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London Denim

Daniel Miller

Sophie Woodward

London Denim image 1

An ethnographic study of denim on three North London streets.

Funded by the British Academy

One of the aims behind the global denim project was to undertake long term ethnographic studies of ordinary people’s relationship to denim. In this case Miller and Woodward selected three streets in North London. There is nothing special about these streets, they were selected at random to represent the people of contemporary London. The idea was that we choose people irrespective of place of origin, gender, class or any other category, but just accepted them as whoever they happen to be. As may be imagined for London we found people whose family had lived in the area for generations, a number of people from one particular background (South Asian) but also a wide range of people from pretty much anywhere in the world, from South America, Africa, Australia and Eastern Europe.

In this study we started with trying to understand individual’s life history as seen through their relationship to denim. The influence of their parents and peers, the traditions of clothing in their place of origin, and how they reflected on the changes in denim and its associations such as music and youth groups. Our informants ranged from the elderly to those just out of school. We also looked in detail at when and why people feel comfortable wearing blue jeans. The places and times when they considered them inappropriate and how they could be used either to impress or to fade into the background. We also asked people for their own explanations as to why denim has become so ubiquitous. 

As may be imagined we have a huge range of evidence from people who wouldn’t be seen dead in jeans to people who can’t imagine wearing anything else. We see how denim relates to religious beliefs, to issues of gender, to claims about the functionality of the textile, and the sharing of clothes within families. In the spirit of ethnography we dealt with whatever it was that seemed important about denim to these people.

The data collection is now complete and we are spending the summer of 2009 writing a book based on the results. This will be called Denim: The Art of Ordinary. When we started the work we expected to concentrate on topics such as how denim is used to alleviate anxiety in the choice of what to wear, and questions of denim and sexuality. But we believe the mark of any good ethnography is that it doesn’t end up studying that which it sets out to investigate. Rather we listen and learn from our experience and allow the topic to be dictated more by the people we work with. In the end we felt that the concept of ordinary was overwhelmingly significant, and that we were coming to appreciate that this is not something one can take for granted but in some respects people struggle to achieve it. This then will be the focus of our book including not only the data from our fieldwork but a more philosophical investigation of the concept and contemporary meaning of 'ordinary' in the modern world.

Published: Miller. D. "Anthropology in Blue Jeans" American Ethnologist, volume 37. Issue 3. August 2010 (Pages 415 - 428)

Forthcoming October 2010: Woodward, Sophie "Jeanealogies: Materiality and the (Im)permanence of Relationships and Intimacy" in D Miller and S Woodward (eds) Global Denim, Oxford: Berg