterns of
wearing and the fabric wears down. The more fleeting traces of the living body and
the slightly more permanent traces of bodily movements co-exist. In Georgia’s case
she wears the jeans to feel connected to her absent lover, yet at the same time, as his
living traces do not remain, and she has to give back the jeans, she simultaneously
recognizes that the relationship itself is fleeting. Denim very effectively mediates
this ambivalence, due to the ambivalences that inhere to the fabric – it is both rigid
and it softens; it lasts but it does not last for ever. This sense of the impermanent
traces of others is present in all of the examples discussed, as the wearing of the jeans
of others allows for informality in the connections between people. For example,
Vivienne’s jeans have taken on several wearers and are able to incorporate different
branches and members of the family. Weiner’s primary focus is upon the making
and the exchange of cloths, yet in my ethnography, although items are passed on,
the emphasis is upon the wearing and the relationship between body and garment.
Through this dynamic relationship, the form and texture of denim changes, as it is
mutable and shifting in its interplay between toughness and relative durability, with
a process of change and ageing as the fragile soft threads are revealed.
This chapter has used the idea of a ‘jeanealogy’ as a tool to think about how denim
externalizes and helps negotiate a particular kind of relationship. A genealogy in its
most widely applied incarnation involves tracing a family tree right back to the original ancestors. This is understood in an evolutionary sense, or even in the popular
meanings as tracing a family’s previous generations in an attempt to plot the family’s
ancestors. The jeanealogy proposed in this article is somewhat different. Weiner and
Schneider can be seen to embody the classic anthropological sense of a genealogy
when they note that in the West clothing does not express a groups continuity ‘ancestral authority and their reproduction through time’ (Weiner and Schneider 1989: 11).
However, the relationships that I am considering here are more fluid and informal.
Jeanealogies • 155
Taking the example of Vivienne as a case in point, the daughter has now separated
from the boyfriend from whom she received the jeans, and the jeans have disintegrated. In many instances there is not such a convenient correlation between the
biography of the clothing and that of the relationship, as a desire to remember someone might outlive the clothing that disintegrates and dies too soon. This example
does, however, highlight the impermanence of relationships that are absented from a
formal genealogy. The jeanealogies I have traced here are informal, intransient, and
partial as they may include fragments of incomplete relationships. This is particularly apt in the case of boyfriend jeans, given that these are predominantly worn by
younger women and such relationships are particularly vulnerable to terminating.
The three examples all show different ways in which women may negotiate their
relationships through clothing. For Steph this is about a relationship to a specific
individual, her boyfriend, yet the jeans are a means through which she can expand
upon the possibilities of her own wardrobe. Relationships are instead a means
through which to expand upon the possibilities of the self (Osteen 2002), as clothing is a material means through which this can be negotiated. The individual and
relationships to others are not mutually exclusive but relations to others may be the
medium through which women may construct a personal aesthetic. What Steph’s
example has in common with that of Vivienne is that both use jeans that were
originally someone else’s in order to step outside of mainstream fashion and use the
slower life cycle of a pair of jeans in order to do this. Even if commerce attempts to
appropriate the slow process of ageing of a pair of jeans through processes such as
distressing, for many women I worked with this carries connotations of inauthenticity, as fast fashion attempts to pick up the personalization and the gradual changes of
a pair of jeans. In Miller and Woodward (2007) we discussed how the generic-ness
of a pair of jeans is something that people could use to reattach them to the world
when they feel the most vulnerable and separated from social relations. This was discussed in relation to an ethnographic example of someone who was paralysed with
indecisions over what to wear to a party and ended up wearing a pair of new jeans.
In this chapter, I have instead discussed how denim jeans are used to reconnect the
individual to a very specific relationship; by drawing upon denim’s capacity to carry
the former wearer. Whilst on some occasions the wearing of jeans may be about
the creation of an individual look, at other times it is very clearly about mitigating
against the problems of feeling adrift from connections to others, as jeans are able to
articulate this feeling of vulnerability and reconnect the individual. In a wider sense,
it has been argued by many that there are fewer norms, traditions and guidelines for
relationships, seen in the decline in traditional institutions like marriage, and also
in the shifting meanings of these institutions. At the same time, I would contend
that alongside a decline in such clearly defined traditions, there are also persistent
normative expectations, in some of the examples discussed here, of how a relationship should be. There is paradoxically less security as many traditional expectations
have been eroded, yet normative ideas persist alongside inequalities. Despite shifts
156 • Sophie Woodward
in intimacy and ways of relating, the relationship is far from the freedom of choice
that Giddens supposes. In the examples discussed here, jeans are able to mediate
multiple contradictions between dependency and independence, the burden of love
and the comfort of support (as expounded by Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995), and
vulnerability and connectedness.
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Corbman, B. (1985), Textiles: Fiber to Fabrics, New York: McGraw-Hill.
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Gendered Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Duncombe, J. and Marsden, D. (1999), ‘Love and Intimacy: The Gendered Division
of Emotion and “Emotion Work”’, in G. Allan (ed.), The Sociology of Family
Life, Oxford: Blackwell.
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Giddens, A. (1992), The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism
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S. Jackson and S. Scott (eds), Feminism and Sexuality: A Reader, Edinburgh:
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Jeanealogies • 157
Levy, A. (2006), Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture,
New York: Free Press.
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Carrot-cut Jeans: An Ethnographic Account of
Assertiveness, Embarrassment and Ambiguity
in the Figuration of Working-class Male
Youth Identities in Berlin
Adapting Georg Simmel’s classic reflections on fashion, Daniel Miller and Sophie
Woodward (2007: 341–2) have suggested that the near-global ubiquity of jeans offers people different ways of negotiating the conflicting socio-cultural forces of
conformity and individuality. In Woodward’s British study, for instance, using a
familiar and hardly spectacular example, jeans provided a ‘relief from the burden of
mistaken choice and anxious self-composition’ that women continuously felt (Miller
and Woodward 2007: 343). In terms of experience, the authors argue, such conflicting forces manifest in locally differentiated ‘genres of anxiety’. With an anthropological sensibility both for the grain of experience and for local-global dynamics,
they call for inquiries into specific versions of such genres, from the vantage point of
this particular type of clothing, denim, and for compiling ‘the responses that populations forge for themselves in dealing with certain contradictions of modernity’
(Miller and Woodward 2007: 348). This chapter is a contribution toward this end. It
engages ethnographically with one such situation, the popularity of a specific type
of denim, the carrot-cut (a high-waist pant that fits comparatively tightly around the
behind and the crotch, widens a bit toward the knee, and narrows again toward the
hem – loosely resembling the shape of the vegetable) and a specific brand, Picaldi
Jeans, among a large number of boys and young men in Berlin (and in Germany
more widely), first as an ethnic youth practice, and then increasingly in connection
with German ‘gangsta rap’.
In depicting the practices and distinctions within this context, I also take up
the notion of ‘anxiety’ and widen it into the social field, taking into account other
people’s responses to and judgments of the style represented by those jeans.
These responses become quite heated, as this subcultural style involves issues of
– 159 –
160 • Moritz Ege
a ssertiveness, deviance, racism, and class contempt or even disgust.1 While this brief
analysis provides no more than a snapshot of this phenomenon, the overall project
is undertaken in order to contribute to an understanding of the cultural processes
which co-constitute post-working-class identities and figures (see below) within
an increasingly diverse European society in which socioeconomic forces and an
activating, neoliberalizing welfare state have made the fault lines of social inequalities – both in terms of class and ethnicity – increasingly visible.2 In the language
of public discourse, this concerns the joint problematic of ‘immigrant integration’
(Integration von Ausländern) and the emergence and consequent social management
of a ‘new underclass’ (cf. the policy debate pushed forward by, for instance, Nolte
2004) in post-fordist times through increasingly disciplinary-paternalistic types of
In the first section of this chapter, I briefly lay out the situation in which these
local ‘genres of anxiety’ arise. This involves some aspects of local migrant youth
cultural history and aesthetics, developments within the genre of rap music internationally, and the transnational history of a small business. For the sake of concreteness, I also thickly describe some of the ways in which people wear those jeans and
their differential relations with other options. The second section takes the form of a
case study in which I portray one individual person, in order to represent some of the
complexities and life-world relevancies. On the level of experience, I highlight the
motive of ambiguity with regard to toughness and deviance which this person communicates and reflects and which, in my analysis, plays a large role in the overall
cultural dynamics surrounding the ‘Picaldi style’.3 The third section takes up some
of the ways in which other, more middle-class or respectability-oriented people
view the jeans and the style – and I use this term broadly – they have come to stand
for. This touches on the politics of labelling and embarrassment more broadly, as
they relate to contemporary constellations of culture, class, ethnicity, and gender –
seen through an analytical lens of classificatory cultural dynamics (Bourdieu 1984;
Neckel 2003) and figuration: I take the concepts of cultural figures and figuration,
which obviously have an extensive intellectual history, mainly from the American
anthropologist John Hartigan who states that ‘figures call attention to the way people
come to consider their identities in relation to potent images that circulate within a
culture.’ In Germany, one crucial ascription in this context is the term ‘Proll’, which
has been in use since the 1970s. Connotationally, the word retains its etymology (the
proletariat, the working-class), but its denotational meaning is primarily behavioural
and performative. Dictionaries list ‘Prolet’ as a ‘person who lacks manners’ and
‘Proll’ as a ‘coarse, uneducated, vulgar person’ (Duden 1999: 3024). These terms are
being used in shifting and imprecise ways, which indicate, as I will argue, a number
of uncertainties or anxieties. While the Berlin case is in some respects unique even
within Germany, similar sociocultural processes of ‘figuration’ are taking place in
many European countries, the most well-known being the case of the ‘chav’ figure in
the UK, which emerged around 2004 (Tyler 2008).
Carrot-cut Jeans • 161
Carrot-cut Jeans: From ‘Saddle’ to ‘Zicco’, from Diesel to Picaldi
As so often, the narrative is a part of the phenomenon. Picaldi’s story is a part of
local lore, transmitted by word-of-mouth and through a few journalistic accounts.
Picaldi’s carrot-cut jeans4 are based on a denim model by Diesel Jeans (‘Saddle’),
which has been in continuous demand from, among others, youth and young adults
with Turkish, Arab and other migrant backgrounds, since at least the mid-1980s,
but has been considered outdated at best by many other style-conscious young people, and the press and the fashion world more generally, for a long time. In the late
1990s, before Diesel stopped selling this model, it was copied and re-branded by a
small-scale local retailer, Unplugged, who ordered a batch of this design from an
Istanbul-based manufacturer, named Picaldi, which had been founded in 1988, but
hadn’t been producing that type of jean. Since then, the retailer’s store in BerlinKreuzberg has grown into a small retail chain with twelve stores, an online dealership, and a handful of franchises in other cities. Moreover, Picaldi has been transformed, in Germany, from an obscure manufacturer’s name, which was typeset to
resemble a famous brand, into a relatively well-known brand of its own, albeit a
In many arenas of urban social interaction, the type of jeans in general, the
carrot-cut (‘Karottenschnitt’, see below), and the brand in particular acquired the
status of a marker of both ethnic and lifestyle identity among boys and young men
with Turkish, Arab and other immigrant backgrounds, most of whom come from
working-class, relatively low-income families.6 It plays a significant part in creating identities within adverse circumstances. Many customers describe their own
outfits as ‘gangster style’ or ‘gangsta style’, referring to imagined or real connections
to organized crime, the shadow economy, and gangsta/gangster figures in various
registers of international popular culture. Another term that is frequently used is
‘Kanakenstyle’, which takes up a partly re-signified, but still offensive, racist insult.
In its initial advertising and store decoration, Picaldi built on gangster references,
putting up ‘Scarface’ screenshots, and stressed their cheap prices, comparing themselves, tongue-in-cheek, to a discount supermarket chain (‘Nix Aldi, Picaldi!’).
Picaldi’s jeans were sold much cheaper than Diesel’s ‘Saddle’, at about 35 euros or
half the price.
Picaldi found a second major group of dedicated customers, largely workingclass, white German young men in the former East (of the city and the country),
many of whom live in areas with a small presence of immigrants, relatively low
average incomes, a high unemployment rate. The spread or diffusion of this specific
style from an immigrant, lower or working-class setting to an autochtonous lower
or working-class group can be described as transversal in character in that it crosses
the social field, bypassing the symbolic centre. One the face of it, this combination of niche markets seems surprising, given the prevalence of anti-immigrant and
racist sentiments among the latter group. In the case of Picaldi’s original customer
162 • Moritz Ege
base, this type of outfit was in fashion long before the company picked them up.
The stylistic practice and inventiveness seems thus relatively autonomous from
commercial strategies. In the East German case, there exists a specific continuity
regarding milieu-specific taste preferences, tied to masculine body images, movement sequences, and overall style in the presentation of self. This partly explains the
popularity of this type of denim, and the brand that has come to stand for it, across
an ethnic line that is otherwise much harder to traverse.
In socioeconomic and occupational terms, Picaldi’s customer base is somewhat
diverse, but it is predominantly – though certainly not exclusively – recruited from
the working class and lower middle class, and, in terms of the education system,
from the vocationally oriented middle and high schools (Hauptschulen, Realschulen,
Berufsschulen). Both the views of many Picaldi employees I interviewed and a small
customer survey (with about 100 respondents) I completed in late 2007 confirm
this assumption. Much to the chagrin of many among the company’s leaders and
employees, in the view of outsiders and in various media outlets, ‘Picaldi’ has come
to stand much more narrowly for an ‘underclass’ of welfare recipients and violent
offenders; the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, for instance, illustrated a reporting
piece on living conditions of unemployment/welfare-recipients (Hartz IV) with the
high price of a pair of Picaldi jeans, and various other articles in the press reiterated
A Type of Jeans: Shapes and Distinctions
None of this is independent of the object in question itself – its form, the aesthetics
of the male body it shapes, and the relational position of this type of jeans among
other available option that are intentionally not chosen. This type of jeans, which
Picaldi markets under the name ‘Zicco’ (and many other names for individual models), is often called ‘carrot-cut’ (Karottenschnitt).8 It is a high-waist pant, which
Figure 8.1. Abbildung 2: Picaldi advertisements from 2004/2005.
Carrot-cut Jeans • 163
makes for a higher fit than other denim cuts. It fits relatively tightly around the behind and the crotch, it widens toward the knee, and it narrows again toward the hem.9
Compared to other men’s carrot-cut jeans, these features are especially pronounced
in the Zicco. Over time, Picaldi also introduced a wide variety of colours, dyes, appliqués and prints, as well as some other fabrics such as beige or light blue corduroy.
Most salespeople agree that the Zicco is made to be worn rather high, on the
waist. Depending on the wearer’s physique and the combination with other clothing
items, this can make for different looks; many ‘big guys’ wear the jeans ‘high’, as
originally intended by the designers, and they wear knit sweaters or sweatshirts with
a waistband, maybe even tucked into the jeans, and/or a bomber or college/baseball
jacket. Doing so supports the V-effect on the upper body, the stress upon narrow
waistline and broad shoulders. This ‘pumps up’, as people say (es pumpt auf), the
trousers seem sportive (sportlich), masculine (männlich) and figure-accentuating
(figurbetont), as most salespeople and customers put it in in-store conversations. The
men’s appearance is one of being ‘broadly built’ (breit gebaut), ‘like Michelin men’,
as a designer calls it, laughingly. (I will return to the character of such laughs.) The
overall look is somewhat related to that of a sweat pant or the type of lighter pant
that bodybuilders often wear. With their skinnier legs and narrower shoulders, many
customers, especially the younger ones, lack the muscular physique needed to fill
out the trousers, as it were, but they nonetheless wear them high-waist. The fabric,
which isn’t very heavy in most models, dangles a bit and is, for instance, blown
back by the wind. The jeans seem wider. This results in a different body appearance
which, however, remains tied to the scheme mentioned above. As a Picaldi spokesperson put it in an interview: ‘In those jeans, one automatically has an imposing appearance: muscular thighs, good behind, stately pace. That highlights the masculine
aspect.’10 Many, however, wear t-shirts that aren’t tucked in, or sweaters and jackets
without a waistband, which results in a less obvious look.11
Figure 8.2. Zicco, worn rather low; Picaldi catalogue Spring/Summer 2008, S. 6.
164 • Moritz Ege
The second option for wearing the Zicco jeans is to buy them in a larger size.
This, of course, makes the fit looser, and one can wear the jeans lower, on the hip.
Worn in that low-rise way, they are almost reminiscent of baggy pants, without being
quite as wide and long.
The aforementioned taste-predispositions in different groups are remarkable in
themselves, as they fundamentally contradict many accounts of tendencies toward
postmodern classlessness in youth culture. However, these traditions might not
have been relevant to this extent had they not been reinforced by other, converging
developments within hip hop/rap music, which played a crucial role in the process
of figuration. This markedly verbal-discursive genre, by now the dominant idiom for
large parts of youth culture and split up into a variety of subscenes, has been crucial
to Picaldi’s unexpected expansion. Picaldi jeans became discursively entwined with
a few commercially successful local rap artists, most of them in the gangsta rap
mould. In this process, the brand has not only been popularized, it became tied up
with a distinction integral to these rappers’ confrontational mode of self-fashioning.
I cannot do justice to this scene, its aesthetics or its politics here. In the early
years of the decade, the focus of national attention shifted to the Berlin scene. To
put it somewhat crudely, a widely adopted stance there was that the previously
dominant scenes in German rap were doing hip hop in an ultimately inauthentic12
way (‘All MCs are gay in Germany’, ‘Alle MCs sind schwul in Deutschland’, as
Kool Savas put it),13 whereas Berlin rappers had both fewer politically correct inhibitions and better rap skills and also, in many cases, an authenticating ‘street’
background. One version of this self-positioning motive, put forth by Bushido most
prominently, concerned clothing: in this view, just like others lacked the experiential
background that would qualify them for ‘authentic’ rap, they put on American-style
baggy jeans, ‘fake’ costumes, whereas ‘real’ street-savvy gangsters and hustlers
wore brands such as Cordon and Picaldi. This distinction also plays out on the level
of shape and physique. Straight-cut baggy pants are famously worn ‘low’ on the
hip or, more often, further down, so that the behind can hardly be made out. From
shoes to shoulders, the silhouette has the shape of an A (as in the shape of the classic
graffiti character type with shoes larger than the head) rather than a ‘carrot’ below
the belt and a V above it, as with the carrot-cut: Wearing a carrot-cut, one still has
‘an ass in one’s pants’ (einen Arsch in der Hose), as a German idiom, referring to
courage and self-assertion, goes.14 In this context, then, there is something like an
antagonistic relationship between the carrot-cut and baggy jeans – however serious
or playful this antagonism is imagined. The differential relation between the carrotcut and straight-cut jeans, in contrast, derives primarily from a sequence, not an
antagonism; here, biographical phases and status passages come into play. Many of
Picaldi’s customers, by an age between sixteen and twenty-two, choose to give up
their Ziccos and pick ‘straight cuts’, which may signal an overall change in style and
attitude. This distinction reflects emic categories rather than the overall classification
language in the denim industry.
Carrot-cut Jeans • 165
Given this background, what does the life-world relevance of these jeans consist of?
Which distinctions and what forms of togetherness are being created, upheld, challenged or broken down in this process? What, specifically, characterizes the predominant ‘local genre(s) of anxiety’? In order to approach these questions and chart out
some answers on the level of experience, I choose a narrative case-study approach.
The person I want to focus on is a young man I met in the course of field research,
Tarek M., who is twenty years old. While he should not be considered an all-round
‘typical representative’ of a social group or a habitus, but rather a case of complexity,
a homme pluriel (cf. Lahire 2001), I argue that his case does indeed exemplify some
intersubjective dynamics that in part constitute the overall context.
Tarek M. was born and raised in a relatively ‘quiet’ district on the south-west
side of Berlin to a Lebanese father and a German mother, both of whom run a small
grocery store in the neighbourhood. He is the youngest of four siblings. In the year in
which Tarek and I have been meeting every once in a while, he has been in a difficult
overall situation in terms of the transition from school to work. He mostly lives with
his parents and he helps out in his parents’ store, for which he receives no monetary
pay, but he has not been able to secure the car salesman apprenticeship he wishes to
take up, and he failed the entry exam at the Mercedez-Benz factory, where only a
few applicants succeed every year.
Symbolic Boundaries and Social Relations
With regard to the style-identity-place-nexus, Tarek recalls the big change that occurs at the transition from primary to secondary school. In seventh grade, students
enter a secondary school, an Oberschule, and they become tracked into different
schools according to their grades and the teachers’ verdict on their abilities, which
brought him to a Hauptschule, the lowest-achieving option out of the three school
types. There one inevitably meets people from other areas and begins to make spontaneous classifications, affinities and alliances based on style, among other things,
he says. At that point, in Tarek’s class, there was a clear break, socially and spatially, between those who were considered ‘Germans’ and those who were informally
designated as ‘foreigners’ (i.e. descendants of recent immigrants, many of whom
do not have German citizenship), which registered in different ways, for instance
in seating arrangements. The ‘Germans’ made up about two-thirds of this class.
Simultaneously, the distinction between the cool ones and the others became important. First of all, in his view, the emerging patterns of clothing among boys were
very much an ethnic issue. ‘You could recognize it by the clothing immediately. We
were basically always dressed dark. Dark, casual (lässig).’ This distinction between
two groups of students appears to be saturated with discourses, images, and affects
166 • Moritz Ege
from a variety of media, including film, music, and local narrative lore. The local
discourse of Berlin rap at the time offered a particularly meaningful and attractive
way of making sense of one’s immediate surroundings. Furthermore, the primarysecondary school transition and the following years coincided with the rise of the
Picaldi style and its increasing semanticization in the context of the hip-hop world.
As I have shown above, Picaldi’s carrot-cut jeans, as opposed to baggy jeans, became one crucially important marker of difference in that context. In this particular
instance, then, subcultural and ethnic distinctions played themselves out very much
in accordance with the playbook I outlined: ‘The ones up front there [he points to the
other group on a sketch], they had [somewhat disgustedly] skater-pants, skate sweaters and things like that’, as Tarek says.
The classroom situation he recollects highlights emotional and affective undercurrents of such symbolic boundaries, which would suggest that there was some
awareness of being in a socially low-status environment, and on a problematic track.
The basic facts of discrimination were hard to ignore, from racist violence to smallscale resonances of structural exclusion such as, for instance, when he was the only
one among his ‘immigrant’ peer group whose citizenship status allowed him to join
a school trip abroad. On the other hand, on the experiential level, Tarek also speaks
of a sense of privilege, prestige, aesthetics and power among ‘the foreigners’, diese
Macht bei den Ausländern, echoing other ethnographic accounts. Even though he
and his friends were a minority in terms of numbers, in his account, for a variety of
reasons, they held interactional power (as opposed to institutional power), even dominance within the classroom, because of their assertiveness (Durchsetzungsfähigkeit)
and cohesion. Furthermore, they possessed what can be called cultural attractiveness, which amounts to another form of symbolic power. It becomes confirmed, for
instance, by the discursive framing in which Germans who took up style patterns
(language, dress) of youth with migrant backgrounds were considered ‘wannabeTurks’, and it is confirmed through a variety of folklore and representations. The
notion of male ‘swagger’, which recently underwent a revival in US popular culture
language, captures the homologies that pertain between the quality of assertiveness, the shape of a ‘masculine’ physique, and the Picaldi carrot-cut (cf. Skeggs
2004). Many other aspects of this experiential world could be considered, such as
the discursive motive of ‘foreigners’ cohesion versus Germans’ individualization
and dissociality (cf. Sutterlüty/Walter 2005, 194f), and one could attempt to trace
back their causes. This, however, is not the place to do so. Here, I have touched on
these experiences of simultaneous exclusion and assertiveness in order to specify
the generic fact that cultural meanings of specific pieces of clothing, such as a pair
of carrot-cut jeans, rely on emotions and affects that underlie symbolic boundaries.
Furthermore, the cultural semiotics of identity and alterity, as they manifest in clothing codes, are enmeshed not only with symbolic and imaginary (subcultural, ethnic)
communities, affinities, and figures, but also with ‘real’ groups, with interpersonal,
interaction-based networks. The classroom is one important setting, as are scene-like
Carrot-cut Jeans • 167
forms of urban sociality, and of course family relations, friendships, and partnerships. The importance of family and friendship networks in this regard becomes
apparent when we consider that for Tarek, as for most people in his social world,
shopping represents a touchy subject because of his financial situation. Not having
a significant source of income, he mostly depends on other people to spend money
for him, and he has been doing so for a longer time than is generally thought proper.
Hence, it is no longer his parents who supply his clothing, but his sister who buys
both basics such as jeans and, when money is flush, more expensive brand-name
items, such as much sought-after knit wool sweaters. In any case, this gift-giving
is part of a both practised and idealized sense of family reciprocity: She wants his
brother to look good; he is concerned with her well-being as well and, for instance,
frequently serves as her driver. This is not to suggest that there are no or few family
conflicts, but it shows some of the ways in which individual pieces of clothing carry
not only sentimental value, but also materialize interpersonal relations of love, care,
and control. Such relationships go beyond the family; in Tarek’s case, as with many
other people, clothes, such as jackets, sweatshirts, pants, watches, jewellery, are exchanged within an inner circle of friends. All of these aspects contribute to an understanding of the fact that the symbolic borderlines, despite their superficial and contingent nature can matter deeply and why, in this context, identity is easily harmed.
Embodiment, Figuration, and Ethics
Another highly charged issue concerns the normative side of relating to cultural
types more generally: imitation, mimesis, replication, emulation, or figuration. In a
process that is discursive and physical, people construct their identities and shape
their bodies in relation to the individuals, including stars and cultural heroes, they
positively relate to: visually, aurally, affectively. While doing so comes – as we all
know – with practical challenges, it also leads straight into the normative or even
ethical dilemmas of conformity and individuality that pervade teenage life. Tarek,
for instance, speaks animatedly about the relationship between the image that rap
music projects, the reality that people live, and the role of such representations.
In this respect, the last few years were a tumultuous time, given the fast rise of
German gangsta rap. When it comes to rappers like Azad, Bushido and Massiv,
many critical observers wonder whose commercial calculations are at play, who
benefits, what are the representational costs (in terms of prejudices and stereotypes)
and who bears these costs? Tarek, too, is concerned with the stereotypes that circulate about Ausländer. Almost whispering, he tells me he’s been listening more
closely, and critically, to rap lyrics and what they say. When it comes to the ways in
which people embody the cultural figures that circulate through popular culture, he
thinks, many people – young, male, youth with a migrant background, mostly, he
means here – exaggerate in ‘reflecting’ (widerspiegeln) the music. The question –
168 • Moritz Ege
‘Pseudo‑Gangstertum’ – is much-debated within the wider circles of rap music, as
is evident to anyone who has ever looked at a rap discussion forum or online video
comment section (cf. Androutsopoulos 2005: 172). People say, Tarek continues,
that Bushido ‘reflects’ the street. But really, it’s the other way around: people follow
Bushido’s every move, they copy him in whatever he does. It makes him angry because people do stupid and violent things they wouldn’t otherwise do, because they
get into a sort of arms race in which people show how crazy, how krass they are, and
furthermore (and this is a different, but important point), because in doing so, they
are like sheep.
This practice of ‘reflection’, in Tarek’s understanding, manifests both in that
people increasingly carry knives and in specific forms of demeanour and clothing.
‘Before there was this kind of rap, it wasn’t like this: one in three wears an Alpha
jacket, one in two wears an Alpha-Jacket. Back then, it was only the adults. The big
ones. The bodybuilders and the like, bouncers and so forth, they had Alpha jackets.
Now, suddenly, everyone has one.’15 This streetwear arms race, as it were, indicates
people’s questionable, presumptuous, sheepish, and ultimately destructive imitations
and identifications. He believes that in contrast to many others, he observes that
music’s malicious influence without distortion, and his stylistic practices are of a
different nature. I challenge Tarek who, as I have come to notice in an earlier session, wears an Alpha Industries jacket himself, and I ask him in what sense exactly
the people he talks about, the classic ‘cultural dupes’, are so different from himself.
In reference to other people not being able to keep reality and fiction apart, I object
that he and his friends seem able to do so, and from what I can tell, they also like
to come across as tough, in some way or another. ‘Oh, I know that difference. [It’s
a matter of upbringing, he says later.] But, you know, in order to scare people off
(abschrecken), I do what they talk about in music. You can scare people away. That’s
really the way it is.’
I ask him what situations he means, and he talks about meeting people from
outside the city who, he believes, suppose that Berlin is really tough, krass, and are
scared. He likes ‘confirming’ that stereotype. Then, automatically I act tough (ich
mache einen auf hart). When they . . . why should I make myself smaller than I am,
you know?’ He then goes on to talk about people from distant neighbourhoods in the
East, which are, as he points out elsewhere, known for the street dominance of white
German working-class ‘toughs’ and anti-immigrant violence.
You know, I don’t know, or maybe from Marzahn or so . . . Then I say, then I don’t
present myself . . . We’re no chicks (Küken)! Then I act tough (ich mache einen auf hart).
‘I’m from Tempelhof’, you know. . . That’s normal. But I’m not flicking my knife or
anything like that.
Obviously, some verbal posturing is going on here. At the same time, this going
back and forth between rhetorical escalation and de-escalation points to an ambiguity
Carrot-cut Jeans • 169
that is not merely rhetorical. Significantly, he stresses the performative level when
he uses phrases such as einen auf hart machen.16 In youth language, there are many
such metaphors that, in one way or another, differentiate between an intentional
subject, on the one hand, and his or her performances, on the other hand. In those
metaphors, the degree to which the subject controls or is controlled by that which
is performed, or by the immersive quality of an imagination, varies.17 Clothing is
among a number of practices within this problematic. In a context of discrimination,
racism, class disgust or negative classification, the question of embodying cultural
figures is highly charged and relevant both practically and normatively. I will explicate this relation in the remaining section of this paper.
‘Is he a good boy? Isn’t he a good boy? No one should know, that’s how I want it
to be’, Tarek says, smiling shyly. He’s referring to a cliché (guter Junge), which has
been used in rap quite a bit, and, in contracted form (Ersguterjunge) figures as the
name of Bushido’s rap label. Tarek’s girlfriend Steffi uses a female adaption as a
login on her laptop: Siesgutesmädchen. I had asked him about things and values that
really matter to him. The context of this utterance is ‘saving face’ and maintaining
a clean slate.
T: That’s the most important thing. But some people don’t do that. Save face,
I mean, and . . . For instance, in my case, it’s like – nothing bad can be said
about me. [M. Mhm.] About me . . . Maybe I’m doing bad stuff, but nobody
knows. [M. laughs softly] You know? That’s normal! As long as you don’t
know anything about me, you can’t gossip. You can guess what I do. But you
don’t know, you don’t know what I do. You know? [M: Okay.] That’s always
the question. Is he doing things? Is he not? Is he a good boy, is he not a good
boy? [M. laughs softly] When it comes to me, this remains an open question.
M: You remain a riddle?
T: For many, I do.
M: And for you, it’s important that it is that way?
T: Yes. That’s how it should remain.
There is an obvious situational irony at play: in this interview I, a researcher and
outsider through age, ethnicity and various aspects of cultural background, try to
find out various details about Tarek’s life, and I am very much in the same position
as the clueless anonymous ‘you’ (du, sometimes, agrammatically, ‘he’, er) that Tarek
talks about. In that sense, his statements figure as commentary to our relationship as
well as to his relationship to other people that surround him.
170 • Moritz Ege
In both instances, this ambiguity is a question of the ‘presentation of self’ and
‘impression management’ (Goffman 1959) through figuration. Despite its obvious
undertones of adolescent fantasy, there are at least two reasons why the ambiguity
he produces through this form of impression management should not be trivialized:
first, because there is some seriousness to the pole of toughness and violence within
Tarek’s life-world, not only in that people, including himself, do fight from time to
time, but also in that there is some proximity to crime. Tarek’s sister’s boyfriend, for
instance, was spending time in prison for violent assault as we were speaking, and
through the wider network of friends and cousins, he knows a few people involved
with ‘Lebanese mafia’ groups, which make up a significant segment of organized
crime in the city, especially the drug trade. Secondly, and relatedly, ambiguity should
be taken seriously as a cultural form because despite its obvious social costs, it has
an empowering quality, which helps us understand what these jeans – as one element
of a larger package – are on a subjective, experiential level.
Power, Spinoza famously posited, consists in the power to act, to affect and be
affected (cf. Hardt 2007). The ambiguity Tarek intends to communicate, then, can be
experienced as a small-scale, interaction-based form of power in both of these ways:
in burdening alter with the question as to ego’s violent or at least particularly assertive potential, ego ‘affects’ alter – scares him or her, for instance – and is himself
affected, in that he gains options that arise from alter’s confusion or passivity. For
instance (and this happens quite frequently), ego gains the option of de-escalating
– ‘I’m just playing with you’ – while seeming to never have made an effort to intimidate anyone in the first place. Such dramas are enacted on an everyday basis.
They often take spatial form, such as when individuals or small groups of people
demonstratively take up a disproportionate section of space and make others yield.
Very abstractly speaking, ambiguity of this kind can be considered a form of interactional advantage.
Such poses and the concomitant experiences are not new, but their shape and
significance depend on the specific cultural ‘moments’ of which they are elements.18
What matters (and varies) greatly, for instance, is the extent to which such poses are
supported by the logics and imaginaries of contemporary global popular culture,
their specific shape and politics, and their resonance with more local forms. In the
case at hand, this ambiguity on the level of impression management, I argue, seems
analogous to the ambiguous structure of the ‘real’ in gangsta rap, as it has been
analysed by various critics. In the context of gangsta rap, for instance, the question almost automatically arises in what sense conflicts between rappers (‘beef’)
are ‘real’. Despite the fact that the social contexts of US and German gangsta rap
are enormously different, much the same can be said for the ‘real’ and ‘beef’ in
German gangsta-rap. Were the shots fired in late 2007 (just before an album release)
on Massiv ‘real’ or were they staged? To what degree of violence will ‘beef’ between
rappers such Kool Savas and Eko Fresh, or between Sido and Bushido, or between
Fler and Bushido, lead? On the one hand, there certainly are ‘literalist’ interpre-
Carrot-cut Jeans • 171
tations of the genre, especially from young teenagers. On the other hand, many
appreciate the model of a successful cynic. For many more people, however, this
ambiguity (which, of course, isn’t necessarily exactly seen as such) is in itself a large
part of the pleasure of the genre. It can become appropriated as an attitude. Tarek’s
practices of impression management, which leave the question of whether he is a
‘good boy’ or ‘not a good boy’ intentionally open, provide a good example for such
analogies. These two forms of ambiguity seem to be mutually reinforcing, inspiring
and legitimating. Having that sort of resonance can be a powerful experience. A
theoretical account is given by Brian Massumi who theorizes figures in an abstract
but nonetheless evocative way, describing them, among other formulations, as ‘a
point of subjectification’ and ‘a gravitational pull around which competing orbits of
affect and thought are organized’ (Massumi 1998: 54).
Focusing on the ‘inside’ view, the experience of wearing the type of style that Picaldi
is the most prominent part of, then, often involves such ambiguities, which hold an
empowering quality for many. Specific projections of self-confidence are involved,
as is a degree of aggressive assertiveness. For a causal explanation of these attitudes, one would have to consider the interplay of cultural dynamics and broader,
structural social forces, and complete this account with other aspects of experience,
which is an important task that I cannot accomplish here. Instead, in a provisional
step of cultural analysis, I wish to further characterize the ‘local genre of anxiety’ by
taking into account other, equally partial, but in some ways more socially powerful
Picaldi is, as its press spokesperson puts it euphemistically, an ‘emotional brand’.
Many people actively dislike it; moreover, they despise it. One rap-aficionado I interviewed said he’d ‘rather cut [his] balls off’ than wear Picaldi. Another, who owns
an urban/streetwear store, immediately started talking about ‘Stone-Age people’
and said that since he’s been selling to people like that he avoids his own store’s
sales floor and basically hides away in his office. People regularly roll their eyes or
laugh uncomfortably when the brand name is mentioned. There are nightclubs with
‘No Picaldi’ signs on their door. A sales clerk told me of a school in which Picaldi
clothing was not allowed (though I have not been able to verify this). Searching for
Picaldi on social networking sites such as Studi-VZ, Myspace or Facebook, one
finds fan-page groups and groups with titles such as ‘Thanks to Picaldi, I am able to
immediately spot idiots.’
Such a list of impressions could be expanded and transformed into an entire
phenomenology of dislike, contempt and disgust – both in the multiethnic western
and in the predominantly ‘German’ eastern part of the city. Moreover, it indicates
a basic fact of contemporary culture: despite undeniable tendencies toward a plu-
172 • Moritz Ege
ralization of identities that can be ‘recognized’ and seen as ‘legitimate’, in youth
culture, too, there are basic ethnic and class divides that underpin cultural identities.
A crucial concept in the language of disgust and contempt is peinlich which translates as ‘embarrassing’. In the attitudes that many (basically, but not exclusively,
middle- and upper-class) people hold toward Picaldi and its customers – and this
concerns different forms of dislike – projected embarrassment is an important
characteristic. Especially in teenage culture, a person, and not only a situation, can
be seen as peinlich, ‘embarrassing’ in that sense. Why, though, would those jeans
and the style they belong to be thought of as embarrassing in the first place? There
certainly are people who feel shame, embarrassment, or humiliation in specific situations, and more widely as well, because they are wearing Picaldi clothing and others
disapprove of that. The crucial point here, however, is that some people think, or
viscerally sense, that others should be embarrassed. Used in that sense, the adjective
peinlich (embarrassing) refers to an ascription of shame. Of course, the relevance
of such ‘demands’ would be diminished if ‘communities’ autonomously set their
own standards, social relations were experienced as straightforwardly antagonistic,
or pluralistic cultural democracy had arrived. Indeed, obviously, most of Picaldi’s
customers most likely do not feel embarrassed at all. They may not be consciously
aware of such dislikes, or they may not care. Lacking an awareness of or regard
for other people’s judgment is a basic characteristic of the type of assertiveness
under consideration here, after all. Popular culture lends discursive frameworks
to such sentiments of disregard. In his song ‘Sonnenbank Flavour’, for instance,
Bushido lists various aspects of both ‘street’ toughness and lifestyle practices, and
he describes himself as ‘being on the Proll-track’ (Proll-Schiene). In doing so, he
articulates a self-confident identification with a much-ridiculed cultural figure.
These kinds of value charge reversals and re-significations are, of course, common throughout histories of popular culture, and they play a role in this cultural
field as well. In this case, however, the reversal isn’t complete or sustainable, as
despite such examples, the epithet so far has not turned into an unproblematic term
Male physicality and sexual attractiveness are crucial to the issue of projected
embarrassment as well. With regard to the carrot-cut jean, such questions are alluded
to, for instance, in press reports about Picaldi, where customers are referred to as
‘macho bodies’ or a prototypical ‘prole who stages his physicalness without so much
as a hint of self-consciousness’.20 The most widely circulated text about Picaldi
appeared in the major weekly Der Stern under the headline ‘Auf dicke Hose’, which
refers to the idiom ‘einen auf dicke Hose machen’ which has the idiomatic meaning
of showing off, playing it big – monetarily, but with sexual undertones. With its
high-waist fit and overall body schema, the Diesel/Picaldi carrot-cut, ‘figurbetont’
(figure-highlighting) as it is, seems like a breech of decorum, a ‘flaunted’, vulgar,
unsophisticated form of male sexual display, which contrasts with bourgeois restraint and modesty, but also with various varieties of alternative masculinities and,
Carrot-cut Jeans • 173
importantly, with the ‘metrosexual’ mode of male sexualization in popular culture of
more recent years (cf. Gill 2009; Richard 2005). An article in a city weekly magazine about working-class youth, for instance, mentioned ‘a fashion that seems to
communicate something. Some call it sexual aggressiveness.’21 Of course, such
sources are hardly unproblematic, yet they do seem to make explicit an important
subtext: in designating this physicality as embarrassing, I think it is fair to assume
that people cannot help but implicitly relate to their own physicality, desires, and
inhibitions, however important that may or may not be in the individual instance.
Furthermore, the notion of embarrassment generally refers to a form of failure, an
inability to successfully perform something one sets out (or is set up) to do in the
eyes of others. Here, however, people seem to be attacking both presumption, such
as when they ridicule the apparent strivings of prepubescent boys, who just aren’t
who they are apparently pretending to be (in all sorts of ways, including sexual), and
that which they are striving toward. In some ways, such dismissal and ridicule would
hardly be socially acceptable among many of its proponents were it not articulated
primarily on the class level.
In focusing – in a highly condensed form – on outside views as well as inside
views, I have not meant to suggest that the former are what matter most about Picaldi
denim. I do suggest, however, that the figurations of inside and outside perspectives
elucidate sociocultural dynamics that would otherwise not be visible. Among the
many aspects that characterize the experience of wearing these specific jeans as
part of an overall style, the embodied attitude of assertiveness – swagger – plays an
important role, as I have shown, which is often connected to an empowering sense
of ambiguity in self-presentation (with regard to risky behaviour). Is he a good boy?
And if so, then in what sense? In the outside view, however, much of that is decoded
not in terms of ambiguity but as failure and presumption on the one hand, and a
threat on the other. Such an attitude manifests in projected embarrassment, among
other sentiments and interaction patterns. These, then, are the ‘local genres of anxiety’ which congeal in emblematic types of denim and its uses.
The Right to Ambiguity
In literary terms, the underlying structure of what I have described and analysed has
a tragic character in that cultural processes on the experiential level help cement and
affectively legitimize social relations and position ascriptions that the actors might
not support explicitly. Again, this is not to suggest that these processes are what ultimately determines social structures (or even experiences) but they do represent one
medium for living through them, and, potentially, challenging them. It is important
to also note some fault lines within such processes. Here, the explicitly normative
domain is particularly relevant, outside the directly political realm as well. In talking about clothing, perception and stereotypes, many who sport the carrot-cut, and
174 • Moritz Ege
the ‘gangsta style’ more generally, do not just present themselves ambiguously in
regard to toughness. In talking about it (and, I would argue, in practice), they also
lay claims to a right to ambiguity. The claim can be summed up by a formulaic statement of this kind:
Yes, I wear stuff that makes me look tough. No, I don’t mind that people may take me
for a thug. I can see why they would feel intimidated, and I kind of like that. At the same
time, these are just clothes. I deserve to be treated like everybody else. Clothes don’t tell
the story of an individual. No one should be categorized on such superficial terms.
There are many such stories, and they may sound familiar. Often straightforward
ethnic discrimination dominates them, but it is rationalized in terms of clothing.
‘Everybody’ knows, for instance, that getting into a nightclub wearing Picaldi (the
jackets and sweater rather than the jeans) and Picaldi-style overall is hard (even
though there are exceptions, especially for ‘Germans’), and many think that this is
unfair. Tayfun, for instance, talks about older people regularly changing the side of
the street when they seem him approach. He is genuinely disturbed by their perceptions of him – even though, he says, his ‘boxer haircut’ is moderate, and he is merely
wearing what he likes, just like other young people do, but different rules seem to
apply to him. Another such story comes from a young man named Marco, a ‘white
German’ from a middle-class family, who is into the overall Picaldi style. He recalls
getting into a long discussion with a girl he found attractive, after he had approached
her on the street and she completely ignored his advances. She basically fit the general type of an ‘alternative’ style. These people, he says (somewhat frustrated after
what appear to have been a number of similar rejections), are the most prejudiced
of all, because they will dismiss people like him – as a ‘Proll’ – on the mere basis of
The critical and reflective mode in which such claims and observations are
formulated doesn’t seem to square easily with the assertiveness, dominance, and
insistence on invulnerability that characterizes the discursive and physical figure
that is under consideration here. Indeed, while some talk in that way, many others would not engage in this type of discourse, at least not toward me (and probably not in other situations either). The point is that in claiming something like a
right to ambiguity, a rights-granting entity is addressed as a potential interlocutor
in a process of recognition. In the context of a stylized, avowedly antagonistic attitude, such recourse is anything but obvious. On the one hand, this fact simply
confirms that, in many instances, antagonism is a pose. On the other hand, there
also is a profound resonance between such claims and the core structure of the
cultural formats that pervade those discourses. This resonance can be illustrated by
returning to the similarities between Tarek’s practice of impression management
and the question of what is ‘real’ in gangsta rap where, as I showed, the plane of
lyrical content contrasts with its being formally framed as aesthetics for which, in
Carrot-cut Jeans • 175
our societies, different rules apply. The potential de-escalation of semantic content
through discursive recourse to (aesthetic) form or frame is even more apparent in
the domain of clothing, where, quite obviously, people are generally willing and
able to distinguish between statements made by wearing clothes, and statements in
a literal sense. The former can or cannot be taken seriously, and people who do so in
a way deemed inappropriate may be ridiculed as lacking an acute enough sense of
reality. Furthermore, the physical, affective and social dimensions of clothing, their
experiential texture, as it were, do not primarily have a predicative structure, just as
the musical texture makes it inappropriate and unfair for rap music to be reduced to
its lyrical content – experientially as well as on the level of discursive explication.
By wearing, for instance, specific denim, then, one makes statements, in a somewhat
conscious manner, but one reserves the right to change frames of meaning: from
assertion to ambiguity, from the serious to the playful. Of course, the problematic
isn’t always explicitly elaborated in terms of such a claim. Its efficacy can only be
approximated by comparing it to a rule or to discursive statements. Rather, ambiguity of this type can be felt, performed, lived – it is, in a way, a ‘structure of feeling’
and its verbal expression is embedded in various practices.
1. The term ‘subculture’, as it was refashioned by the Birmingham school of Cultural
Studies in the 1970s (cf. Clarke et al. 1976), has come under much criticism
since the mid-1990s (cf. Muggleton and Weinzierl 2003), but cases such as this
one show its continuing relevance, if only as a pointer toward the articulation of
homologies through complex, multi-scale cultural practices, within contexts in
which specific social determinants play a significant role. For a view close to my
own cf. Hesmondhalgh (2005).
2. In this chapter I remain agnostic toward the important and politically charged
debates over analytical terminology, both in regard to processual terms such as
exclusion (Bude 2006, 2008a, 2008b; Knecht 1999; Kronauer 2002) and analytical
group designations such as working-class (Skeggs 2004), precariat (in the wake
of Bourdieu 1998), multitude (Virno 2004), Unterschicht in the sense of popular
classes (Warneken 2006) or of an ‘underclass’ (Nolte 2004; cf., for instance, the
critique in Lindner and Musner 2007).
3. In this piece, there is little space for theoretical and methodological considerations.
My analysis focuses on a ‘plane of experience’, which incorporates various types
of phenomena (or analytical registers), such as sentiments, affects, discourses,
structures of interaction and cultural dynamics.
4. And those by some other local brands that have followed this example in recent
years, carrying similar faux-Italian brand names, Daggio Romanzo, Blucino and
176 • Moritz Ege
5. Through two companies, the owner of Unplugged and his partners import
and wholesale the products of the Turkish company Picaldi in Germany (and
Austria). Furthermore, much or even most of the design process of the articles
sold in Germany takes place here as well, although this has been going back and
forth in regard to the ‘basics’ among the jeans.
6. Such classifications are not only highly problematic, their meanings, borders
and their relevance are part of what gets negotiated and ‘performed’ in such
processes. Ethnic classifications with reference to ‘migration background’, to
a category such as whiteness, to nationality and citizenship are only seemingly
obvious. All of them, in specific ways, are social constructions and selections
that are, however, not random, but rely on a number of persistent institutions
and ideologies. The most obvious example is that many ‘foreigners’ are in fact
Germans but not recognized or accepted as such by others, in large part because
of ethnic (völkisch) understandings of citizenship.
7. As did the album ‘Hart(z) IV’ by rapper Eko Fresh, in which he was pictured
wearing a Picaldi sweater. Hart translates as ‘tough’, Hartz is the last name of
a former Volkswagen manager who famously consulted the federal government
in the process of social safety net ‘reforms’ and gave his name to various phases
of these reforms, including ‘Hartz IV’, which largely abolished the distinction
between longer term unemployment benefits and welfare (Arbeitslosengeld II).
8. The carrot-cut has, for a long time, been much more popular for women’s jeans,
but that seems to be an entirely different story.
9. On men’s jeans as ‘adding body’ – see Sassatelli’s contribution (based on data
collected in Milan, Italy) in this volume.
10. In: Spex Nr. 313, 3/4, 2008.
11. The jeans are just one – though especially relevant – element of this style (which
can largely be understood as a subcultural style), a basic standard, which people
combine with other, sometimes more conspicuous and expensive items.
12. What is ‘authentic’ is determined by cultural evaluations, not by mere facts in
the world (Lindner 2001), and it represents an especially difficult notion within
13. The pejorative use of schwul (gay) is common in that scene. While it shouldn’t
be take as a literal insult, and falling into immediate outrage might just play
into the communicative strategy, it certainly remains an objectionable form
of homophobia that powerfully reinforces latent forms thereof, and indicates
an orientation on specific, unambiguous forms of masculinity and a rejection
of what is considered effeminateness. In order to retain some semblance of
adequateness to musical differentiations, it should be noted that Kool Savas,
for instance, isn’t a gangsta rapper but is famous for his lyrical skill in freestyle
‘battle’ and his vulgar lyrics.
14. ‘Keinen Arsch in der Hose haben’, not having an ass in one’s pants, means lacking courage or assertiveness.
Carrot-cut Jeans • 177
15. ‘Alpha-Jacke’: pilot jackets by the Texas-based company Alpha Industries.
16. ‘Einen auf X machen’ basically means to play X, to act as if one was X.
17. Such metaphors include einen Film schieben or in einem Film sein ‘(literally
‘being in a film’), or composites of Schiene ‘rail’.
18. It seems plausible to assume that this type of feeling is nothing new at all (cf.
Pearson 1983). Furthermore, similar mechanisms of medialization through figures have been at play for at least decades, especially since the ‘amplification’ of
subcultural deviance and violence (think mods versus teds, skins) in the 1950s
and 1960s. Cf. the primarily British literature on subcultures, amplification and
‘moral panics’ (Cohen 1973).
19. Within the context of rap-oriented scene, for instance, people are more likely to
adapt terms such as ‘Kanake’ [sic], ‘Gangster’ and ‘Atze’ than ‘Proll’. This is
reminiscent of what Hartigan (2005) has written about ‘white trash’ – despite
some resignificantion, the term largely remained ‘socially uninhabitable’.
20. DeutschlandRadio ‘Picaldi und Konsorten – Mode unter Migrantenkids in
Berlin’, 9 April 2003. It should be noted that, in the radio report, this quote is
used critically in summarizing a view that some people (whose prejudices the
report is critical of) seem to hold.
21. Zitty 8/2005, S. 21.
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The Jeans that Don’t Fit: Marketing Cheap
Jeans in Brazil
This article discusses some particularities of the denim trade in Southern Brazil. It
shows the emblematic power of cheap blue jeans in the process of the commoditization of social relations in an urban market located in the central area of Porto Alegre,1
the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul in the southernmost part of Brazil.
Following research themes in the field of economic anthropology, I argue that
due to the special place denim occupies in Brazilian society, this particular piece
of clothing is an important mode of objectification of inequalities and social differences. An analysis of the economic aspects of the jeans supply chain, unveils a
series of tensions and broader classifications, which refer to the social construction
of limits between the formal and informal economy (see Pinheiro-Machado 2008). A
further analysis shows that the position occupied by denim in the market – between
the formal and informal sector, and between legality and illegality – is located within
a discourse of value regarding authenticity and quality, which are themselves not
necessarily based on the material properties of the product.
The perspective adopted in this paper is a contribution to the Denim Manifesto
(Miller and Woodward 2007), as well as a challenge to some of its analytical aspects.
I aim to foreground the role of the economic dimensions within the Global Denim
Project. I also show how the homogenization brought about by the ubiquity of jeans
does not necessarily produce equalization but can in fact result in further social differentiation. The power of jeans demonstrated in this chapter reveals both the agency
located within an everyday garment and its exceptional nature.
Denim Manifesto and Brazilian Jeans
In the Denim Manifesto anthropologists are challenged to study denim – something
that is commonplace in our everyday lives but notably absent from ethnographic
analyses. As a manifesto, the authors refute the ontological philosophical logic that
an element, such as clothing, that is located on the surface of bodies is intrinsically a
– 181 –
182 • Rosana Pinheiro-Machado
superficial problem. Instead they consider the philosophical implications of the use
of jeans – a clothing resource that resolves the anxiety and the contradictions of life
in the modern world – which recasts it as a clearly anthropological issue. By stating
that, at this moment, it is likely that more than 50 per cent of the world’s population
is wearing jeans, the authors show the importance of understanding the meanings
and the local appropriations of this global omnipresence and homogenization.
Thus the emphasis of the Denim Manifesto is on the ubiquity of denim versus
the heterogeneity of its cultural uses in particular contexts, from Rio de Janeiro to
London. Consequently there is an analytical stress on consumption, even though
Miller and Woodward point out the importance of studying the many phases of
the denim commodity chain. This problem is compounded in the present volume
in that while the chapter by Comstock is concerned with the history of production
and distribution, and Wilkinson-Weber with the marketing, most of the chapters are
almost entirely concerned with consumption.
This chapter aims to bring back the critical place that commodity chains need to
occupy within the Global Denim Project, which includes a reflection on the social
consequences of the process of manufacture, retail and distribution of denim. If
50 per cent of the world’s population is now probably wearing jeans, it obviously
implies that the production and distribution of denim mobilizes a huge work force
around the world. Thus, for an anthropological agenda, it is necessary to explain not
only how and why people consume denim, but also the consequences of this for how
ordinary people find their lives organized around the world of denim.
To understand the role that denim plays in the process of commoditization of
societies, we need to turn our attention to several human links created by the capitalist chain in order to ‘acknowledge them and understand the responsibilities that
arise when we benefit as consumers through low prices at the expense of others’
(Miller 2006: 350). It becomes particularly important when we observe developing
countries, such as Brazilian society, where social inequalities are still very strong.
In this context, both consumption and production are social practices that acquire
There are currently several core denim production sites in Brazil which distribute
jeans throughout Brazil, Latin America, Europe and the US. Jaraguá is such a city in
the State of Goiás (in the central area of Brazil). It has 44,000 inhabitants of which
22,000 are working either directly or indirectly in the denim industry. Cianorte,
in the State of Santa Catarina (in the south) is called ‘the clothing capital’, of the
region with 50,000 inhabitants of which 15,000 work directly in the textile industry.
Half of the gross domestic product of both cities comes from this sector.2 Such sites
mobilize not only their local populations but also hundred of thousands of sacoleiros
(traders who carry bags) who criss-cross the country on weekly schedules organized
by specialist agencies for the purpose of supplying denim to the nation.
My concern in this paper is not so much with the particular version of jeans
known as Brazilian jeans or ‘Gang pants’, which are the subject of Mizrahi’s chapter
The Jeans that Don’t Fit • 183
in this volume (see also Mizrahi 2007, Leitão 2007), but the much wider field of
everyday denim that is sold and worn in Brazil.
The Context of the Bazaar Economy: Voluntários da Pátria Street
Voluntários da Pátria is a paradigmatic street in Porto Alegre. Although its proper
name means ‘Volunteers of the Country’, there is a colloquial version where ‘to go
to Voluntários’ means to shop in the cheapest sectors and, ‘to go to Volunta’ means
to engage in prostitution.
Localized near the city port, the street has had a commercial vocation since the
origins of the town. In the nineteenth century, it was the access way for the imperial guard invasions against the separatist movement of the province in a war that
went on for ten years (Franco 1998). It is also said that the street has always been a
space of prostitution, as well as a place of sexual initiation for men – explaining the
stigmatized nickname volunta. In the past few decades, the street has been marked
by multiple diversities. Religious syncretism is evident through the presence of the
church of Our Lady of Navegantes (a Catholic saint, Iemanjá in the African-Brazilian
religions) who protects the waters and whose procession attracts a million people
annually. Commercial development includes stores owned by Palestinians and Jews,
which attract consumers from all social classes. It is a bazaar economy based on
interpersonal dealings, face-to-face contact, crowds and bargains (Geertz 1979). In
recent years, cheap denim has become the main product sold in this market.
There is a also new shopping mall situated in the beginning of the street, which
has around 800 stands owned by ex-street vendors. This place is called camelódromo.
Walking towards one end, we can find a great number of cheap jeans stores, until we
reach two factories, which distribute denim merchandise throughout Brazil, but not
much to the immediate area, since its products are considered of better quality and of
higher price than is usual for this street.
The research reported here was influenced by commodity chain analysis3 – observing different actors involved in the history of a commodity, as well as perceiving
the inequalities created by market practice (see Bestor 2000; Foster 2006; Freidberg
2004; Hughes 2001; Ziegler 2007). I employed these methods within a more micro
context, interviewing producers, distributors, vendors and consumers of denim. As
part of a bazaar economy, the local narrative on the denim corresponds to local
social organization, showing its ‘deeply felt rules of etiquette, tradition, and moral
expectation’ (Geertz 1979: 222).
This particular study forms part of a continuum of ethnographies about informal
markets and piracy, which I have carried out since 1999, including the street commerce in downtown Porto Alegre. However, I included more systematic research
on denim in 2009 when I noticed its presence in the new camelódromo, which suggested a need to capture the narratives surrounding this product.
184 • Rosana Pinheiro-Machado
For many decades, this neighbourhood has had a huge street market where stateregulated and unregulated vendors worked, both situated in the informal economy.
That is to say they didn’t pay any taxes for the merchandise they purchased from
a large commercial region in the neighbouring country of Paraguay. Nor did they
provide receipts for their clients. There were around 420 vendors listed by the local
government and perhaps thousands of others working illegally. This street market,
situated in the heart of the city, was called camelódromo, because, in Portuguese,
a street vendor is called camelô. A great variety of cheap products made in China
was sold at the camelódromo, especially clothing accessories, clothes, toys and
electronic devices. However, the fact that they didn’t sell jeans was an intriguing
The absence of such a popular product caught my attention because the other
commerce around the street market had its stores stuffed to their ceilings with jeans
in many varied styles and prices. This fact led me to explore the formal commerce of
jeans – situated in the Voluntários da Pátria Street – which sells to all social classes,
but especially to the poorest population of the city who lives in the favelas in the
In January 2009, public policy concerning commerce in Porto Alegre stimulated
by a combination of local (the downtown ‘mess’), national (the struggle against
smuggling from Paraguay) and international (intellectual property interests) factors went through an historical moment. The street vendors were taken off the
streets and re-located in a ‘Popular Shopping Centre’. This site is still referred to
as camelódromo by the population and the vendors, although the latter no longer
consider themselves camelôs, but entrepreneurs. This major construction was built
over a bus terminal in the heart of the exciting Voluntários da Pátria Street, where the
production, commerce and consumption of jeans abounds.
As this chapter will show, this new apparent equality of status acquired through
the shift in location of the vendors, still produces quite discrepant discourses, which
appear in the form of deligitimization of the vendors as the other. Just because their
position has been regularized and formalized does not mean that the vendors have
been granted any more respect by the rest of the local commercial establishment and
With their new status as an entrepreneurs and businessmen/women, it didn’t take
long for the former camelôs, who used to sell Paraguay products, to start selling
jeans in their humble new stores – now with fitting rooms and mirrors. Maria (sixtyone years old), an ex-street vendor who has been working with clothes for thirty
Jeans are very fancy stuff; they come from São Paulo, not from Paraguay. It was
impossible to sell jeans on the street. Unlike other pieces of clothing, women don’t buy
The Jeans that Don’t Fit • 185
just any pants. It can make your arse look square and, mostly, it has to disguise the love
handles that jump out! Now we have everything right here, so now we can do it.
The total absence of denim among vendors ended the moment the new buildings
were dedicated. As they prepared themselves to occupy this new site, blue jeans
appeared as a paradigmatic product that symbolized their new status. To them, jeans
cannot be sold just anywhere because it is a special commodity, which people need
to try on many times. In a conversation with Maria:
Maria: Nobody buys jeans on the dirty streets. We could sell only soft fabrics
there because they fit easily. We could not sell hard fabric like jeans. I
always say that for one person whose size is 40 we need at least fifteen
different pieces of size 40. A girl tries all fifteen pieces and certainly she
will like only one. So selling jeans you also need a good stock, many
Rosana: I have already seen many street markets that sell jeans. Vendors take the
clients to shops nearby, and they fit there. Why do not camelôs do the
Maria: How long do you take when you buy jeans? It needs time . . . Sometimes
I get angry because girls think that jeans will enact a miracle. The problem is not my jeans, but their body! It is easer to go on a diet than look
for jeans which hide their belly!
According to a consumer who was interviewed:
I belong to the type ‘little fat’. So my bottom is perfect. I have to show my bottom, but
my problem is that in order to have a big bottom we, girls, generally have a big belly as
well. It’s proportional! So it is hard to find pants that improve bottoms and hide the belly.
But jeans can do this, only jeans. [. . .] My size is 46, but I buy 42. Then my bottom gets a
good lift and my love handles get squashed! (Priscilla, a seventeen-year-old girl)
In fact jeans reflect a contradiction between the Brazilian body ideals – big bottom and tiny waist – and Brazilian bodies in reality. In this sense denim became
a special product, almost miraculous. Its quality, as noted at the start of Mizrahi’s
chapter, is that it is credited with the ability to give someone the right bottom. Jeans
are not, then, an ordinary slice of daily life. They are something more sophisticated
and more subtle. They are an extraordinary product, which has become a special
commodity both for consumers and vendors.
Maria considers jeans a fancy commodity for several reasons. From the consumers’ point of view, to find proper jeans takes a long time because it needs to fit with
their body image. Given this, Maria understands that she needs to sell ‘good jeans’ –
and in her understanding good jeans do not come from Ciudad del Este in Paraguay,
186 • Rosana Pinheiro-Machado
since the trade of that region is associated with fake and shoddy goods. Excursions
to other Brazilian states are more expensive than to Paraguay. Buying goods from
one’s own country also means that the product is not going to be smuggled. Besides,
there are very fashionable brands made in Brazil today, such as such as República,
Denúncia e Osmoze. Thus, the new entrepreneur status demands a new jeans status.
To Maria and others jeans objectify an upgrade to professional status and they feel
part of a wider context, a vocation that comes with being part of the formal trade of
Voluntários da Pátria Street.
The Struggle for the Established Position
Even though the Voluntários da Pátria Street’s universe is generalized as ‘cheap
commerce’, and most of the blue jeans sold in the area are very similar; vendors
who trade there notice a great difference between one shop and another. In the sense
of the relations between the ‘established and the outsider’ (Elias 2000), the disputes
which break out are manifestations of a wider accusatory system, characterized by
gossip. Vendors value price, quality, and authenticity of their products, which are the
criteria they see as disqualifying their rivals.
The groups that trade in the street can be divided into three categories of commerce: the camelódromo at the beginning of the street, the cheap shops along the
whole street, and finally, the factories sited at its end. It is important to note that this
social and economic hierarchy extends to the spatial order as well: as one proceeds
from the beginning to the end of the street the status of entrepreneurship increases
slightly. This spatial hierarchy applies also to the jeans as a parameter from ‘good’
to ‘shoddy’ denim.
To exemplify this degree of differentiation, we can take the discourses of the
higher end workers with regard to the street where they are sited. These entrepreneurs see their products sold in their own shops within the Voluntários da Pátria.
However, they consider that the denim they produce is actually of a high quality,
which should not really be identified either with this location nor with its cheap
market. They say they are in this area due to an unfortunate coincidence.
One of these factories has only a part of its production in this urban area, having
another headquarters in the countryside. The company was established in 1977, and
presently has 180 machines and 248 employees. Its 50,000 pieces produced monthly
are sold to several Brazilian shops and brands. According to a manager who was
Our product differentiates itself from that ones you can find at Voluntários in respect to
many factors, but the main one is the outsourcing process. Here everything is made and
controlled by ourselves, so the quality control is extremely rigorous. Washing, dyeing,
cut, everything . . . The product found in these shops around us has been made, in the
The Jeans that Don’t Fit • 187
first place, from a very thin fabric. Pieces and seams are slack, since what is important in
our neighbourhood trade is low price. This kind of consumer is interested in price, only.
They do not care whether they take home lopsided jeans.
Despite the fact that their discourse disqualifies the Street where they are located,
sometimes we can still find some minimal identification with the locality. As a manager pointed out:
Ok, we are here. This is not our universe, our target public, our goal, our vision . . . I
personally hate this place, and I find it dirty and messy, a bad image for our denim, which
is surrounded by shoddiness. Still I recognize the fact that we are sited at this traditional
place has also helped us. I feel very comfortable to admit it, because we don’t need to
prove anything to anybody, we have a respectable brand . . . We are what we are, where
However, this was in marked contrast with the situation found during a visit to
a second factory. When I said I was researching the denim market in the area, the
owner told me that they could not be included in such research, since their presence
there was quite arbitrary:
Sorry, although we are at the end of the street we don’t belong to that commercial
universe. Our denim is the opposite to these other’s denim. Our marketing is focused on
the middle class. Our production is limited and the quality is very high. I do not believe
I can contribute to your research.
[Researcher] – So, why do you also have a shop here?
Because is a big space in a cheap area, it’s hard to move out . . .
The producers’ discourse on the Voluntários da Pátria market does not make any
differentiation between trade from the shops or from the camelódromo. The idea of
poor quality is generalized to all these as an external world, to which they believe
they do not belong. However, when I interviewed the owners of the shops located
along the street, I found exactly the same discourse about quality, but this time as
self affirmation through opposition to the camelódromos.
Comparing the shops with the camelódromo, we can find this cast as a relationship
between the established and the outsiders. Four decades ago, migrant Palestinian
families opened businesses in this area. They acquired a faithful consumer public,
by offering them cheap products. By comparison the ex-street vendors are seen as
outsiders to the street: a newer source of cheap trade.
The interviews show how a concept of the ‘formal’ is reflected in a discourse
about quality. The more formal trade, the higher the quality of denim. Taking into
account the fact that the denim sold in the camelódromo and in the shops is bought
from the same supplier,5 the claim to quality here is only a belief, as well as a vicarious statement about formality. In the recent past, street vendors worked without
188 • Rosana Pinheiro-Machado
State regulation, but now they are as regulated as the older shops. In the local narrative, family antiquity becomes formality, and formality in turn becomes the mark
Amir, thirty-five years old, denim shop owner:
It is funny to see a camelô selling blue jeans. It is impossible! They have no money to
buy the variety of models and sizes minimally necessary. There are fat and thin women.
There are those who love tight, or the opposite . . . Everything sold there has poor quality,
they don’t have know-how. They buy quickly, without any criteria, without knowledge.
They also have no structure. Their space is humble, and their businesses do not signify
Blue jeans pants are clothes that take more time to purchase. Women take twenty
minutes trying on one piece, and they check one million times if their bottom is OK.
Which woman will spend that kind of time in the camelódromo?
Farid, forty years old, denim shop owner:
My public consumer is not only from the C or D social class [the poorest segments].
Many people from the elites come here in order to resell our pants in their classy shops,
because we have all the models, all the sizes, for all tastes. From BRL 19.90 to 100.00
[Real Brazilian]. Do you believe that they will be able to sell such variety? Only those
who have a significant sized structure can sell denim . . . To be clear, they simply haven’t
the right conditions to sell the same good product that I can sell.
In fact, these informants who discussed their knowledge of denim in this manner
are not old traders in the denim field. They belong to families that have old shops
there but they started to trade denim only in the last five years. Like the street vendors, they are also new to the local denim market. Looking at the material properties
of the jeans, often we find very similar products both in camelódromo and in the
shops. However, the family’s tradition and reputation for trade allows these people
to claim a higher status. In many parts of the interview, it was not clear whether
they were talking about the quality of the commodity or their financial and spatial
foundations. Claims about each of these were mixed with the other.
Reputation and Authenticity in Camelódromo
Maria worked in the old camelódromo for three decades, selling clothes and caps.
She struggled against the expulsion of the vendors from the streets because she believed that consumers bought on impulse. However, following the advice given by
marketing experts and fashion specialists contracted by the new shopping mall company, she invested in her new position, renting a large space in the new camelódromo, decorated her new space, and installed a new telephone number. Her daring
The Jeans that Don’t Fit • 189
attitude provoked her colleagues’ reaction, who said that Maria was now indebted
because she had spent too much money in these refurbishments.
She also invited her daughter (Mirian, thirty years old) to work with her in this
new entrepreneurship. She believed that her daughter’s youth could serve to modernize her shop. In the first week of the business, Mirian was to find a supplier for them
in São Paulo. Instead of coming back with their typical large bags full of goods, she
brought only two small packs of blue jeans – an attitude that provoked despair in her
mother, because Maria realized that her US$1,000 had been invested in a few pairs
of jeans. Mirian convinced Maria that the jeans would sell very well because she
was bringing genuine, famous, and very fashionable Brazilian jeans brands. These
brands of blue jeans cost usually BRL 250, but Maria and Mirian could sell them for
BRL 150. It seemed to be a very advantageous transaction.
Mirian considered selling jeans an expression of their new status. For this reason
her purchase of authentic branded trousers was intended to give dignity to their new
position. However, due do her anxiety to quickly upgrade their status, she did not
wait to accumulate enough capital, and therefore she could only afford to buy a total
of twenty pieces, in sizes ranging from 38 to 40. The result was three months without
selling any jeans. She explains:
Some girls, who liked the price of our branded products, tried our pants, but they did not
fit their bodies. Girls always start their purchase by asking for size 38 but they end up
with 44–46. Our problem is that now we have a good place to sell but not enough capital
to buy a good range of sizes. Besides, our biggest problem is our consumers are very,
very poor, and do not have the money to buy such expensive stuff.
As Maria feared, the new investment was ill stocked, since her jeans, although
cheaper than average for these goods, were still expensive for the consumer public
of the Voluntários da Pátria Street. In the area around them, blue jeans with an unknown brand can be found for BRL 19.99; while a fake brand can cost BRL 49.90 in
the camelódromo. When consumers had the money, they didn’t have the proper size.
In fact, when consumers go to a cheap shopping area only recently regulated by
the state, most of them are looking for low prices. As camelódromo still carries the
reputation of selling fake goods, its consumers also look for replicas whose price
is slightly higher by virtue of the symbolic value of the brand they are copying.
When consumers from low-income classes want to buy an expensive product, they
look for the distinction that comes from a large shop, such as a department store,
in a place that dignifies them as consumers and as citizens. Camelódromo offer no
such distinction. As observed in other contexts, for consumers from low income
classes, they are merely a confirmation of their own social condition of poverty
(see Leitão 2004, Pinheiro-Machado, forthcoming). In these cases, the purchase can
be staggered through payments over several instalments, even when there are high
interest rates attached. As Maria concludes: ‘people to prefer buy pants at Ughini
190 • Rosana Pinheiro-Machado
[a neighbouring department store] in eight instalments of BRL 50, paying a total of
BRL 400, than buying here the stuff for BRL 150 in cash.’
The stylist contracted by camelódromo congratulated Maria for her acquisition of
new branded jeans. It seemed to speak to a positive desire to upgrade her business.
As a professional she helped Maria to arrange the display, making these branded
goods very evident. In fact, consumers were clearly interested in these jeans. They
stopped in front of the shop, looked carefully at the goods, asked their price, and
concluded: too expensive! Unsuccessfully Mirian explained to her customers that
the jeans were authentic brands but the price of BRL 150 prevented any further
negotiation. There was always an expression of contempt on the clients’ face when
they realized how high the price was – they saw this as reprehensible, and seemed
set on making Maria and Mirian feel guilty their over ambition. As Maria lamented:
‘it is not worth trying to take a step up.’ And Mirian added: ‘people do not know
what quality is, they do not understand that our product lasts many years. They are
not aware that the other jeans sold around lose their shape in the first washing.’
In order to understand the consumers’ response to the Voluntários da Pátria
market, I invited same teenagers to participate in this research. They were three
girls who live in the biggest favela of Porto Alegre, and they belong to low income
families. They usually buy clothes in the cheap shops of that urban area. The girls
said that their financial capacity for jeans pants was at most BRL 30.
Calculating an average price in the local area, I asked to them which jeans
they would choose for up to BRL 60. We walked along the whole street, from the
camelódromo to the factories. I suspected they would search for the best quality and/
or for the most beautiful jeans that they could find within that price range. However,
they decided to look for the best value in relating looks to price. So instead of buying
‘high quality jeans’ (in the estimation of the traders) they opted instead for buying
two pairs at BRL 30 each.
During our walk, they tried out the jeans of Maria’s shop in camelódromo, but the
cost at BRL 150 was something far beyond both their socioeconomic realities and
their consumption habits. Priscilla, seventeen years old, explained to me:
It is better buying every month a pair of jeans for BRL 30, and always having new items,
rather than buying these expensive jeans [she was referring to Maria’s good], and then
feel obligated to wear the same thing for months. At school all people will see is that I
am wearing the same clothes.
This explains part of the clients’ reaction in the face of Maria’s enterprise, and the
reasons for her failure. In quite the opposite situation, other sellers of camelódromo
had no problems trading denim. Joana (thirty-five years old) left the street market,
where she sold cotton trousers, and now sell only blue jeans to teenagers and young
people. She offers a price between BRL 29.90 and 59.90. This last price is for a
fake of a famous brand called Carmin. The sales have been excellent and she has no
The Jeans that Don’t Fit • 191
regrets. The same thing happened to Susana (forty-two years old) who also decided
to launch into denim. She admits she only trades in fakes.
Both these traders’ success, demonstrates the consumers’ vision of the camelódromo’s skill in trading denim, since they remain a site marked by the ability to sell
cheap and/or fake goods. Maria’s attempt to sell expensive denim failed against
her neighbour’s fakes, since the context from which she sells cannot legitimate her
commodities. According to Maria’s neighbours:
She [Maria] wanted to be better than the rest of us, and now she is paying for it. She is in
debt, and her jeans are ‘run aground’.
Everything in Maria’s shop is still fake stuff. She does not have the wherewithal to buy
and sell Osmoze pants. Besides, there is no seller of Osmoze denim in São Paulo, so her
stuff is fake stuff; she thinks she is able to cheat both me and my clients.
She brought her daughter to work with her in order to make many changes. She invested
more than she could actually afford. Now you can see the result.
Such gossip acts as an invisible and ruthless power that regulates that market
within an internal symbolic system that prevents any such radical change. Changes
are viewed with fear and distrust. Gossip is a form of discourse that informs about a
group’s identity, as well as its social history (Gluckman cited in Fonseca, 2000). It
reflects an underlying moral code that generates a spontaneous discourse or denigration and denunciation and thereby achieves a high level of control. It is able to patrol
the group boundaries, and to level, to lower or to upgrade individuals within certain
parameters, at the expense of personal reputations and honour (Fonseca 2000). In
this way, the narratives found regarding denim in this specific context are pedagogic:
they inform people of their proper vocation in the sale of cheap products or fake
goods. They remind people that whoever tries to venture beyond this universe will
be punished – as Maria was.
Fake or not Fake? That Is the Question
A pair of jeans, a religious relic or a work of art would seem to have different kinds
of authority, defined in particular fields of authenticity within each of which one
is able to distinguish what is considered real and what false (by religious groups,
connoisseurs, market, state). In the capitalist global market, authentic brands are
distinctive symbols attached to commodities that possess intellectual property rights
(IPR). The owners of the brand have social legitimacy that is sustained by market
and political principles.
Through the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
(TRIPS), signed in 1994 by the World Trade Organization, companies acquired the
192 • Rosana Pinheiro-Machado
right to go to court in a specific country to fight falsifications and to call upon the
state police for assistance. In this context, imitations aggregate negative value, classified as criminal productions. As in the field of art, brand owners have the authority
to reproduce authentic first samples. ‘Intellectual Property Rights laws determine
which copies are authorized, legitimate, and authentic, and which copies are unauthorized, illegitimate, and inauthentic - and therefore illegal’ (Coombe, cited in Vann
2006). The social recognition of this legitimacy, however, is not automatic. As Vann
(2006) points out in her ethnography in Vietnam, people have different notions about
what is meant by fake goods, false, replica, adulteration, etc.
As already evident consumers of Voluntários da Pátria attribute different roles to
traders. Old and formal shops acquire more reputation than the new camelódromo,
because they are places where citizen feel part of a legitimate world – something
important in an unequal society like Brazil. Despite the fact that trademarks define what is fake or not fake, in popular perception, these classifications will be
re-elaborated. As Appadurai points out (1999) commodities in motion have floating
regimes of value, getting and losing authenticity as they circulate in the world. To
many consumers, real branded denim in the camelódromo will not be authenticated,
while a fake one in a formal shop will be.
As we have noticed before, consumers of the camelódromo do not believe in the
authenticity of the jeans sold by Maria. The ex-street vendors retain the label of fake
goods, and their position in commerce is relegated to such an image. Indeed the fake
and the informal have an intimate relation in Brazil. As Noronha (2002) suggests, the
informal market is easily generalized to other social attribution, such as illegitimate,
illegal, unfair. In this manner, we can understand why fake jeans sold for BRL 29.90
in shops are considered more legal, fair, and legitimate than in the camelódromo.
In a formal denim shop, I have found blue jeans in a display labelled Oslen – a
direct reference to Osklen, a famous Brazilian brand. When I asked to the owner
about that product, he said that the jeans were not replicas of Osklen, since Oslen
is a legitimate trademark. As I have shown through more detailed analysis in other
papers (Pinheiro-Machado, 2008), commodities that sport a brand like Oslen are
ambiguous, because they cannot be immediately characterized as a fake product.6
Does a change in the letter of a famous brand that it is imitating create a new brand?
The new form may be accepted or it can provoke severe conflicts. Local, national,
and international struggles will determine if Oslen pants are or not an illegal imitation of the Osklen brand.7
However, this ambiguity is implicitly solved according to the place where the
commodity is being sold. As has been noted, it may be the context that can confer
more or less legitimacy to the goods. The degree to which there is popular acceptance of the authenticity of a product will be influenced by many factors, beyond its
material and intellectual properties. One of these is the traditions associated with the
place where the product is being sold. In that context, Oslen jean will be certainly
considered ‘more legal’ in an established shop than in a camelódromo. However, as
The Jeans that Don’t Fit • 193
Oslen, it will still be generalized as a sort of shoddy imitation in comparison with
shopping malls where Osklen (the spelling of the proper brand) is sold. Different
power positions define these implicit classifications, where the aura of a commodity
is more a belief, a social construction, an alchemy (Bourdieu, 1975, 1980; Eco,
1984) than intrinsic element of real objects (Benjamin 1980).
A critical point in the Denim Manifesto is the overwhelming emphasis upon homogenization and to some degree therefore also equalization. This is entirely reasonable
when taking the Global Denim Project as a whole, but it is an essential requirement
of the project that we find a new way to balance local and global research. This
means we need to ensure that an emphasis upon homogenisation at the global level
does not mask or reduce our acknowledgment of the presence of new forms of difference at each local level, which has been the aim of this chapter.
In the case study presented here cheap jeans appear as a quite specific, almost
specialized product. The jeans I found in the field require far more care and attention
in their purchase, they take much longer to select and therefore the shops need to
carry much more stock. They are the very substance of what is seen as special and
extraordinary, which is precisely why the street market vendors always considered
that they should not actually stock jeans at all before they were artificially ‘promoted’ to the higher status of a formal economic position.
The other key point here is that jeans play a remarkable role in complementing
the official transformations of these economic positions. After all when the state
forced the vendors to change their place of sale to the fixed site around the bus station, they never said to them they also needed to change their position relative to the
sale of denim. And yet what this paper suggests is that they couldn’t help but make
this further shift in the content of what they sold. Not because of any material quality of the jeans but because they sensed the centrality of jeans to social and status
differentiation. Which meant that they were in a sense out of synch with their new
situation unless they also stocked jeans. As this chapter shows, the process is dialectical, creating a contradiction in turn sensed by the consumers who cannot reconcile
themselves to vendors selling authentic and, more to the point, expensive jeans.
The point, then, is to consider jeans as a mode of objectification. We start with a
contradiction by which the state disrupts a symbolic continuum by putting vendors
in an inappropriate position in terms of their spatial contrast with other kinds of vendors. But the nature and extent of this contradiction becomes both clearer and more
elaborated when we see the consequences this has for the sale of jeans, because jeans
themselves have such powerful emblematic positions in Brazilian society today.
Mostly we think of the anthropology of commerce as a study of how economic
agents try to manipulate the symbolic qualities of commodities in order to profit
194 • Rosana Pinheiro-Machado
at the expense of the consumers. But no one in this paper, either the consumers
choosing between commodities, nor the vendors selling the commodities, seems to
be able to act as economic agents, certainly not in the economists’ version of rational
calculation. All of them see, rather, the objects that are being manipulated in order
to express certain contradictions that are worked through them rather than being
worked out by them. If anything it is the jeans that act here as the powerful agency
that impose themselves as products that have to be sold whether you want to sell
them or not, and that confuse the buyers because of the contradictions they express.
At the start of this chapter it was argued that the main intention was to challenge
the Manifesto argument by insisting on a focus on the more economic aspects of jeans
retailing rather than the way they symbolized cultural forms such as homogeneity.
But by the end of the chapter we found that what might be called the ‘economic’ is
by no means an autonomous force that gives rise to symbolic manipulation. Rather
it is itself subject to and constructed by these wider potentials in the commodity
itself. By the end of the chapter we found that people cannot even ‘see’ these jeans in
terms of an economic logic that would seem clear when the same jeans are sold for
less by a cheap vendor than a more expensive looking shop. So, in conclusion, this
chapter testifies to the ability of denim jeans as a commodity to control the economic
relationship through which it takes on its particular significance to both those who
sell and those who buy them.
1. Porto Alegre is a metropolitan region with around four million inhabitants.
2. Source: official websites of the cities.
3. In a completely different exercise I had previously used the the theory and
methodology of global commodity chain in my doctoral thesis, during in which I
followed a commodity chain that went from China to Brazil.
4. All informants’ names have been changed or omitted.
5. Most of denim sold at Voluntários da Pátria market is from the city of Cianorte, a
Brazilian Denim Centre. Many traders also bring their clothes from São Paulo.
6. Examples found in other moments of my research: Watches Cucci, Dolex and
Coss instead of Gucci, Rolex and Boss.
7. According to rules that were established by TRIPs, companies can go to the
court and ask for punishment of illegal copies in countries that belong to the
World Trade Organization. But countries have different notions about intellectual
property and different levels of tolerance. The national control, therefore, is not
an automatic action. In short, depending on context Oslen can be or cannot be
considered an imitation of Osklen.
The Jeans that Don’t Fit • 195
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Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, 26(4): 390–406.
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hábitos de consumo de produtoras e consumidoras de uma cooperativa de
costuras. Paper presented at 24th Reunião Brasileira de Antropologia, Olinda,
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University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brasil.
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P. Spyer (eds), Handbook of Material Culture, London: Sage.
Miller, D. and Woodward, S. (2007), ‘Denim Manifesto’. Social Anthropology/
Anthropologie Sociale, 15(3): 335–51.
Mizrahi, M. (2007), ‘Indumentária funk: a confrontação da alteridade colocando em
diálogo o local e o cosmopolita’, Horizontes Antropológicos, 13(28): 231–62.
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American Anthropologist, 108(2): 286–96.
Zieger, C. (2007), Favored Flowers, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Diesel campaign, 140
Dolce and Gabbana campaign, 140
Jesus Jeans (1973), 127
Lee campaign, 32–3
Levi’s campaign, 32–3, 56–9
Wrangler campaign, 56–8
male and female, 12
of absence, 120
personal, 147, 148, 155
age, 93, 99
agency, 80, 105, 140, 181, 194
expression of, 15, 16
qualities of, 104
Aman, Zeenat, 54, 55
see also Lipstick
ambiguity, 169–71, 192
focus on, 16
in self-presentation, 173
motive of, 160
right to, 173–5
see also Picaldi Jeans
see also department stores
see also Levi Strauss & Co.
Americanization, 11, 18, 98
anthropology of commerce, 193
see also economic
and dressing right, 71
body image, 133–7
‘local genre(s) of’, 160, 165, 171, 173
notion of, 159
selection of clothing, 4
wearing jeans, 54
what to wear, 51
Appadurai, A., 192
Arvind Mills, 96, 98
of brands, 60, 186, 190–2
Babi, Parveen, 54
Bachchan, Abhishek, 92
Bachchan, Amitabh, 54, 92
bazaar economy, 183
Bhandarkur, Madhur, 55
see also Fashion
biographical self, 151
actor bodies, 64
ideals, 133–7, 139, 185
see also mirror work
clothed celebrity body, 53
cultural brokers, 64
denim on screen, 52–5
influence of, 55–8, 98
male relationships, 54
bombados, 107, 115
– 197 –
198 • Index
Bonded Logic, 77, 79
Bourdieu, P., 120
boyfriend jeans, 148–9
as commercial category, 14, 145, 149,
Brando, Marlon, 9
and Bollywood stars, 62–3
authenticity of, 60, 186, 190–2
see also authenticity
see also fake
body ideals, 185
consumption of jeans, 103, 190
denim production, 182
female funk dance, 106
female attire, 109–15, 119–20
funk dance, 105–6
male attire, 106–7, 109
male bodies, 107
male funk dance, 106
sensuality of dance, 115–17, 119
street vendors, 184–5
trade of denim, 186–91
‘Calça da Gang’, 103
California, 34–5, 36–8
carrot-cut, the, 15, 159, 162–4
see also Picaldi
caste status, 90
see also Kannur
China, 8, 98
Chopra, B. R., 55
see also Insaaf ke Tarazu
Chopra, Priyanka, 55
Christian Pulaya, 90, 91
Citizens of Humanity, 17
see also Arvind Mills
class, see working class
class background, 161–2
see also Picaldi
classificatory cultural dynamics, 160
and prejudice, 174
see also Picaldi
as presentation, 105
silhouettes and the body, 114–15
collective expression, 19
see also Brazil, trade of denim
see also Appadurai, A.
social relations, 181
commodity chain analysis, 183
commodity chains, 182
conformity and individuality, 167
see also gifting
consumption of jeans, see Brazil and India
corporate philanthropy, 74–6
cosmopolitanism, 11, 87
Cotton Code, 27, 29–31
see also National Relief Act
Cotton Inc., 72, 75
Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor,
Cotton’s Dirty Laundry Tour, 72
cowboy, 28, 38
see also Levi’s
cultural semiotics, 166
see also identity
dancing, see movements in dance
Dean, James, 9, 80
Index • 199
and charity, 71–3
and class, 32–5, 161–2
see also Picaldi jeans
and intimacy, 5, 14, 147
distressing, 4–5, 17
see also distressing
Indian Brands, 59
see also India
on screen, 52–5
see also Bollywood
production, 8, 182
see also Brazil
see also Brazil
see also ethnography
‘denim drive’, 69, 72–3
Denim: The Art of Ordinary, 18
department stores, 26–31
designer jeans, 7
Dhoom 2, 55
see also Gadhvi, S.
Diesel, 62, 63, 140, 161
Dietrich, Marlene, 26–7, 41
distressing, 5, 17, 90, 91, 92
development of, 4
process of, 149
see also denim
dude ranches, 34, 38, 41
Duncombe, J. and Marsden, D., 151
US icon, 23
see also department stores
agents, 193, 194
self, 127, 133, 135, 141
environment, 72–3, 75–6, 79
see also Cotton Inc.
ethical consumption, 69
discrimination, 166, 174
see also Picaldi
identity, 161, 165–6
ethnographic approach, 2
ethnography, 145, 146, 147
denim, 9, 18
London and Nottingham, 147
see also snowball sampling
see also women’s wardrobes
jeans, 60, 63
see also authenticity
family, see networks
Farm Security Agency, 36
see also Bhandarkur, Madhur
Fashion Theory (journal), 1
favelas, 15, 103, 105
female form, 103, 127–8
figuration, 160, 167–71
film costume, 64
Fine, B. and Leopold, E., 24, 31
see also production and consumption
Fiske, J., 2
‘fit’, 13, 19, 133
see also fit self
fit self, 141
Ford, John, 38
‘From Blue to Green Denim Drive
200 • Index
Funk Aesthetics, 104, 120
Funk Carioca, 103, 105
Funk Clássico, 105
Funk Wardrobe, the, 105
funkeiro(s), 107, 115, 122
Gadhvi, S., 55
see also Dhoom 2
Gaines, Jane, 58
Gang (brand), 104
‘Gang pants’, 182
‘gangsta rap’, 15, 164, 170, 174
German, 159, 167
‘gangsta style’, 161
Garbo, Greta, 26–7
garment production, 32
see also Levi Strauss & Co.; Lee, H. D.
Geertz, C., 119
Gell, A., 110, 112
gender, 114, 115–17, 137–40
gendered codes, 141
genealogy, 146, 150, 154
Giddens, A., 146–7, 150–2, 156
mother and daughter, 145–6
people’s relationships, 145
global consumer surveys, 6–8
Global Denim Project, the, 1–3, 9, 12,
17–18, 181–2, 193
Global Lifestyle Monitor 2008, 7
see also global consumer surveys
Gopinath, G., 56, 58
Gore, Al, 80
Grapes of Wrath, The, 9–10, 38
see also Steinbeck, J.
Great Depression, the, 23–5, 42
Greta Garbo, 24
Guess by Marciano, 73
Gulf, the, 88, 91, 93, 96
Habitat for Humanity, 72, 74
handloom denim production, 97
Hartigan, John, 160
Hawes, Elizabeth, 31
see also department stores
Hepburn, Katherine, 26–7
Hindus, 88, 93, 98–9
and clothing, 11, 91
hip hop, 164, 166, 175
Hollywood, 25–7, 30
Homestead Act, 38
identity, 122, 161, 165–6
see also ethnic
inauthenticity, 155, 164
children’s wear, 89
clothing retail, 91
consumption of jeans, 96
denim manufacture, 96
denim production, 62
see also Arvind Mills
localized brands, 96–7
traditional Indian clothing, 54
indigo, 9, 97, 98
patina, 128–32, 134, 141
US concept of, 11
values of, 145, 150–1
expression of, 140
index of, 141
sign of, 130
Insaaf ke Tarazu, 55
see also Chopra, B. R.
Index • 201
intellectual property rights, 191–2
Internet, the, 3
clothing, 4, 150
jeans/denim, 4–5, 14, 15
multiple layers of, 147
transformation of, 146
J. C. Penney, 31
Jamieson, L., 146–7, 150
and alienation, 14–15
and antinomy, 12–14
and economic stability, 92
and erotic dreams, 95
and erotic function, 58
and fit, 13
and intimacy, 12–14
and mobility, 98
and national identity, 69
and the body, 133–8
American history of, 69
as commodity, 194
as fashion, 128–31
as mediators, 152–3, 156
gender/age differentiations, 89–90
objectification of conservatism, 11
sexualization of, 137–41
spread of cosmopolitanism, 11
US iconography, 9
washing of, 97
see also production and consumption
Jesus Jeans, 27
see also advertising
see also racial insult
Kannur, 11–12, 15, 87–8
caste hierarchy, 88
economic situation, 88
jeans wearing, 89
male dress, 89
population stats, 88
women and jeans, 94–5
women’s dress, 89
economic Kerala Model, 88
Khan, Farah, 56
see also Om Shanti Om
Khan, Shah Rukh, 56
cloth and clothing, 145, 153
see also Weiner, A. and Schneider, J.;
see also Weiner, A.
see also Weiner, A.
Kumar, Akshay, 10, 56–9
see also advertising
labour unrest, 34–5
see also California
Lady Levi’s fashion spread (1935), 28, 32, 35
see also Vogue Magazine
Lange, Dorothea, 36–8
Lange, Dorothea and Taylor, Paul, 36
Lee, H. D., 31–2, 34–5
advertising campaign, 32, 33
see also advertising
Levi Strauss & Co., 28, 30–6, 146
and the US middle class market, 32–5
Western blue jean, the, 35
see also department stores
advertising 32–3, 56–9
see also advertising
cowboy, 28, 38
Levi-Strauss, C., 5
see also Aman, Zeenat
London, 5, 147
see also ethnography
202 • Index
Los Angeles, 60–1
Lycra, 108, 110, 113, 114
MacLeish, Archibald, 38
male physicality, 172
see also Picaldi
Manifesto for the Study of Denim (article),
see also Osella, C. and Osella, F.
mass production, 28–31
material culture, 5, 19, 25, 80, 140
materiality, 104, 109–10
of fabric, 112
of jeans, 12, 80, 121
Mauss, M., 120
Mazzarella, W., 88, 96
Middle East, The, 8
Mintel, 6, 7, 8
mirror work, 133–5, 137, 141
see also jeans
Modern Times, 36
modernity, 4, 11, 15, 98–9
‘Moletom Stretch Trousers’, 104, 108–9,
movements in dance, 105–6, 114, 139
multiple relationships, 150
see also hip hop
Hindus, 11, 90–1, 99
women’s dress, 92
National Jean Company, 73
National Lee Denim Day, 72
National Relief Act, 1933, 29–30
family and friendship, 167
of participants, 147
see also ethnography
of relationships, 150
see also relationships
inequalities and social differences, 181
mode of, 193
of tradition, 99
Oliviero Toscani, 127
see also advertising
Olwig, K., 99
Om Shanti Om, 56
see also Khan Farah
Osella, C. and Osella, F., 90–3, 98–9
see also masculinity
Oshkosh Overall Company, 31, 32
clothing and fashion studies, 2
patina of age, 149–50
Pepe Jeans, 60, 96
personalization of jeans, 148–51
philosophy, 5, 12, 18
Picaldi ‘carrot cut’, the, 15
Picaldi Jeans, 19, 159, 161–4, 166, 171–3,
see also class background
political violence, 88
Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation, 73
popular culture, 1, 2, 10
Porto Alegre, 181, 183
postmodern youth culture, 164
production and consumption, 9–10, 24–5
Index • 203
projected embarrassment, 171–3
‘Proll’, 160, 174
‘pure relationship’, 150–2
see also Giddens, A.
Rabine, L. and Kaiser, S., 24, 54
racial insult, 161
see also ‘Kanakenstyle’
radical Islam, 15
Rai Aishwarya, 92
rap music, 164, 167–8
recycling, 72, 73, 77–9
cotton fibre, 76, 77
textile waste, 79
use of reclaimed cotton fibre, 77
see also Ultra Touch
body and garment, 154
gendered expectations of, 152
sellers and buyers, 193–4
through jeans, 150–1
women and clothing, 149, 155
relationships to, 14
religious difference, 90–1
research, see denim
see also denim
Rivera, Diego, 36
Roshan, Hrithik, 55
‘Ruf & Tuf’, 96
salwar-kameez, 55, 92
San Francisco, 30, 32, 34–5
Levi’s boycott, 32
see also Levi Strauss & Co.
seduction, 127, 133–41
Sewell, W., 24–5
Sewn, Earnest, 73
sexual identity, 127
see also advertising
sexuality, 13, 127–8, 141
shortinho, 114, 119
Simmel, G., 159
Smooth-Hawley Tariff Act, 28
snowball sampling, 147
see also ethnography
Social Mobility in Kerala, 90
see also Osella, C. and Osella, F.
social networking sites, 171
spatial divisions, 105–6
Stanley, L., 151
Steinbeck, J., 9–10, 38
see also Grapes of Wrath, The
see also Gell, A.
subcultural style, 159–60
Sullivan, James, 69–70, 80
superfashion, 131, 141
supermarket jeans, 7
Synovate 2008 Survey, 1, 6–7
see also global consumer surveys
Tamil Nadu, 87, 96
Taylor, Paul, 36–8
see also Lange, Dorothea and Taylor,
Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture,
textile technology, 1
Tocqueville, Alexis de, 11
trade unions, 29–30
see also National Relief Act
trenzinhos, the, 106, 117–18
Trobriand Islands, 153
see also Weiner, A.
Turkish denim manufacture, 7
204 • Index
Ultra Touch denim insulation, 72, 73
production of, 77–9
United Garment Workers, 31
values, American, 80
Vann, E, 192
Vogue Magazine, 28, 32, 35
see also Lady Levi’s fashion spread
World War II, 41
Wayne, John, 38
Weiner, A., 147, 153–4
Weiner, A. and Schneider, J., 145, 150, 154
see also genealogy,
Western Samoa, 153
see also Weiner, A.
Why Is a Dress?, 31
see also Hawes, Elizabeth
and clothing choices, 151
and jeans, 38–41, 94–5
see also Kannur
and marriage, 94–5
and wardrobes, 145, 146, 147, 151
see also ethnography
work clothing industry, 32–4
working class, 27
see also Picaldi Jeans
Wrangler, 56, 58, 60, 96
see also advertising