Tuesday, August 8, 2006
A Cultural History of an American Icon
By James Sullivan
Gotham. 303 pp. $26
Book publishers are like wolves: They travel in packs. One gets an idea, and everyone else rushes to imitate it. Thus it is that of the eight books I've reviewed in the past month, three have been about something alleged to be "an American icon." First there was rum, which Wayne Curtis in "And a Bottle of Rum" called "classically American." Then there was the popular music guru John Hammond, who, according to Dunstan Prial in "The Producer," championed "uniquely American music." Now we have bluejeans, which James Sullivan would have us believe embody "two centuries' worth of the myths and ideals of American culture."
Hey, the plane's still at the gate. Anyone else want to get on board? What about Coca-Cola? Jambalaya? Alice Waters? Little Richard? Boston baked beans? Warren Buffett? The Chevy Corvette? Newt Gingrich? Paris Hilton? Buddy Holly? Parson Weems? Lizzie Borden? Aren't they "American icons"? Shouldn't all of us be reading books about them, books that show how they "changed America" and "made us what we are today" and embody "everything it means to be American"?
Well, actually, no, we shouldn't, but that doesn't mean we won't. Heaven knows how many scriveners are holed away even as these words are typed, batting out paeans to America as seen through the prisms of, oh, Lawrence Welk and Baba Wawa. So let's call a halt to it right now. Let's make "Jeans" the last "American icon" book, and bury the genre before it turns into Frankenstein's monster.
It's not that most of these books are bad -- they're more like fair-to-middling -- but that the idea was stale before it was born. This country is much too big and diverse for any one thing -- a person, a product, even an idea -- to embody it. As James Sullivan's book makes plain, the story of bluejeans is interesting enough in and of itself. Why tart it up with thematic baggage it can't sustain?
But just so you know, here's what Sullivan says: "Jeans are the surviving relic of the western frontier. They epitomize our present-day preoccupations -- celebrity and consumer culture. . . . Blue jeans -- not soft drinks, or cars, or computers -- are the crowning product of American ingenuity. . . . They can imply either democratic parity or the aristocratic hierarchies of status. . . . First they built the country's infrastructure, then they populated it with a collective identity." Et cetera. In a word, bluejeans have Meaning. Maybe even Deep Meaning. And in the chattering classes, Meaning is treasured above all else . . . even bluejeans.
So if the history of denim trousers interests you -- and there are plenty of reasons why it should, not least of them being the pair of jeans you're probably wearing right now -- skip the heavy-breathing parts of "Jeans" and stick to the straight stuff. That, for example, "the name denim is presumed to derive from the phrase serge de Nîmes , the trade term for a cotton-wool blend first introduced in Nîmes, in southeastern France, around the sixteenth century"; that the most famous of all denim manufacturers, Levi Strauss, didn't start to make his name and his fortune until he hooked up with a tailor named Jacob David who used copper rivets to toughen the pockets of the pants he made; that it was the company founded by one of his competitors, H.D. Lee, that introduced a novelty called the Whizit, now universally known as the zipper; that women didn't start wearing denim in significant numbers until World War II and the coming of Rosie the Riveter.
There's more. It wasn't until around 1960 that "bluejeans" became the universal term for denim trousers; as a boy in the 1950s I assumed -- as did all my friends -- that "bluejeans" were for girls and sissies, while real guys wore "dungarees." In part that may have been because, though we actually were good little boys, we treasured the image of juvenile delinquency that clung to denim during the '50s, in no small measure thanks to James Dean ("Rebel Without a Cause") and Marlon Brando ("The Wild One"). As Sullivan points out, in that decade "Jeans manufacturers were experiencing a strange paradox of the American marketplace. They had a daunting image problem, yet it was precisely that image problem that gave the product its desirability among the target audience." Sonny Boy may have thought that denim pants were the cat's pajamas, but Mom and Dad thought they were "the clothing of a much less wholesome kind of boy," which is putting it mildly.
In that narrow sense, the story of bluejeans is indeed an American story. A recurrent theme throughout our history -- especially 20th-century history -- is the tension between our puritanical heritage and our sybaritic, hedonistic instincts. The prude in us resists temptation but the pleasure lover in us leaps at it, and in the long run the pleasure lover almost always wins. When Sullivan says that "we'll likely be wearing [jeans] long after the business suit, say, has been relegated to the dustbin of fashion," he's probably right, or so at least history suggests.
Now that everybody is wearing jeans, the inevitable has happened: the trendies have taken them over. The solid working pants of yore now spill onto the marketplace in every imaginable variation: designer jeans, stonewashed jeans, ancient jeans that have been rescued from the scrap heap and resold at outrageous prices to rich folks who go slumming in them. Ancient bluejeans are "collectible," just like every other piece of American junk.
But to tell the truth, jeans aren't really "American" anymore. The jeans you're wearing may well have been sewn in the United States, but the denim probably came from someplace else. Here's what globalization means:
"Over the past few decades competitive foreign manufacturers have brought giant North American textile mills such as Cone, Swift, and Canada's Dominion Textiles to their knees. India's Arvind Mills, rooted in a multigeneration family cotton business, has become one of the world's biggest denim manufacturers and the number-one exporter, producing more than 120 million meters annually. Brazil -- now the second biggest consumer of 'pantalones vaqueros' in the world -- is home to several huge mills. . . . By 1997 East Asian suppliers had surpassed the aggregate output of United States mills, producing 1.7 billion square yards. In recent years Turkey has emerged as another aggressor, building at least three massive mill groups."
All of which is to say that the story of bluejeans is a big one that ultimately encompasses far more than the country in which they began. It entails matters that have to do with more than just the seat of your pants, from fashion to globalization to intergenerational conflict. But these are matters of fact, not of Meaning, and Sullivan's efforts to twist them into Meaning ultimately mean . . . nothing.
This is Jonathan Yardley's last regular weekly book review for Style. After a quarter-century with The Post, he is moving into semi-retirement. His occasional Second Reading columns will continue in Style, as will his Sunday book reviews in Book World.