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What Jeans mean is now more important than what they are

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What jeans mean is now more important than what they are.
McKenzie Wark explains.

Supermodel Naomi Campbell did dig for victory in the jeans style war.


It’s strange how an idea as contradictory as ‘designer jeans’ comes, after a while, to seem quite normal. Jeans are a practical garment that made their way into the quite impractical world of the post-war fashion system. Right alongside Tiffanys and other designer brands on New York’s classy Fifth Avenue sits an outlet for Levi’s jeans. In this paradox lies one of the most striking changes in the shape of the fashion industry.
Jeans are a garment that puts together the ingenuity and resources available in the US at the time of the civil war. This very large-scale conflict was the incentive for the industrialization of a good many work processes. The first example of what we would now recognize as mass-production techniques was for civil-war firearms. The need for military uniforms led to similar techniques being used for clothing, and to a system of standard sizes that is still with us today.

Fashion and clothing were - and to some extent still are - a modern, industrialized system with two distinctive rhythms of production and consumption. Whatever people wear until it wears out is clothing. Whatever people wear until a new style comes along is fashion. Jeans were once clothing rather than a fashion garment, until something happened to them that was part of a whole shift in the workings of the fashion system. Where a style would usually pass down the fashion system, jeans were one garment style that moved up.

Think of a classic image from the US of the 1950s in which jeans figure. James Dean or Marilyn Monroe are likely to come to mind. Actually, these Hollywood stars were not the first to borrow this lowly garment and use it as a sign of style rather than as a practical garment. The fashion career of jeans probably starts with subcultures on the fringes of American society such as the ‘rough trade’ side of male homosexual life and the demobilized wartime pilots who took up the motorcycle as recreation.

In the 1960s, jeans proliferated as a garment that could appear to its wearer to be a statement against the whole hierarchy of fashion, while in the end fitting quite well into a new kind of fashion order.

Easy Rider was a low-budget film, made on the fringes of the Hollywood system, and it indicated that much the same thing was happening to the movie industry as to the fashion industry. The orderly mass production of cultural artefacts and signs gave way to a much less stable pattern of culture industries without as definite a hierarchy of price and quality. An idea or an image could come out of nowhere and pass into mass popularity.

The cut and colour of denim jeans started to vary seasonally, just like a fashion garment. Here is the beginning of the paradox of the ‘postmodern’ fashion system. Jeans are functional and cheap to assemble. Yet, in spite of their basic cuts and exposed seams, they can support an elaborate range of meanings.

With ‘modern’ fashions, the material quality of the garment and its ability to signify fashion and stylishness went together. With ‘postmodern’ fashion there need be no such connection. What the garment signifies might be quite at odds with its material qualities - as it is in the archetypal case of the blue jean. Much the same garment can support quite a wide variety of meanings with a few minor variations in its appearance.

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(c) McKenzie Wark lectures in media studies at Macquarie University, Sydney, and is the author of Virtual Geography (Indiana) and The Virtual Republic (Allen & Unwin).

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