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Indigo Bodies

Indigo Bodies: Sexuality, Embodiment and Denim in Italy

Roberta Sassatelli

Università degli Studi di Milano

Indigo Bodies is an umbrella of research initiatives attached to the broader Global Denim investigation strategy and concentrated on the use of Denim Jeans in relation to body perception, gender difference, sexuality and eroticism. Developed and coordinated by Roberta Sassatelli, it has attracted a number of graduate students specializing in communication studies, consumption and cultural sociology. Participating to Indigo Bodies, students deploy ethnographic interviews, documents and visual methodologies to collect material on youth experiences of their bodies and sexuality via the elicitation of their clothing practices as epitomized by the use of Denim Jeans.

A few examples of Denim fieldwork

Denim and Sex in Italy: Remarks on Cultural History and Personal Engagement

As it has been suggested (Woodward 2007), among all clothing Jeans appear to work for many consumers as an anxiety reduction device, which accommodates the need for both individuality and belonging. Few aspects of personal identities are coded as intimately personal as sexuality and bodily experience. The fact that Jeans seem to enjoy a particular relation to both – sexualized by films, likened to skin, worn out by bodies or by their simulated effects - is of the essence. As it is of the essence that they also stress belonging (to the human species, from male workers to chick models) and standardization (the fabric, but also, certain cuts and the double-seam).


Intensely global, Denim has also a myriad of local histories which indeed appear to sustain its global nature. Italy is an interesting ‘locality’ for Denim, and not only because of the etymology of the word Jeans (from Genova, the Italian city from which the fabric came originally). As the most important country in Europe for textile production, Italy also is home to a flourishing fashion industry, which has specialized precisely in ready-to-wear and casual garments (Belfanti and Giusberti 2003; Steele 2003; White 2000). Italian consumers with their well developed skills in matters of textile, embroidery, clothing have arguably being important elements for the development of the Italian fashion industry (Sassatelli 2006). Yet, the consumption of fashion, and even more, the actual process of choice and the practices of wearing of clothes remain unexplored in Italy. More broadly, while there are now a number of studies which link clothes with the body and sexuality internationally (i.e. Entwistle 2000; Steele 1996), there is still a need to consider how, in practical and experiential terms, issues of embodiment and sexuality do intermingle with clothes practices and choice. A focus on Denim Jeans allows to consider sexuality as a mundane, ordinary practice and, conversely, taste as an embodied, ongoing and contextual realization (see Sassatelli 2007). The Italian context appears to be, yet again, particularly interesting in this respect as gender relations have been rapidly changing after WWII and these changes have been part of the modernization of Italy and the domestication of American ‘consumer culture’. Thus, while the projects aims to keep an eye on the whole commodity circuit, it gives methodological primacy to consumption, considering that in their consumer practices people will have to confront the entire commoditization process.

Clearly there is an autobiographic element in this. I love jeans, old jeans, distressed jeans, new jeans, bleached jeans, customized jeans, designer jeans … As a teen-ager (born 1967) I lived the very early 1980s, in the periphery of a left-wing city in the North of Italy, the elder daughter of an upward mobile family. My father was a self-made man, a small entrepreneur in the cosmetic sector, initially supported by my mother, a manual worker in the clothing industry. Consumption was the least concern for us as a family, we were ‘producers’ and, as many families from peasant origin, even consumption for us plainly meant a lot of production (clothes were often made at home, so were preserves, wine, etc.). As a child open, egalitarian views had been applied to my education, yet as a teen-ager my sexuality was checked according to patriarchal rules. The women of my family had never put on a pair of jeans, and even my father got to it after I had worn out quite a few. In the larger world around us, Jeans were informal, young and slightly rebellious. They seemed to escape fixed social hierarchies and their symbols as in their ‘American’ cut seem to come from a world where these hierarchies did not apply. Above all, they were a male item which was appropriated by women as a symbol of explicit sexuality that could, nevertheless, be inoffensive: unlike a miniskirt which opened the female body to the male gaze uncompromisingly, the Jeans sexual codes had to be activated by women and girls (with a pose, a laugh, a word). It was left to women to play with it, and in this play they had to learn and continuously practice with quite a lot of symbolic stuff which was continuously produced by other women and men, as well as youth subcultures, film industry, the advertising industry, music, and increasingly the fashion industry. The fashion industry had already made the link between women, jeans and sexuality quite explicit in Italy (Volli 1992). You could, of course, go slightly more wild, and even customize your jeans, especially if they were meant to be counter-cultural and sexier. But, in the main you could use your standard pair of Levi’s to cover up, to be equal: a girl to the boys, a low middle-class to the well-to-do. Thus the endless discussions with my mother who wanted me to be well-dressed for this or that special occasion, which meant: no jeans. And my replies which stressed that jeans is always fine, like a uniform, and which contained the secret hope that I could also perform some distance from such uniformity.


As this brief auto-ethnographic reminiscence shows quite clearly, to study the sexualization of the body via Jeans, its purchase and use, means also to consider both gender and sexual identity and generational and class elements. A number of student projects as sampled above have already collected quite interesting material on these configurations of meanings, interaction and relations. Further projects are being conducted on the Eroticization of the Female figure in Denim, on Luxury Jeans and Seduction, and on Denim Promotional Imagery: Youth response to heavily eroticized promotional campaigns for Jeans. As it is apparent visual methodologies have proved to be particularly helpful and further research with increasingly make use of these. Further exploration of commercial visual imagery will also be pursued, concentrating on audience responses and de-codifications. Next year I am planning to conduct my own longer term ethnographic research with Daniel Miller on Denim and erotic fantasy.

Belfanti, C. e Giusberti, F. (a cura di) 2003 La moda. Storia d’Italia, Annali 19, Torino, Einaudi.
Entwistle, J. (2000) The Fashioned Body, Cambridge: Polity.
Miller D. and Woodward, S. (2007) A Manifesto for the Study of Denim, forthcoming,
Sassatelli, R. (2006) Post-fazione. La moda in Italia tra passato e presente, in Kawamura, Y. La moda, il Mulino, Bologna. Sassatelli, R. (2007) Consumer Culture. History, Theory, Politics, Sage, London. Steele, V. (1996) Fetish. Fashion, Sex and Style, Oxford UP, Oxford.
Steele, V. (2003) Fashion. Italian Style, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Volli, U. (1992) Jeans, Lupetti, Milano.
White, N. (2000) Reconstructing Italian Fashion. America and the Development of the Italian Fashion Industry, Oxford: Berg.
Woodward, S. (2007) Why women wear what they wear, Berg, Oxford.

Forthcoming October 2010:

Sassatelli, Roberta "Indigo Bodies: Fashion, Mirror Work and Sexual Identity in Milan" in D Miller and S Woodward (eds) Global Denim, Oxford: Berg