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The Limits of Jeans in Kannur, Kerala

Daniel Miller

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 paper 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 paper 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 Americanisation since 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 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 are in 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 divided approximately into approximately 50% Hindu 35% Muslim and 15% 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 hierarchically terms are 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 though 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 organisation 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 Desei 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 state subsidised enterprises and bureaucracies. There also remain considerable problems of unemployment and currently 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 CMI(M) and mainly the RSS or extreme wing of Hindu traditionalist parties.

Kannur Clothes

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%; in Kannur around 5% of the adult population wear jeans when walking in the town (based on my own counts) – made up of 10% of the male adult population and 0% 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 brand. 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% 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% wearing sari, 33% churidah (the local name for shalwar-kamiz), 21% burkha and 3% a veil/large headscarf that is more than an ordinary scarf but not a full burkha (as again they are known in the North). On festive occasions there are a much higher percentage of dhotis 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 at 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 kiddy jeans of Kannur take the jeans genre to new gaudy extremes. This is the start of a very evident generalisation 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 highly 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 paper, is a generalisation with exceptions. Even a baby might wear entirely plain jeans (as were found in one 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 feminised versions where the fading become 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 pubic arena of town. Jeans wearing continues in certain contexts, however. For example at one school around 20% of 13-15 year old girls wore jeans on the rare day when they were allowed to appear in non-uniform. This had decreased for the 16 plus years. An exception is known to be the engineering college where it is said half the girls wear jeans, tough on the day I visited it was 100% churidah since 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, since 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 (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 colonised new fashions such as the ragga 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, with brighter colours, 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 recognisable as Muslim. In contrast, Hindu’s, 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 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 (C. Osella and F. 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 C. Osella and F. 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 Hindu’s 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 also associated with an implied disparagement that almost amounts to infantalisation, 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 Hindu’s buy less expensive or fashionable clothes at festivals, but also that they are more likely to buy jeans and fashionable clothes for their children, while the Muslim population buys these for adult males. Fashion certainly effects the clothes of young children as in the influence of Bollywood and other film style. 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 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 recognises 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 Bhacchan, who is likely to be sporting faded denim in a film role. It is his son Ambishek Bhachan, who recently married Ahswariya 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%’ 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 infantalisation 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 general ambivalence.

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 Hindus with young Muslim men. The Osellas’ analysis of various sites of masculinity (C. Osella and F. Osella 2001, 2007b), for example the two main male heroes of the Malayalam cinema (C. Osella and F. 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 (F. Osella and C. Osella 2006), these are often contradictory and cross-cut by various factors.

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 multi-dimensional 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 to 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 to 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, though 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 £UK 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 2000 rupees, so would other branded trousers. So jeans are as cheap, if not cheaper, than alternatives.

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 18, 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 Gulf, wore his jeans, but only 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 or 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 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 story pink palace known as City Centre, that 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: 107-115) 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, 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 crises, from which it is only now recovering.

Seen from Kannur, while denim is now an established part of local clothing, it still remains at 5% of the adult population, around a tenth of what would be found in most countries. Also, 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 1600 ruppees, 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 6-900 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 most recalled such campaign 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 5-700 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 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 localised. 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 wear almost entirely 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, they had experimented with handloom denim. If a market could be found, they are 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.


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 which can be properly characterised as subject to processes we term globalisation or Americanisation; 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 generalised 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 the 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. While my own fieldwork is of much smaller compass and less nuanced, but there 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 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 revitalisation of tradition and custom. Kannur is clearly positioned as the site of a certain grounded tradition. A smallish town, no-where special, Kannur, is ideal as a place that people come from; a home which 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 increasingly is 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 (e.g. 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 paper is largely concerned, not with why people wear jeans in Kannur, but why they don’t. It starts with an insight from the Osella’s about how the acceptance of Western fashion by lower caste groups creates a conservatism amongst those who seek to differentiate themselves from such cases. This paper has 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, that is represented by a 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.


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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 of their time for discussion of jeans. A photo essay based on this research may be viewed at Thanks to Lucy again for her detailed comments upon a draft of this paper and comments from Sophie Woodward.

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