Jeans in Kannur, Kerala
A Photo Essay
University College London
(If citing, please give source. All photographs copyright Daniel Miller. An academic paper based on this material is in preparation. Many, many thanks to Lucy Norris and her family Dirk and Florian, and also to Seema, Shibin and Venu, plus the many, many people of the town of Kannur who agreed to give of their time for discussion of jeans or to be photographed for this essay).
Kannur is the modern name of the ancient town of Cannanore. It has a population of around 60,000 and is the administrative centre for a population of around 2.5 million. For centuries it has been important for the spice trade. It is one of the northernmost towns of the state of Kerala, in South-West India, which in the last census of 2001 had a population of 31.8 million.
This area was traditionally divided by strict caste hierarchy. The dominant caste were Nayars, the most numerous caste were Tiyyas and low caste include the Pulayas. The majority of the population is Hindu but Muslims are a large minority, there is also a small Christian community. The Muslim and Christian population would also have reflected caste hierarchy. Filippo and Caroline Osella provide an excellent ethnography of caste somewhat to the South of this area in their book Social Mobility in Kerala. The pictures show traditional housing in Kannur.
Today both the town of Kannur and the surrounding countryside is witness to an impressive boom in house construction. Some of these new houses are quite palatial. This is largely a result of migration to of labour to the Gulf states where most extended families have at least one male worker. This income now dominates the area. As a result while once the largest housing would have been largely that of the dominant landowning Nayar caste, today these are joined by the Muslim population which has particularly benefited from Gulf employment and money.
Not everyone has access to money from the Gulf, and many houses still are of much more modest size. The small Christian community was mainly a result of conversion of lower castes and tends to remain lower in income.
Since its creation as a state in 1956 Kerala has been dominated by the world’s first democratically elected communist government.
These pictures show a rally of 100,000 held on 21st January 2008. The Kerala model has produced life expectancy comparable to the US, and a high standard of education. It was this educational success that helped people from Kerala to gain good employment in the Gulf, which in turn has led to a thriving local capitalism based on construction, though the area is also known for its handloom industry.
Notwithstanding the influence of communism Kannur is in many other ways quite conservative. It lies to the North of the main areas of tourism. If tourists do come to this area it is mainly to witness the Theyyam spirit possession ceremonies which re-enact divine intervention that assisted the lowest castes against oppression by the high castes.
The area was originally ruled by a Muslim Raja, unusually often a female Bibi. Muslims today are around 35% of the population, and thanks to the new wealth from the Gulf tend to be the most conspicuous population in public spaces. This woman is wearing a very fashionable outfit.
In the context of global denim, South Asia is important as perhaps the last major region with comparatively low jeans consumption. In the streets of Kannur jeans are worn by around 10% of the male population. Unsewn dhoti and lunghi are worn by around 25% of the male population, with a higher proportion on festive days such as the one portrayed here.
Women’s wear is divided, with 43% wearing sari 33% churidah (shalwar–kamiz) 21% burkha, 3% an extended veil but not a full burkha and 0% jeans. On festive occasions there is a higher percentage of saris. This is town wear. At home many women were a loose 'maxi’ dress.
Visually Kannur is dominated by a pink shopping complex called City Centre. None of the malls are enclosed and air conditioned, since electricity is very expensive, but City Centre is at the heart of the shopping area which in turn is the activity that dominates contemporary town life.
City Centre includes Citymart the most upmarket jeans shop in Kannur. It started as a franchise of Arvind Mills. Arvind Mills was 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 and then India’s largest textile producer. As an international denim producer it manufactures a very wide variety of blended cotton, and can produce the full range of distressed varieties 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.
Arvind ventures such as ruf & tuf, a pack of jeans material for local stitching, worked well for a time and are still well known to lower income groups. But they have now more or less disappeared as the cheapest jeans in the market are not much more expensive than the cost of stitching. From the local perspective Arvind helps explain the Indianisation of branding. Since at Citymart one finds Wrangler, Pepe and Lee, all of which apparently compete, but are actually all Arvind Mills brands. So in the main local consumers come across foreign brands essentially as expensive Indian jeans. Hardly anyone in Kannur is aware of either a US origin or contemporary association for blue jeans so there is no concept of Americanisation associated with jeans. These high end jeans sell for around 1600 rupees. There are currently around 80 rupees per pound. In recent years Citymart changed to a multi-brand store though still dominated by Arvind Mills products.
Another section of Citymart is devoted to less expensive jeans at more like 5-900 rupees once again divided into three main brands including Newport one of the most successful Arvind Mills brands. Most informants in Kannur, who were not from wealthy families, had never heard of the high end labels. Of the Arvind brands they are most likely to have heard of Newport, partly from a successful advertising campaign featuring Bollywood star Akshay Kumar. Otherwise many men knew of other Indian labels marketed from Mumbai and Bangalore such as Killer, Live-In, Sturdy or Hard Currency which are found at far more shops including other less expensive shops in City Centre.
In the single case of Live-In there is a shop exclusive to that brand. These branded jeans sell at around 600 to 1000 rupees.
The most unusual jeans shop on Kannur is that shown here. It recently opened and has experimented with new forms of display. The stock in this shop is imported from Bangkok and has the more elaborated and distressed forms of jeans that appeal to teenagers. Note the Iron Maiden t-shirt. Thai, as well as Chinese jeans, were the most common jeans brought back by workers in the Gulf.
There are another dozen or so shops that concentrate on jeans. Most include a mixture of low level brands and unbranded jeans such as Jeansworld. Here prices are more like 400 to 600 rupees. Most jeans in Kannur are sold in the various bazaar areas in shops with a wider range of clothing and sometimes non clothing goods. These jeans may be found for as little as 250 rupees.
At shops stocking cheap jeans there are no recognised brands. Rather almost every pair of jeans seems to have been given a different label implying a brand but not actually constituting one. Most of the purchased jeans inspected were non branded.
Most of the clothing worn by young male children is a gaudy mixture of jeans and cargo style, including bright colours.
The group wearing the highest percentage of jeans are young boys, many of which imitate teenage styles There is a clear gradation in jeans elaboration that correlates very closely with age. The most decorative are produced for the youngest age group while those older men that still wear jeans will mainly wear very plain versions. Jeans are much less important in young girl’s fashions though they are certainly present. Generally these include embroidery such as bright colourful flowers that feminise the genre and make it appropriate, as well as skirts in jeans materials.
Short term fashion has a role in even the youngest children’s clothes. The disc like buttons on these items are taken from a local Malayalam film called Chocolate. Almost immediately teenage clothes were emulating the film, and within a few months this had been copied in these children’s clothes. In general, however, it is the Hindi Bollywood films that influence fashion rather than local Malayalam or neighbouring Tamil films. Most people could name at least one Hindi film star that had appeared in an advert for jeans, though they often couldn’t recall the brand they were advertising.
Even low income and quite young boys may be indulged with their jeans preferences. One 10 year old possesses eleven pairs of jeans one of the highest number I came across.
Teenage jeans are most likely to sport various forms of distressed and elaborated versions. There is some sense of a `rude boy’ image in that some older people take this is a sign of potential unconformist behaviour.
Most school children wear uniform, but these pictures shows older school children during a `colour dress’ day when they were allowed to come to school in their own clothes. The majority of boys wore jeans.
Most school girls, when not in uniform, wear churidah, but some will also wear jeans. Amongst the highest proportion of jeans wearing is in the Engineering College.
There are various short term fashions. For example, Kannur reflects the current fashion for low waisted jeans. Also in fashion were large buckle belts which meant some young men would tuck in their shirts at the front while leaving them out at the back.
Jeans as such are not particularly in fashion at present, as compared to these textured casuals, at least for the mid to low income clientele. The primary categories of male trousers in Kannur were casual, pleated, jeans, cargo, and then for length, Bermuda, short, and ¾.
As men leave education they tend to adopt plain jeans and then after 40 rarely wear jeans. In part this may represent a differentiation between those who now earn money and those still studying. The separation of older more responsible men from younger men is one of the reasons the overall percentage of jeans wearing remains low. Jeans are also not accepted as part of the `executive’ style dress which may be the formal dress code for some government and private offices and is the informal dress code for all office work.
Around 21% of women wear a black burkha. Despite this Muslim clothing in general tends to favour bright and glittering materials. Hindu’s may make some conscious differentiation from Muslims by showing less interest in fashion and in the brightest and most glittery clothing, except on certain occasions such as weddings. This applies to some degree also to jeans. The most fashionable and distressed varieties are more associated with Muslims. There is clear evidence for these distinction in patterns of shopping. Jean sales are dominated by the Muslim festival of Eid, when sales are reported as 8 to 12 times the norm, while the Hindu equivalent of Onam sees higher sales of children’s wear and less expensive jeans. There seems therefore some attempt to brand Muslim preferences with a local version of vulgarity or nouveau riche. This is tempered by recognition that more expensive and branded jeans are evidence of economic stability, and therefore likely to be worn, for example, be men when visiting the family of a potential wife. Given the poverty of low caste Christians there is no increase in shopping associated with Christmas.
It is unusual to find even teenage girls in jeans in the centre of town. It is however, now quite common for unmarried younger women to wear jeans when outside Kannur, for example on a school excursion. In general this is acceptable especially when worn with a long and loose top such as a kurta. But a woman who wears jeans with a short or tight top will inevitably draw remarks implying `loose’ behaviour. Young women remained under explicit pressure not to wear jeans in inappropriate contexts from parents, school principals, hostel guardians and sometimes their peers. One of these pictures includes a rare sighting of an adult woman in jeans but then a) she was on the beach and b) she works in Bangalore.
The critical connotation of jeans lies in its association with places outside of Kannur. As something to wear visiting other parts of India or abroad. Many people assume that Kannur is on its way to becoming more like these metropolitan centres. But in many ways this situating of modernity as outside reinforces the conservatism of Kannur itself as a space from which people originally come, and in which jeans should not be worn by older males or any females. This polarity between traditional and modern may remain for some time.
Another negative pressure on jeans wearing comes from wives and mothers who constantly complain of back ache when having to pound heavy wet jeans against stones during washing. Several men reported, either not wearing, or having stopped wearing jeans for this reason. Jeans generally are seen as unsuited to the monsoon season, and best for the winter, which however last only for a few weeks in December-January. Most male teenagers who prefer jeans continue to wear them regardless.
Near Kannur, Ambadi an upmarket company, manufactures for companies which have produced furnishing fabrics for the White House and Buckingham Palace. The fabric they have embroidered on the right is of Indian origin. They also needed an enzyme washed denim with enough consistency to use for furnishing.
This fabric, which can be seen at the top of the picture, was imported from their US customers, although ironically it may well have originally been produced in Sri Lanka. The material used in the third piece, with motifs from Indian educational posters, was locally made by the company, but is not a true denim.
Kannur is generally known for its handloom production and a rare example of handloom denim has been produced as samples by the same company. If they can find a market, they are capable of producing a handloom, organic, fair trade and plant Indigo dyed denim.
Forthcoming October 2010:
Miller, Daniel "The Limits of Jeans in Kannur, Kerala" in D Miller and S Woodward (eds) Global Denim, Oxford: Berg