Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary | Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward | University of California Press | 184 pages | $24.95 (Paperback)
I'm willing to bet you own at least one pair of jeans. Denim clothing—which will be used interchangeably with jeans for this discussion—is popular with people just about everywhere, with the exception of South Asia and China where strong cultural pressures mold ideas about propriety (1). In Germany, people own an average of 8.2 pairs of jeans. In the US, Russia, Korea, and South Africa, 31% of people own 3 - 4 pairs of jeans and 29% own 5 - 10 pairs. And then there's you: What's your denim story? Do you have a favorite pair? How do they make you feel? Have you stopped wearing them completely or do you wear them all the time and dress them up or down as the occasion requires? How does denim fit into your life?
These are the sorts of questions Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward set out to answer in Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary, which looks primarily at the relationship North Londoners have to with this material that can be found in almost all parts of the world. The conclusions they present are applicable far beyond this sample, however, and offer us a peek elements of human nature that go beyond culture.
The premise for Blue Jeans was born out of a paper titled A Manifesto for a Study of Denim, where Miller and Woodward first flagged the ubiquity of denim and that denim itself has a particular nature: it is often sold as distressed and is often the choice for people when they don't know what to wear or are worried about what to wear. While these choices are personal, there is an underlying consistency that speaks to how we respond to social pressure, insecurities and personal fears. Denim figures prominently in these scenarios, and while it is not the answer per se, it functions as a mediator. It has its own global reputation as comfortable, stylish, and ordinary, and this allows the denim-clad to slip between casual and formal with ease.
There is a typology to jeans. In North London, beyond the commercial distinction (e.g., brand and fit), there is also a personal categorization which reflects the preferences and overall lifestyle of the individual. In addition to color, level of wear/distress, and cut, jeans are differentiated by appropriateness for different situations. Jeans worn at work or for going out differ from jeans worn casually around the house or for running errands. The former are more likely to be a darker wash or colored, less distressed, more fitted, and paired with dressier shoes; these are "dressier" jeans. In the latter case, the denim is typically a lighter blue, more relaxed fit, more distressed, and usually worn with sneakers or more casual shoes; these are "casual" jeans. Jeans in the dressy group can ultimately be relegated to more casual wear with time, but rarely will jeans from the casual group move into dressy category.
While there are general guidelines for categorizing jeans, there is also room for personalization. For example, skinny jeans by their nature have been relegated to the dressier category: they're fitted, usually a dark wash or colored, and typically less worn by requirement as it takes away from their "sharpness." Skinny jeans have gained popularity despite concerns about how tight (and unflattering) they can be. However, as an accepted type of denim that has been assigned to a larger category, they have been adapted to suit personal preferences and maintain personal comfort: for example, they're paired with longer tunic-style tops to hide thighs for those who are conscious of that body area, and dressed down with ballet flats to make them suitable for a more casual look (2).
These acts of adaptation are important to note because they specifically address concerns that skinny jeans are uncomfortable. They illustrate some of the steps taken to "get jeans just right"—a phrase that refers both to the wearer and the situation (3). Miller and Woodward show that this happens in both genders, though men appear to be less bound to managing shifts in fashion and are freer to adapt the general categories to the brand or fit that suits them. For example, though one of the men interviewed had a few variations of jeans—distressed, black, light blue, and indigo blue—they all followed the same fit: straight leg (4). In this case, "just right"—the fit which the wearer was most comfortable in—formed the basis around which typologies could be set. In the case of skinny jeans, "just right" is something mediated along with the typology.
More than any other type of clothing, jeans stress comfort, which is why the underlying sense of "just right" is so important. But discussions with North Londoners about what exactly constitutes comfortable reveals immense variation. For example, some might say that wearing jeans in hot weather is uncomfortable, but people in tropical countries seem to wear jeans more frequently than people in the UK (5). Similarly, people might feel that jeans are ill suited to rainy weather as they tend to take longer to dry, while others feel that jeans offer some protection from the weather. Some people won't wear jeans to travel because they feel that the material can be stiff, while others prefer to travel in jeans. In all of these cases, there is recognition that one person's version of "just right" does not necessarily apply to what other's might think is "just right." These varying ideas suggest that jeans may be comfortable because they are acceptable in so many forms and contexts:
(A)lmost everything that has just been argued about the comfort of jeans, the practical and the pragmatic, comes not from any intrinsic quality of denim but from what we have designated as out attitude toward denim as a textile and indigo as a color. The decision whether one material or another is best when ironed is again arbitrary, just as it is when an elite considers that linen looks best when creased; it is not a quality of linen (6).
It is not that jeans have some specific trait that make them comfortable, but that over time this idea of comfort has become naturalized: our cultural definitions of comfort have been reinforced time and again by individual use and have become linked to the identity of jeans (7). Comfortable clothing is partly defined by the physical relationship between clothing and the body: how something feels against the skin, for example, can create a positive or negative association. The positive is comfortable, while the negative is not because it disrupts the individual's ability to fully engage in an activity or event. Ideally, comfortable clothing should not be felt; it should not in any way hamper the individual's ability to act and should not be something they think about.
To this end, "just right" is as much a state of mind as it is descriptive of a fit or brand or adaptation of denim. There's a just right for everyone. And because this association has become accepted, seeing someone in denim is implies this idea "just right"—that they're comfortable and should be accepted. Certainly this becomes apparent when people talk about when they themselves would not wear jeans, but express tolerance for people who would in those situations. For example, Miller and Woodward found that many South Asians in North London claimed that they would not feel comfortable wearing jeans to a religious service, but they would not have a problem if other people did as long as their overall presentation was respectful to the event (i.e., the jeans were not immodest).
"Just right" then has a dual meaning: Yes, it refers to the comfort of the individual, but it also refers to the appropriateness of the situation. Jeans have taken on a uniform status in that they carry a particular connotation of sameness. For certain professions in particular they're standard wear. While some workplaces have taken pains to ban them on the grounds that they're inappropriate, but the root of this inappropriateness is this idea of sameness:
To wear jeans when seeing a patient, customer, or member of the public might imply a lack of effort or inappropriate lack of concern. Under these circumstances jeans may be seen either as scruffy or as preventing people from taking the wearer seriously (8).
It is for this reason that jeans haven't always been viewed as appropriate for more formal occasions—though that is certainly changing as dressier typologies emerge. And it is for this reason people choose jeans when they're unsure about the nature of the event or what to wear or when meeting people they don't know well: in this case, sameness is comforting. It is ordinary. The emergence of different typologies of jeans allow for different types of ordinary and different types of comfort as the situation requires. Jeans let you be you because they create a means of feeling equal and included; they provide a way to mediate social pressure without fully compromising comfort (8).
The Global Denim Project
The Global Denim Project" documents additional insights into our relationship with this fabric through the ongoing efforts of researchers around the world, and is a excellent companion to Blue Jeans. Miller and Woodward are promoting this effort as an open-source research project that anyone can contribute to and use. Currently, there are 22 projects that cover denim in South Asia, Italy, and Japan, and look at production and ethics and fashion. It is well worth a look for anyone interested in anthropology in practical practice.
Notes: 1. p 4 | 2. p 57 | 3. p 59 | 4. p 58 | 5. p 66 | 6. p 71 | 7. p 77 | 8. p 119
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Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary was provided for review free of charge by the publisher, with the understanding that there was no promise or obligation to review.