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Jeans, Masculinity and Sexuality

Roberta Sassatelli and Daniele Pilloni

From the first projects conducted in Milan on Jeans practices we got clear that, despite their superficial connotation as a unisex item, Jeans were a highly gendered item, which worked out gender dichotomies on the premise of body sexualization. Seduction had to be stressed by women in Jeans precisely to “feminize” an originally male item, which thus modified, could then become the epitome of “sexy”. When looking at males it was clear that sexual orientation interacted potently with Jeans practices. While heterosexual males were concerned mostly with “comfort”, using Jeans to articulate traditional masculine qualities such as bulk or strength, among homosexual males we found much concern for the seductive qualities of Jeans, especially very tight Jeans that emphasise the body, the back in particular.

homosexualised jeans 1-2
homosexualised jeans 3-4

Coming out in Milan: Jeans as a tool-kit

Narratives about dress practices and coming out, as a moment of passage whereby homosexuality is publicly performed, were particularly useful to address the (homo)sexualization of Jeans. Dress practices seem to play an important role in “coming out”. Inquiring into the life of a dozen of young gay men from Milan, we looked at how jeans were used before, during and after put on them self before, during and after coming out. Before the actual coming out jeans was deployed as “trendy”. To dare too much with some colours and a fancy combination with a particular t-shirt would entail an unwanted revelation about sexual orientation. So quite commonly, there’s the tendency to follow what is perceived to be the norm, with attention to fashion as it is perceived as mainstream and a way to play with clothes in disguise. During coming out Jeans play an important role as they can be re-framed in different ways, signalling both continuity and discontinuity. Jeans are now a erupting volcano that reveals the depths of the self. This happens in two directions: excess and explicit eroticization. If mainstream, safe fashion options were preferred before, now excessive fads are embraced: bright colours, fancy cuts, glittering accessories, and so on. Furthermore, the body – its contours, its erotic zones – is exposes, or underlined by ways of covering that stress shape. Certain parts of the body such as buttocks, legs and genitals are emphasises. It is mostly during this period that homosexual males learn to use Jeans in a seductive way, that Denim gets, so to speak, “homosexualized”.

"A typical way to use jeans is when you show your butt, got it? If you are straight you don’t show your butt, maybe the other side of your body, the front but that’s to shock a girl. A boy that looks at a butt doesn’t do like a girl could. There is always the purposeful sexual act that a girl hasn’t [got in her mind so clearly]. A gay that shows his butt has a strong and specific sexual intent as opposed to what a straight man may have in his head." Leonardo, 25 years old

"I was in Sitges (Spain) and I wanted to buy a pair of jeans. I bought a really skin-tight jeans and I went to a Disco and I happily noticed more interest from the other boys as compared with other occasions – maybe because I had sent a clear sexual message..."  Adamo, 30 years old

As the new homosexual identity gets stabilized, also that’s to such dress practices, these very practices and modes of display are partly abandoned or remain in the background. Jeans largely go back to “normality”.

"For me in every gay’s life there is the homosexual time that is the one next after the coming out. At this time we feel really girls, in some ways. This time ends though and you find your own equilibrium. Equilibrium is subjective and individual. Everyone’s got his own lifestyle and this could be different than mine… Jeans is just with you in this path..." Toni, 22 years old

Jeans indeed significantly accompany the coming-out parabola: during coming out they exit the pure concern with fashion to become a tool-kit for seduction and the display of homosexuality, then, once homosexual identity is consolidated, they are a highly flexible item, which can, on occasion, be charged with seduction qualities and objectives, or, on the contrary, stay in the background as “normal” clothing. Excess and explicit eroticization are not denied thus. And the media images which are heavily imbued by both are not simply rejected. They are negotiated and used selectively –on specific occasions, with certain persons – to when a clear message about one’s own sexual orientation is to be sent and in spatial enclaves – such as “gay bars”- where stylistic deviance is encouraged.