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Imperial Denim

The Rise and Demise of the American Blue Jean: How Mexico and East Asia Helped Make and Unmake a Twentieth-Century Icon and National Industry

Dr. Sandra Curtis Comstock

Adjunct Research Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Western Ontario, Canada

My project tells the story of how jeans became a prominent emblem and a leading protagonist of change in American and international practices of clothing manufacture, regulation and consumption in the twentieth century. More specifically, it reveals that the American blue jean achieved its initial symbolic potency and role as industry leader thanks to its intimate and unseen exchanges with garment industries and clothing consumption practices unfolding outside the United States, primarily in Mexico and secondarily in East Asia. The central argument of this work in progress is that two intertwined dynamics shaped the trajectory of the American blue jean from a plebian work garment into a transposable symbol of modernity. First, periodic clusters of disruptive events were the engine pushing US retailers and manufacturers to experimentally incorporate new jeans styles and uses as they sought to re-order interrupted production and retailing practices. Second, disruptive events also pushed American and non-American consumers and sellers of jeans into novel kinds of material and symbolic exchange, transforming styles, uses, and ways of thinking about jeans. These experimental exchanges and alterations, disseminated by industry and by mass-media artists, were the centripetal forces that brought the American-made and identified dungaree into being and ultimately transformed it into the modern, world-produced, protean blue jean it has become today. But exactly how and why did the American blue jean become what it became?

During four moments of crisis, improvisational experiments with the aesthetics, manufacture, and retailing of jeans made it an exemplar for rethinking and reorganizing US clothing production and fashions. These crises were: the Great Depression, World War II, the oil and currency shocks of the 70s, and the neo-liberal deregulation of clothing imports into the US and Mexico in the late eighties. The 1929 market crash and World War II precipitated a sequence of events that set in motion the contingent processes that first elevated the jean to its status as an icon of American modernity and helped the dungaree secure a significant portion of the American pants market. Once jeans achieved initial significance, experiments with dungarees’ material properties, manufacture, retail, social meanings, and regulation became bellwethers for the entire garment industry, shaping the direction in which production and tastes moved.

In addition, from the 1940s through the 1990s, each series of crisis-inspired experiments with dungarees within the United States was shaped by dramatic shifts in American trade with textile and clothing suppliers from Mexico and later from Hong Kong as well. Shifting patterns in US clothing trade with Mexico and Hong Kong (as well as changes to American rules regulating jeans production and trade) influenced American experiments with jeans. In addition, trade and trade rules between the US, Mexico, and Hong Kong were also shaped by the contradictions and conflicts that arose as each country’s particular uses of jeans and practices of production confronted those of their counterparts in a changing, unevenly structured, international market place.

Overall this project engages with three scholarly groups: political economists specializing in asymmetric national development and international trade (Hughes & Reimer, 2004; Bair, 2009); scholars of material culture interested in the role that commodities play in shaping social identities, practices, and relations; (Miller, 1994; Mansvelt, 2005); and historically inclined scholars interested in the transformation of the material and cultural practices of nations and empires (Mintz, 1984; Trentmann, 2009).

What follows is a summary of the chapters I am in the process of revising.


The introduction begins with the central claim that certain iconic commodities symbolizing a nation or a period can provide special insight into how that society is organized, and how it came to be organized that way. Tracing the blue jean’s transmutations as it became a protean symbol of American power and “the American way of life” provides just such insight, illuminating many of the historical forces that permitted Americans to inhabit the world as they did in the 20th century. The introduction then presents the three part argument that animates the rest of the chapters. First, each major transmutation in the blue jean’s forms and meanings in the US was accompanied by a series of events disrupting overall norms of organizing clothing production, retail, and consumption. Second, each reinvention of jeans production and aesthetics was shaped by new channels of material exchange between groups previously engaged in distinctive practices of producing and selling jeans or analogous items for different social groups in separate cultural contexts. Finally, each successful reinvention of aesthetics, styles, and productive processes was also partly determined by how non-industry-related institutions and groups (affiliated with the government, academia, the mass-media, etc.) invoked and reinterpreted new jeans styles and uses, alongside older ones, in pursuit of their own political, cultural, and social agendas. These forces interacted differently over time as the density of public jeans images and memories expanded, and as the role of mass-media in shaping and reflecting consumption habits changed. To explore the changing dynamics between practices, exchange, and aesthetics each chapter juxtaposes an emergent type of American blue jean against an analogous good with which it competed for the hearts and pocketbooks of potential wearers.

I. Mexican Calzones versus American Work Jeans: Jeans as an Index of Difference

This chapter introduces the importance of different groups’ comparative frameworks and assumptions in shaping how material culture is interpreted and understood. Using this concept, the chapter shows how Mexican migrant-workers and a small group of border-crossing Mexican and American intellectuals in the twenties and thirties began to interactively conceive of blue jeans as a positive symbol of American style wage-work and market-oriented consumption. Comparisons between the soft, white, peasant calzon, worn in many migrants’ villages, and the industrial blue jean of returning migrant workers became central in social scientists’ inquiries into and conclusions about the effects of industrial wage-work experiences on rural, Mexican villagers. Building on Stoler’s (2001; 2008) and Fabian’s (2002) work on colonialism and comparison, I show that implicit hierarchical comparisons between the United States and Mexico were at the center of shaping, ordering, and distributing references to blue jeans in the public domain in Mexico and United States in the 1920s and early 1930s.

II: The Men’s Work Pant versus the Middle Class Jean: The Great Depression and the Transformation of American Ways of Making, Selling, and Thinking about Jeans

This chapter explains how the humble working class jean was radically reconfigured as a class-muting icon of the American people. The chapter elaborates an event-centered approach to understanding dramatic shifts in the meanings of commodities and the practices of making them available for consumption. It details how the timing, sequence, and conjuncture of a series of disruptive events and aesthetic happenings laid the groundwork for the blue jean to metamorphose from plebian work garment to post-Depression icon of American democracy (Sewell, 2005). The chapter explains how new regulations disrupting norms in the work clothing and women’s clothing sectors encouraged work-clothing manufacturers and department stores to experiment with offering jeans to middle class customers. It demonstrates that these experiments would have failed had jeans not been simultaneously and intensively invoked as a central Depression-era trope of the average American in the art, literature, and journalism of the time. The chapter concludes by noting that the defining Depression images of jeans as an emblem of the American people (those of jeans-clad dustbowl migrants who defied repressive California agribusiness) were produced by the same artists and intellectuals who earlier focused on Mexican migrants.

III: The Generic Mexican Jean and the Branded American Blue Jean: The Wartime Constitution of Two National Clothing Regimes

This chapter explains why strong, fordist-style, branded blue jean companies gained hegemony in the US, while weaker, generic jeans manufacturers, partially dependent on homework, became dominant in Mexico during WWII. The chapter identifies several contributing factors, including US military consumption of jeans and the vast US stockpile of jeans images and meanings from the thirties. However, at the heart of this transformation was the dynamic wartime dance between US and Mexican regimes of regulating domestic production and consumption and international trade. Here a relational framework for conceptualizing how the Mexican and American states improvised domestic industrial regulations and trade rules is introduced (Friedmann, 1987; Aguelli, 1993; McMichael 2000). To do so, the chapter explains how state bureaucrats’ political relations with different segments of their garment and textile industries shaped the regulations they established in the first instance. It also shows how U.S. and Mexican bureaucrats’ trade and domestic regulations developed in relation and response to their counterparts’ policies. Finally, it shows how asymmetries between the overall productive structures of each nation gave Mexican and American officials differing opportunities and capacities to use rules and regulations to effectively counter the effects of their counterparts’ policies. Throughout, the chapter examines how national policy makers’ comparisons between their own economy and that of their counterparts informed these decision-making processes.

IV. American Levi’s versus Asian Polyester: The Roles of History and Geopolitics in Defining the Material Properties and Meanings of American Jeans in the Sixties

This chapter explains how new layers of postwar meaning accrued to Levi’s as different groups imaginatively linked Levis’ historic social-symbolic meanings to the growing 1960s belief in the inherent material opposition between Levi’s and Asian-made polyester. It argues that iconic 1950s films like The Wild One and Rebel without a Cause first dressed angst-ridden youthful rebels in Levi’s to capitalize on three intensely circulated images: 1930s images of western jeans-clad California farm workers in poses of legitimate rebellion, 1940s images of jeans and Levi’s wearing cowboys of the post-Depression epic western films, and 1940s images of eastern college women offending the public by wearing jeans for war-work and leisure. The chapter also describes how literature, news articles, and films like The Graduate linked historic, symbolic meanings to new ideas about differences between youthful, ‘natural,’ authentic Levi’s and middle-aged, phony, chemical polyesters. These perceptions of material difference also expressed deeper relations of competition between geo-politically distinct regimes of clothing production. Specifically, Levi’s and polyester’s actual and perceived physical differences were shaped by the post-war politics and regulatory regimes pursued by American cotton and synthetics industries. Regulations protecting jeans makers from foreign competition encouraged Levi Strauss and the big branded manufacturers to compete domestically by focusing on stylistic accuracy, durability, standardization and brand reputation. At the same time, lack of legal restraints on synthetic imports encouraged Asian companies to compete with American synthetics by inundating the US market with lower-priced, lower quality polyesters that encouraged Americans to disdain polyester, associating it with shoddiness, commercial uniformity, and a generally disposable culture.

V: Gloria Vanderbilt versus Levi Strauss: How East Asian Designer Jeans Restructured the Value and Production of American Brands

This chapter explains how events disturbing American-oriented, East Asian clothing production and trade strategies pushed Hong Kong clothing suppliers to improvise an experimental designer blue jean so successful that it reoriented American jeans tastes and forced branded manufacturers to rethink and relocate production. The chapter begins by describing how two events (the imposition of limits on synthetic imports to the US and an oil-shock induced collapse in American clothing consumption) devastated Hong Kong manufacturers’ synthetics trade. Yet, even as synthetics consumption fell, Americans continued to consume ever-growing quantities of jeans. Thanks to the expanding social-symbolic uses of jeans and experiments with “authenticity-enhancing,” after-market embellishment, jeans consumption grew exponentially. These events and circumstances encouraged one Hong Kong manufacturer-trader to improvise the first fully recognizable “designer-jean.” To overcome historic regulatory and symbolic barriers to the US market, this innovator enlisted Gloria Vanderbilt to lend her name to his distinctive, Lycra-infused jeans and riskily launched the most expensive television advertising campaign of its time. The surprising success of this novel “designer jean” -- so amenable to Hong Kong’s inter-Asian, flexible assembly regime of export production -- redefined American jeans tastes and social-symbolic meanings. So much so, that it caused Levi’s jeans’ cachet to atrophy as they lost pride of place in prestigious retailing venues to designer jeans. This forced Levi’s to increasingly compete with inexpensive, imported, basic jeans names (like Gap) and slowly pushed Levi Strauss to experiment with assembling jeans in Mexican free-trade zones.

VI: The Mexican Business Association versus the American Textile Manufacturers Institute: Negotiating NAFTA through the Optic of Denim and Blue jeans.

This chapter departs from a “social life of things” analysis to engage in a “material production of social agents” analysis, along the lines advocated by Fernando Coronil. (66: Coronil; 1996) It argues that the historic and geo-political relations of jeans production and consumption between the US, Mexico, and East Asia animated the personal and political dynamics of negotiating NAFTA. The chapter first explains how Mexican and American jeans tastes and production practices, combined with neo-liberal clothing trade reforms, led to an unusually high uptick in consumption of fast changing, Asia-made jeans. This both devastated domestically-oriented jeans makers in both countries, and encouraged their simultaneous reorientation towards joint, cross-border manufacturing for the US market. The uniqueness of the jeans industry’s response to neoliberal reforms made the example of jeans a prominent model in discussions of what might happen to American and Mexican garment industries with further regional trade liberalization. Arguments over what caused the jeans industry (and not other garment categories) to restructure, and what this might imply for the potential effects of NAFTA framed strategic trade discussions at all levels. In addition, the Mexican state’s desire to use the jeans industry restructuring experience to promote NAFTA among politically influential, Southern US denim manufacturers guided who it included in a series of game-changing, cross-national, private sector talks which it sponsored over parts of 1991 and 1992. This made implicit narratives about the jeans industries of Mexico and the US in the late eighties pivotal in these meetings. More specifically, Mexican and US private sector participants’ conflicting and shifting beliefs about why their consumers began to purchase imported jeans with such relish with trade liberalization became a topic of debate, influencing the trade rules participants came to prefer, the alliances they formed in pursuit of those preferences, and the rules and productive strategies ultimately settled upon.


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Forthcoming October 2010:

Comstock, Sandra "The Making of an American Icon: The Transformation of Blue Jeans during the Great Depression" in D Miller and S Woodward (eds) Global Denim, Oxford: Berg