New Sherwood

Blue Jeans and Rebellion

Consider, if you will, the social history of blue jeans. I would quote from those articles, but the computer I’m using won’t let me do that for some reason. You’ll have to read them for yourself.

I remember the 1970s, when blue jeans were considered the ultimate rebellion against any kind of social hierarchy. It was cool to wear blue jeans, but especially cool if one was rich, smart, female, good looking or popular. When exceptional people wore blue jeans, it signified that their exceptionalism was so obvious it didn’t need any external support. The blue jeans statement was “I’m so cool I don’t need to prove anything by wearing better clothes”. Suddenly everyone was in blue jeans – entertainers, politicians, school teachers, and CEOs. 

Nowadays, of course, most people who wear blue jeans aren’t making any kind of statement. They just dress according to prevailing social expectations. It is much the same with other trends. The tattoos you see on female ankles today started among strippers. The earrings you see on men started among homosexuals cruising the bars. The baggy pants on boys started among prison inmates.  So, whereas culture used to flow from the top down, modern culture flows from the bottom up. Trends that had their origins in the sewer end up becoming mainstream. It is therefore worth exploring what it is about blue jeans that made them such a symbol of rebellion in the first place.

My grandfather was a solider, a cop, a farmer, a hunter, and a fisherman – a man’s man, if there ever was one – and I never once saw him wearing a pair of jeans. I don’t own a pair of jeans myself. My boys wear blue jeans sometimes because they are rugged enough for rough play, good for wearing around the ranch, and (importantly) affordable. Jeans were justifiably popular among gold miners because of their famous durability. They do have their place. But I wonder if grown men shouldn’t rebel against the rebellion, so to speak, and return to wearing clothes which are better suited to the dignity of their work, their leisure, and their station in life.

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June 18, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

20 Comments »

  1. A very interesting commentary and I agree that today people wear jeans for reasons of practicality not protest.

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    Comment by Mary | June 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. Jeff, I hadn’t worn a pair of blue jeans in 15-20 years when I bought a pair 2 years ago as my regular trousers were starting to bear more and more holes from catching on fences. Now I wear blue jeans most of the time, although in the real hot weather like today, a lighter work pant is advisable.

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    Comment by Jim | June 19, 2009 | Reply

  3. I’m a jeans guy. I admit it! I find the suit-and-tie to be more a uniform of social classes. While understandably appropriate at the office and Mass, around the house… in the garden… I’m in jeans and a tee-shirt these days! Not saying it’s right… or wrong… So wrong at Mass. The uniform of the suit is so a part of the same culture crippling our economy, shoving secular, pagain views down our collective Catholic throats…

    Something right about being out on the land in a tee-shirt and jeans… away from the bricks and mortar…. suits and ties… at least for me. (But not at the Mass. That’s where the suit “fits”)

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    Comment by james | June 19, 2009 | Reply

  4. I should make it clear that I have nothing against jeans in certain contexts. They are highly appropriate for many kinds of outdoor activities. The point is only that the ubiquity of blue jeans began as a symbol of rebellion, and I think many people still think of it that way.

    When Queen Elizabeth last visited America, for example, a “conservative” talk radio host sneered that, if the Queen wants to visit this great egalitarian society of ours, “she ought to be wearing blue jeans”.

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    Comment by Blogmaster | June 19, 2009 | Reply

  5. +JMJ+

    I remember reading a short passage on that icon of eighteenth-century fashion, the powdered wig, which compared it to blue jeans in terms of popularity and ubiquity.

    The main difference between them is the fashion statement one made/makes by wearing one. Powdered wigs were favoured by people who revered education, experience and the wisdom that comes with age; so they wanted to seem old even when they were, while jeans are often (though not always!) an indication that the wearer would like to extend his youth for as long as possible. (If you prefer parallel examples, we also have all sorts of colour treatments to hide naturally greying hair for as long as one would wish. From there, don’t get me started on the botox!)

    Another difference between powdered wigs and blue jeans is the place in the culture from which each trend made its way to the mainstream. Blue jeans are, as you’ve pointed out, Jeff, something from the bottom of the culture–the rebellious subculture of the 1970s. Powdered wigs came from higher up in eighteenth century culture . . . though I’m not enough of an historian to pinpoint the actual philosophical source.

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    Comment by Enbrethiliel | June 19, 2009 | Reply

  6. Blue jeans have been around for over 150 years. They did not suddenly show up in the ’50s as an expression of adolescent rebellion.

    Blue jeans are work clothes. They are what men wear who do rough work, like miners, lumberjacks, farmers and ranch hands.

    Wearing blue jeans was, until the post-war era, a marker of being a member of the working class. Men who wore slacks worked indoors at desks and work benches. Men who wore jeans worked outdoors at difficult, dangerous, low-paying jobs.

    The fashion for blue jeans was originally a self-conscious attempt at “solidarity” with the working class by communists. It became all the rage when a particular type of girl started wearing them, to signal both her communist sympathies and her feminist disdain for patriarchal society, as embodied in dresses. By the late ’50s, it was a fairly reliable indicator of moral laxity in a girl that she wore jeans. This of course made them more popular, and made respectable parents more wary of them. That is what set up the situation Jeff lays out above.

    Mom didn’t want her Mary Jane to wear jeans, because that was what loose girls did. Mary Jane wanted to wear them because she knew she looked good in them, with her assets nicely emphasized, and because cultural subtext made her more interesting to boys. Combined with a generalized culture of disobedience and rejection of authority, it was one more way for kids to rebel against their parents.

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    Comment by Danby | June 20, 2009 | Reply

  7. This is dumb. Good thing we have solved all the ills in the world so we can all get out panties in a bunch about blue jeans and the secret message behind us all wearing them. Good thing…

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    Comment by Brian M | June 20, 2009 | Reply

  8. I used to work regularly with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, who mostly wore jeans and a casual shirt. Once in a great while he’d wear a suit, but not very often.

    On one occasion he was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, where big movers and shakers network. He was invited to a formal dinner, and when he was told the dinner was black tie, he said “I don’t DO black tie. I do blue jeans.”

    The organizer responded (or so I was told by an assistant, I wasn’t in the room at the time): “But sir, there will be heads of state there, many in their national costume…”

    And here the CEO cut the organizer off and said, “Perfect. MY national costume is blue jeans. I’ll see you there.”

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    Comment by Mistereks | June 20, 2009 | Reply

    • If I was on the board of that CEO’s company, he would have been fired.

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      Comment by Maurice Gunderson | February 10, 2013 | Reply

  9. +JMJ+

    Mistereks: Then what happened???

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    Comment by Enbrethiliel | June 20, 2009 | Reply

  10. My understanding is he went to the event in blue jeans.

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    Comment by Mistereks | June 20, 2009 | Reply

  11. +JMJ+

    His “national” costume, aye? That’s a pretty bit of sophistry I’d have liked to wrap my fingers around. =S

    Like

    Comment by Enbrethiliel | June 21, 2009 | Reply

  12. I agree that jeans are a more relaxed mode of attire and may have, at one time, signified rebellion but I don’t think they do anymore. For instance, from my perspective, jeans are lousy these days. Try finding a truly durable pair at a decent price. Hard to find. I have a husband who owns his own landscape maintenance company, but also does much of the labor himself, and is also a big game outfitter/guide. At home here, we run a small family farm. Jeans ARE the work attire. The quality of fabric is terrible! We stick with Carhartt work jeans and jackets, made in America and the most durable we have found. My oldest daughter works at a horse barn and jeans are her work attire as well. I don’t think it is rebellion in any of our minds! It is just clothing that is appropriate for the work we do. We do dress up for Mass, although at our small rural church, casual clothing is the norm which is very frustrating. Just my 2 cents! Love your blog btw.

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    Comment by Barb | June 22, 2009 | Reply

  13. James writes: “The uniform of the suit is so a part of the same culture crippling our economy, shoving secular, pagan views down our collective Catholic throats…”

    Perhaps on Wall Street this is true. But in most other destructive businesses, isn’t “business casual” the standard dress?

    And beware, Levi’s is based near San Francisco and promotes its demimonde mores.

    Under my father’s influence, I often wear jeans myself. His father was from ranching stock, and the wear is ideal for the outdoorsman.

    The Denver-outskirts store where we buy our jeans offers much Western wear and is noticeably more frequented by Hispanics who prefer the dignified ranchero look. They sure don’t dress like slovenly teens.

    Perhaps citydwellers believed their jeans-wearing adopted the care-free devil-may-care spirit supposedly found among cowboys.

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    Comment by Kevin J Jones | June 23, 2009 | Reply

  14. +JMJ+

    Kevin: Didn’t Levi’s stop sponsoring/funding the Boy Scouts after the policy to have only heterosexual troop leaders?

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    Comment by Enbrethiliel | June 24, 2009 | Reply

    • Levi Strauss stopped funding the Boy Scouts because of their overall exclusion of gay people, not just troop leaders. The United Way took the same step.

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      Comment by Mistereks | June 24, 2009 | Reply

      • +JMJ+

        Interesting. I really didn’t know that.

        Like

        Comment by Enbrethiliel | June 25, 2009

  15. It wouldn’t surprise me. In more recent news, NBC Los Angeles reported on May 28: “In the Window: Levi’s Supports Gay Marriage with White Ribbons”

    “Levi’s has long been a gay-friendly company, but now they’re announcing their support for same-sex marriage in their windows. The brand has adopted the White Knot for Equality, which is exactly like the red AIDS ribbon or the pink breast cancer ribbon except that it’s tied in a knot.”

    Like

    Comment by Kevin J Jones | June 24, 2009 | Reply

  16. The number one reason to stop wearing blue jeans or Dockers for that matter is because if you are a white male the Levis company is out to eliminate you. They are all about employing anyone not a white male. Years ago I read an article in Fortune I think, where they actually stated they were proud of the decline of white males in their employ.
    Do not supprot this company.

    Like

    Comment by senhorbotero | July 1, 2009 | Reply

  17. Unrelated, but thought this interesting:

    http://www.thesmartset.com/print/article/article07220901.aspx

    Like

    Comment by TSO | August 6, 2009 | Reply


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