You are on page 1of 7

A BRIEF HISTORY OF DENIM

Reference:
http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/lifestyle/anonymous/denim
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2013
When the going gets tough, the tough turn bluedenim is just the thing for
fighting, farming and triple-dip recession. Matthew Sweet traces the fortunes of
the world's favourite utility wear
FIGHTING DENIM Giuseppe Garibaldi, c1860

The old aftershave ad growled that Denim was


for the man who didnt have to try too hard. Tell it to Garibaldi, for whom Italian unification
was one long uphill bayonet charge in blue war pants. Victory made him an icon: in the
1860s, the whole world wanted to get into Garibaldis trousers and eat his biscuits. This has
allowed Italy to claim jeans as a Genoese invention. Etymology also supports the French idea
that denim originated in Nmesbut jean genealogy remains mysterious.

DEPRESSION DENIM Floyd and Lucille Burroughs, 1936

As with cinema and psychoanalysis, it might be


best to think of jeans as a Jewish invention, and give the credit to Levi Strauss, the man who
put the pants on Americas working poor. Heres an example straight from the dustbowl:
their owner, an Alabama farmer named Floyd, might have stepped from the pages of
Steinbeck. Denim dungarees yell lickspittle to somethe art director of "The Wizard of Oz",
for onebut theres another code to be read here: denim as the fabric of a class whose
powers of endurance were ripe for romanticisation.
RECESSION DENIM Cover shot, The Face, 1982 (above)
Thanks to the slinky dinner-jazz of "Smooth Operator", Sade was the fashionable face of
1980s affluence. A twist of fate made her manager the fashionable arse of 1980s deprivation
as captured by the photographer Sheila Rock for The Face in September 1982. "Hard
Times" was the phrase strapped across the cover. As a style movement, it never matched
the reality of the economic circumstances from which it took its name. But denim and
dispossession go together, and as the expression "triple-dip" edges into our lives, threadbare
blue is back.

COWBOY DENIM Gene Autry, c1950

Cowpoke, freemason, patriot, film star, media


mogul, baseball tycoon, C&W behemoth: Autry was the Andrew Carnegie of rhinestone
capitalism. If the picture seems quaint, the figures tell another story. During a one-hour
appearance at Gimbels department store in Manhattan, Autry signed 1,351 autographs,
shook 5,439 hands and sold 4,297 pairs of his own-brand jeanspants that allowed paunchy
New Yorkers to feel they too might be home on the range. That denim frontier-fantasy kept
Autry on the Forbes Rich List for decades, and it still burnsat the tip of a Marlboro, and on
top of Brokeback Mountain.
JACKET DENIM Marilyn Monroe, 1960
I once asked the script supervisor on this filmJohn Hustons "The Misfits"for her
memories of Marilyn Monroe. She wrinkled her nose. "We remember her as a victim," she
said. "This girl-woman who nobody really understood. But she was in fact a very
manipulative woman." Historically, denim is masculine. That jacket suggests toughness and
bravadothe Hollywood gal roughing it in Nevada. Monroe had read Steinbeck and Thomas
Wolfe, so the semiotics of the garment would have been no mystery to her. Eve Arnold, who
shot the portrait, kept her cautious distance: that windblown hair, thick make-up and paleblue wrapper are part of Monroes necessary armour.

RENT-BOY DENIM Times Square, 1965

The corner of 45th Street and 7th Avenue: the


lights remain bright, but New Yorks traditional industries are in terminal decline. As if to rub
salt in the wounds of marginalised straight working-class men, the style of the stevedore
boots, flat cap, high-waisted jeanshas been vigorously appropriated by gay hipsters on
Christopher Street and gay hustlers on Times Square. This rent boy is too old for school, just
old enough for the draftdirt and ripped knees signal his availability for other duties. Marlon
Brando is somewhere in the backstory, but he wouldnt have gone out in such uproariously
filthy pants.

ROCK DENIM Robert Plant, 1977

My most embarrassing moment in the sixth


form? Meeting one of my teachers in town, dressed like this. Robert Plant, the voice of Led
Zeppelin and most venerated rock deity ever to be made flesh in West Bromwich, stands for
a generation of rockers in tight jeans and open waistcoats. With his "Godspell" locks and
faintly Arthurian jewellery, hes snapped here as the backlit, sexy, rock-festival ideal. The
reality was somewhat different: mud-besmirched crowds clad in variations on this uniform,
the smell of vomit and stale cider masked by a hopeful splash of aftershave. (Denim,
indubitably.)
ALL-STAR DENIM Brooke Shields, 1980
Rocking back in her designer jeans, the 15-year-old Brooke Shields attempted to turn
America into a nation of Humberts. "You want to know what comes between me and my
Calvins?" she asked. "Nothing." Klein, though, wasnt the first to discover that slapping a
famous name on a piece of re-sculpted utility-wear was a licence to print money. Gloria
Vanderbilt pioneered that policy in the mid-1970s; one reason why shes worth $200m today.

ABBRIEVIATED DENIM 2010

Another act of appropriation: trousers once


associated with agricultural toil, transformed into hot pants by a pair of shears. Daisy Duke
pioneered this lookand, as far as we can tell, Second Wave feminism never hit Hazzard
County. Here, ragged indecency is elevated to style-mag status by black-and-white
photography and Theda Bara eye make-upbut the high heels acknowledge the porny
quality of the enterprise. Fact: cut-off pants like these were illegal in Enver Hoxha-era
Albania.
CATWALK DENIM Miu Miu, SS13

Denims progress from the 19th-century

American goldfield and the southern plantation is now complete: this years Miu Miu
spring/summer collection endorsed it as suitable runway equipage for the house of Prada.
The silhouettes of these pieces are clean and hard, but the trim is luxurious velvet, and
beneath the tough blue stuff is a soft gooey centre of duchesse satin. The fabric, though,
cant be entirely stolen from its original hard-working owners. Appropriation has its limits:
denim may now be invited into the drawing room, but its home remains on the street.
Matthew Sweet presents "Night Waves" on BBC Radio 3. He is the author of "The West End
Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels"
Pictures: Sheila Rock, Getty, Walker Evans Archive/The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art
Resource, Corbis, I.C. Rapoport, Getty, Perry Ogden/Art+Commerce, Catwalking.com. For
reasons of copyright, only eight of the 10 pictures that appear in the magazine can be
reproduced here