DENIM: Decadence or Decency?
The ubiquity of a Social Phenomenon
By Alex Angelino
Los Angeles 06/30/2010
What is the American fascination with jeans all about? We gobble up a third of the world's production of denim material, generating an annual $15 billion in business with over 5 % growth per year.
Yet, syndicated columnist George Will recently called denim "an obnoxious use of freedom." He commended Daniel Akst, suggesting that The Wall Street Journal writer be awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for "summoning Americans to soul-searching about the plague of that ubiquitous fabric, which is symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche."
Akst wrote in The Journal that the jean material represents "modern trend toward undifferentiated dressing, in which we all strive to look equally shabby."
Where it all started
The story of denim goes back to the 1600s, when Dongaree, rough clothing from India, was traded by Portuguese sailors en route to Europe. The fabric caught-on in Genovese, Italy, which spawned the 'jean' name. Soon after, the jean fabric Serge de Nime was produced in Nimes, France, and the term 'denim' was born.
The US denim story began during the California Gold Rush but did not catch on until 1873, when Jacob Davis of Reno, Nevada, along with the famed Levi Straus, patented the blue jean riveted pants. Straus began to manufacture the jeans in San Francisco, primarily for workers.
At the turn of the Century, jeans were worn by American men who performed heavy labor; the Wrangler company forming in the 1930's to manufacture denim work clothing for those who rode the range. In the 1940's, farmers adapted the fabric to their wardrobe, and during World War II, it was used as the material for US Navy and Coast Guard uniforms. As American soldiers traveled overseas, citizens of other countries had their first glimpse of denim, and even though the Navy eventually eliminated it, it was still so closely identified with American culture that it was featured in the US pavilion exhibit at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels.
Adopted by rebellious youth in the 1950's, denim transitioned into the preferred fabric of the hippies in the 1960's, the punk movement of the 1970's, and hip-hop generation in the 1980's. It was then that designers began making jeans 'fashionable' for any occasion, and the decades-long ban on denim at schools as well as upscale hotels, restaurants and country clubs, finally came to an end.
Denim, then, has adapted to the needs and whims of the human race like no other fabric, evolving from clothes for the working man to a symbol of youthful rebellion! And finally, to stardom.
The secret of success for jeans lies in its color, texture, and ability to comfort both the body and the soul in a challenging world.
It is well known in the design space that when it comes to the visual experience, texture and color are highly persuasive mediums capable of stimulating emotion and feelings. Blue, man's favorite color, is the color of the sky and the ocean, symbolizing youth spirituality, truth, peace, dependability, sincerity, and stability.
The texture is the structure, appearance, and feel of a woven fabric.
Jeans fabric is cotton twill with dyed blue warp (vertical) yarn and horizontal weft undyed natural yarn. The result is a fabric that appears dark blue on its face and almost white on its backside. Although the warp yarn is dipped in dye several times, the core of the yarn stays white. This imperfection, with repeated wearing and wash, begins to fade out, giving jeans the uneven, faded and stressed look. The tears, marks, and fading draw a history of the wearer's life. This has made jeans into an icon of rebellion and non-conformity. Its cool, unevenly faded look also brings a calming feeling with a soft touch.
Another important property of denim texture is that it takes adornment, embellishment, and accessory so well - far better than its closest cousins, khaki and chino. This gives designers and individuals the ability to personalize their denim garments and helps in the modern world to construct personal identity.
The national psyche
Our appearance says a lot about our personality, feeling, intellect, and the fact that we spend so much time, money and effort into making denim our fabric of choice in this country does say quite a lot.
But what does it say? Akst sees jeans as symptomatic of profound disorders in the national psyche. I do not disagree with him, but as a designer who has created thousands of fabrics and textures for the past twenty-odd years, I believe this disorder emanates from the deep problems in the social condition and social structure of the United States when it comes to justice, money, and power.
From the youth rebellion of the 50's to the saggers of today, denim has been the fabric of choice for virtually all generations, and it's been used as an outlet to display rebellion, spirituality, vigorous and passivity. Indeed, the story of this American icon and its roll in American popular culture is undeniable. With the existing social and economic conditions as well as a bleak looking future, denim is going to be the fabric of choice. Denim, then, with its unique properties, provides psychological healing as well as the stimulation needed to feel good, inspired and hopeful for tomorrow.