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 one hundred 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 some sites such as rural South Asia) we have reached a point at which perhaps the majority of the entire population of this planet is wearing blue jeans on any given day. Yet in spite of its global ubiquity, there is a lack of academic attention given to denim jeans. After 12 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. What is absent from the existing literature is that there is very little social science work that is not historical, and in particular very little qualitative or ethnographic work. Fiske (1989) discuss how the meanings and wearing of jeans is 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 yet 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 is, for example no papers in this volume on African or Middle Eastern countries (although work by, for example Tranberg-Hansen, 2005, indicates the importance of jeans in Zambia).
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. Which 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 suggest 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, 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 help us explain the existence of a global phenomenon such as denim. The explanation for 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 global denim 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 to effectively 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 organisation, rather we agreed to foster and organise 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 amount to over twenty independent studies committed to denim (www.ucl.ac.uk/global-denim-project). 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 localised and global phenomenon, we are also working on a further volume for the journal Textile 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 to briefly review 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 homogenisation? 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 we posed derived from observations about denim as 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 personalised 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 which 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 intimate the world, the more intimate the jeans, 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 worn to our body and thus intimate and personal exists as a phenomenon precisely because it is also jeans that are global.
These are sweeping statements. One could say 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 lingeries occupies a more intimate relation to the body, it is through distressing that makes a garment gradually personalised to the specific body that wears it which gives denim a capacity for intimacy that lingeries doesn’t 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 which 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 Levi-Strauss (no relation to the jeans designer) turned to myth (1966). 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 wearer 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 (Miller 2009, Kuchler and Miller 2005) 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 blue jeans have to the modern world. This may satisfy some academic interest in making such highly generalised 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 to merely leave these claims at such an abstract level. For us the point of the enquiry is only realised 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 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 with always be with these far more specific engagements.
Having established this quite extraordinary significance of jeans to express and perhaps to some degree resolve the growing antimonies 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 also become a catalyst in the emergence of new forms of studies and new perspectives.
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 contemporary world.
THE CURRENT STATE OF GLOBAL DENIM
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 , 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%) of consumers say they love or enjoy wearing denim, with the highest responses coming in, for example, Brazil, 72% and in Colombia. By contrast, in India a mere 27% stated they loved wearing jeans. According to another recent survey of selected countries (Synovate, 2008), 31% of those surveyed own 3-4 pairs of jeans, 29% own 5-10 pairs of jeans. In Brazil, 14% of respondents own 10 or more pairs of jeans and 40% owned 5-10 pairs. By contrast, the numbers of people who do not own jeans is relatively low, with, for example, 13% of Russians % not owning jeans, though the figure for Malaysia reaches 29%.
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 (7 out of 10 of all those surveyed). Interestingly, American citizens are the lowest spenders on denim, as the survey finds that 76% 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% would spend US$120 or more on a pair of jeans, with 10% prepared to spend more than US$200 and 5% US$280 or more. In both Taiwan (where 3% would pay US$280+) and Serbia (where 25% 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% of people stated that they has spent less than £30 ($47) on their last pair of jeans, and only 3% 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 democratisation 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 Levis in the late 19th century. When asked in the Synovate survey (2008), why people chose jeans, the strongest response was the quality of denim (39%), and secondly the cost (22%). The response, ‘they are fashionable’ was not a significant overall response, although within a couple of countries (11% of Russians and 10% 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 Kızılgun 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 of production. For example in the UK, between 2003 and 2007 there was a rapid growth in imports as jean production in 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% of men’s jeans and 64% of women’s jeans were imported from Asia, that figure in 2006 was recorded as 70% for men’s jeans and 81% for women’s. The increasing dominance of China (Li et al, 2003) as a source of production seems as evident in this market as many others.
A key feature in shifts in the denim market are 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 declined from supplying 83% of US denim to a mere 7% 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 else of 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 a 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, 3 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% increase over the previous five years. In short in major markets denim was not just ubiquitous its dominant position as everday 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 these statistics all point in the direction of affirming our starting point and the grounds 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 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: that is 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). Because 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 since not being soluble in water is one of its attractions as a dye, but it was easier touse 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, the 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 a much 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 paper radically changes our popular and accepted story of the history of denim. Furthermore Comstock shows that crucial to its success was the 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 30s, 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 facilitates 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 micro culture 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 since it is precisely the presence of stars such as Akshay Kumar with their highly sexualised 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 as 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 situated.
For this volume, even a re-writing of the history of denim become 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 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 Americanisation, 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 specific 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 inflection.
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 it is the outer world, that is now associated with jeans wearing, is then 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 its acceptance.
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 conceptualised 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 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 globalisation on new forms of localisation and not just the other way around.
INTIMACY AND ANTIMONY 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 closed off 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 just in the technical quality of the denim but in this almost idealised 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 our eyes.
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 Italian’s also have an erotic potential that has become central to the way they view the power and idealised possibilities of their own body. 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 emerges is 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 sexualisation 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 other. How does one take a garment that excels as the unseen and ordinary, and use it to make visible the sexualised 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 sexualisation 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 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 commercialised 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 commercialised 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 this 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 antimonies 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 and inalienability. It is far more accurate to suggest that jeans represent a struggle towards resolution than 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 fore-fronted 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 as 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, identity 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.
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 persons. 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 more and more 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 re-position 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 pawn 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 at 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.
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 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 personalisation 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 homogenising 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 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 MacDonald’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 same extent.
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 Americanisation or any other specific quality. They are just the jeans they took out 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 which gives denim its universality, where it transcends its specificity as the idiom of ubiquity.
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 its assault. It is the way they straddle the extremes from ubiquity to singularity that explains 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 re-woven 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 antimonies 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.
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Dear Daniel and Sophie,
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