NOTE: This work is the result of research done for a Material Culture course at the University of Toronto.

The Last Chance Mine (1882). Men working on coal mines in their Levis durable pants.

Blue jeans in the last thirty years have attained such world wide popularity that they have come to be considered an American icon. It was not until the late 1960s, however, that blue jeans moved into the mass market and became the universally worn clothing item it is today. In the history of fashion, no other garment has served as an example of status ambivalence and ambiguity than blue jeans.

At its birth, blue jeans were created for the California coal miners in the mid-nineteenth century by the Bavarian peddler Morris Levi Strauss. Strauss imported the cotton fabric from the Provenšal city of Nimes (this is where the term "denim" derives from). People today who wear blue jeans, however, differ greatly from those of the epoch of its conception.

Denim has become a garment accessible to everyone. It has crossed over class, gender, age, regional, national and ideological lines-- reasons behind its ecumenical appeal. This rather rugged homely-looking apparel embraces the American democratic values of independence, freedom and equality. Some Americans even consider jeans to be the national uniform or costume. Unlike any garment of the past, a pair of jeans have the unique ability to camouflage the beholder from class distinction, background and status.

Blue jeans have evolved from a garment associated exclusively with hard work to one associated with leisure. What began as work clothes has transformed into one of the "hottest" items available on the consumer market. What was once an apparel associated with low culture (late nineteenth-century society would of considered it as such) has undergone an inversion of the classic "trickle-down" theory. Blue jeans were the first to accomplish a rather revolutionary cultural achievement--bring upper class status to a lower class garment. By the 1970s, jeans had been elevated into the domain of high fashion status through the designer label-- some have even attained elitism by prominent haute courturiers.

This process of elevating a product of low culture/fashion to that of high culture/fashion is what I have termed the gentrification of blue jeans. As a result of this phenomenon, jeans have the ability to conceal class distinction. When a person wears blue jeans--be it President Bill Clinton or a truck driver--the viewer is nebulous about the beholder's status. This power to overcome class distinction accounts for its popularity. Blue jeans personify America. They embody the notion that their country of origin was founded on the principles of anti-status, democracy and inclusiveness. This is not to say that America is free from class consciousness and status-- one has to look no further than the designer label to prove this--rather this garment conveys a mystique or legend about the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

Through examining various disciplinaries--American Social History, Fashion, Popular Culture, Marketing, Advertising, and Consumersim--I hope to illuminate further the study of North American society through the reading of an object of material culture.

Elvis Presley in "Jailhouse Rock." Jeans that prisoners wore became the symbol of revolt against social rules.

Advertisements for Moschino Jeans (1980s).

Suggested Readings:

Beagle, Peter. American Denim: A New Folk Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1975.

Berger, Arthur A. Reading Matter: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Material Culture. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1992.

Davis, Fred. Fashion Culture and Identity. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Gordon, Beverly. "American Denim: Blue Jeans and Their Multiple Layers of Meaning. Dress and Popular Culture, editors Patricia A. Cunningham and Susan Voso Lab. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1991.

Histoires du Jeans de 1750 a 1994. Palais Galliera, Musee de la Mode et du Costume, 25 Octobre 1994. Paris: Les Musees, 1994.

Joseph, Nathan. Uniforms and Non Uniforms: Communication Through Clothing. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

McCracken, Grant. Culture and Consumption. Bloomington, IN: Indianna University Press, 1988.

Rubinstein, Ruth P. Dress Codes: Meanings and Messages in American Culture. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.

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