“Once in a great while, a natural phenomenon occurs that is so beautiful, so dramatic, it overshadows everything else. Sergio Valente has created a phenomenon the whole world will be watching: Sergio Valente black denim jeans. They’re more than beautiful. They’re out of sight.” This is the narration for a Sergio Valente denim ad in the jeans collection. The voiceover is so deeply impassioned. The slowly-revolving pan shots around a backlit, denim-clad behind are so intensified. The tight shots of tight asses are so all encompassing. The ad is dramatic to the point that it must be hyperbole. But you can tell that it’s actually in earnest. And the funny thing is that behind the inflated language, there’s a grain of truth to the ad. Jeans have become an unstoppable phenomenon in the world of fashion and apparel. The ubiquity of jeans has become so universal that they are almost hidden in plain view. The phenomenon really is "out of sight."
Anthropologists Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward of the Global Denim Project consider the global denim phenomenon a perfect example of the “blindingly obvious.” The sheer scale of denim’s presence has made us take that presence for granted. In Miller and Woodward’s estimation, in the majority of countries in the world, the majority of people on any given day are wearing jeans. With the exception of rural areas in China and South Asia, Miller found that when he stopped and counted the first 100 people to walk by, about 50 percent of the population wore jeans everywhere from Brazil to India, from Turkey to the Philippines. Jeans have traversed world cultures, class lines, and gender barriers. They somehow manage to be all things to all people. But there’s no immediate answer to the blindingly obvious question: why jeans?
More than anything else we put on our bodies, jeans may be the ultimate paradox. They are a symbol of defiance and rebellion, like the rough and rugged Marlon Brando in The Wild One and James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. They were banned in schools for fear of their anti-establishment associations and they were the uniform of hippie protests. Yet jeans are also the perpetual neutral clothing item, the thing you wear when you don’t know what you want to wear.
Jeans are rooted in the American west, where they were designed for miners, farmers, and other manual laborers who loved the durability of denim and the tough, copper-reinforced pockets. They were long considered the epitome of casual, working-class attire. Legend has it that when Bing Crosby was vacationing in Canada and arrived at a Vancouver hotel wearing Levi jeans, the desk clerk refused to let the crooner into the hotel because of his lowly attire. Only when a bellhop recognized Crosby did the clerk give him a room.
Despite the snide and condescending years that jeans faced in the past, they are now a staple on high fashion runways around the world. Consumers today can find jeans ranging anywhere from $10 off-brand bargains to designer jeans spiraling upwards of $1,000 or more. In 1873, you could buy a pair of jeans for $1. Flash-forward to an anonymous eBay bid a few years ago, one buyer paid $60,000 for a pair of vintage, 155-year-old Levi 501s. As the absurd extremity of denim prices shows, jeans can be a marker of class stratification. And yet jeans are also a great equalizer. They remain a shared item for people at all income levels, classes, cultures, and sexes. And since their introduction to the gold miners, jeans have remained wildly, consistently popular. Stock market crash aside, Levi’s posted sales of $4.2 million in 1929. Almost one hundred years later, jeans continue to be a designer goldmine.
Much of denim’s original appeal came from its unique ability to grow and age with its owner. Denim’s shape adjusts to the body. Jeans fade and distress in a way that is a direct reflection of the individual’s life and the work he does. Jeans tell a story about the wearer. Jeans are shape shifters. They mean radically different things on different people. On one person, a pair of jeans may mean fashionista; on another, jeans could be anything from functionista, gangster, blue-collar worker, cowboy, or sex icon. Blue denim is the blank canvas of apparel, on which we paint the image we wish others to see. Their ability to tell stories, to be whatever the wearer demands them to be, helps make jeans the epitome of individuality. Yet they’re one of the most mass-produced, mainstream items found in almost every sector of the world.
There’s another hyperbolic ad in the collection. This one features Brooke Shields, but it’s not the ad you think. In it, Shields is lying on the ground, pulling on a pair of Calvins that she compares to life itself. Or rather, denim becomes the driving force of all of evolution in a kind of connected apparel and universal Darwinism. It’s a clever play on the word "gene," in a minute-long conceit that’s consistently brilliant from start to finish. “The secret of life lies hidden in the genetic code,” Sheilds states. “‘Genes’ are fundamental in determining the characteristics of an individual.” She talks about gene persistence, about natural selection, and survival of the "fittest." On the surface, the ad emphasizes the same thing all the other ads are pushing: sex appeal, individuality, longevity, and great fit. But like the overtop Sergio Valente ad, the Calvins ad touches on something more. In a world of rapid and constant fashion changes, jeans have survived. They have adapted to fit the needs of millions of different people, just as they evolve with each generation. Jeans have reached a kind of world dominance in fashion that is so unprecedented, Shields might actually be right about one thing. “Certain genes may fade away, while other genes persist,” but there’s no such thing as a recessive jean.
The Global Denim Project at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/global-denim-project
Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary by Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward
Global Denim by Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward
The Levi Strauss online archives
“How Jeans Conquered the World,” by Stephanie Hegarty at BBC.co.uk
“Me and My Calvins” by Caroline Weber at Nytimes.com
“The World’s Most Expensive Jeans” by Hitha Prabhakar at Forbes.com
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.