Books

Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon

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No one who's reconnoitered a bookstore these last few years can be ignorant of a trend in nonfiction that might as well be called microhistory. Now firmly established, the trope finds authors pushing in on seemingly ubiquitous matter (Salt, Rats, etc.) for the investigative close-up. Embedded in a seemingly small story is a much larger one that speaks to something profound about our past and future.

At least that's how it's supposed to work.

Enter culture critic James Sullivan, whose basic contention in Jeans is largely unassailable: "Blue jeans—not soft drinks, or cars, or computers—are the crowning product of American ingenuity."

Sullivan quite thoroughly chronicles the history of denim, from Gold Rush days to the long rise and quick fall of Levi Strauss, a manufacturer whose 501 jeans were the most successful clothing item in the world and whose annual sales tanked by nearly half in recent years.

However, the story lacks anything resembling urgency. Yes, jeans are iconically American, but however many ways this is restated, it does nothing to quell the question of "So what?"—which is all this critic could ask as Sullivan catalogs every movie star to wear denim, ever. Then it's out of the theater and into the streets: '60s revolutionaries in denim, punks in denim, disco in denim, Bruce Springsteen's denim-assed album cover. Are you tired yet?

What truly tries one's patience, however, is the author's tendency toward hyperbole fit for a denim trade association. Claims that jeans have "defined" every youth movement for the last half-century and "embody American creativity and rebellion" are hard to take seriously.

However, just when you're convinced there's nothing more to learn about jeans, Sullivan puts his finger on a trend that's most telling about what American jeans have become: a brand extension. Levi's shuttered its last US manufacturing plant two years ago and most of the high-end jeans on the boutique market are little more than a marketing team with a relationship to foreign suppliers. Jeans created for, and worn by, generations of working Americans are now as redundant as so many of their livelihoods. Even if they're still happily covering the great American backside.

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