Jeans have an illustrious past, say ‘rivaled’ historians | Television
Jeans aren’t just the great unifier. It is a garment designed to tell others about you.
Cheap versions? Expensive versions?
“They say something about us as a culture and where we are and where we’ve been,” says Anna Lee Strachan, producer of “Riveted: The History of Jeans.”
Originally considered workwear, denim pants have transformed over time and become a symbol of protest. According to Tanisha Ford, author of “Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style and the Global Politics of Soul,” jeans were worn during protest marches to symbolize struggle. During the March on Washington, “people were dressed in their Sunday best and here are these two sisters – the Ladner sisters – who were dressed in denim overalls”.
From the start of the civil rights movement to the explosion of hip-hop, jeans served as a symbol of racial protests within the black community, she says. They have also helped some generations fight their own battles against dress code schools. “In my boarding school, they said we couldn’t wear denim jeans, so we wore colored jeans. It was a way around that now outdated dress code.
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In the 1990s, hip-hop culture embraced denim – baggy denim – as an expression of freedom. “It became a way to be bold, brave and brazen in a world where we were once enslaved,” says Ford.
In the new PBS special, Strachan traces the road of denim from workwear to high fashion.
Designer jeans, Ford says, have become a marker of success or participation in the American dream. “We’ve gotten to a point where we have the income to buy these jeans.”
Sky-high prices were set by companies to say what they considered their brand worth, says fashion historian Emma McClendon. Tom Ford, for example, produced jeans priced at $2,800. “The press just couldn’t understand this award. But what shocked everyone even more is that the jeans sold out. People want it, people are excited about it, and people continue to buy the apparel at those levels.
Today, stretch fibers have given jeans the ability to feel good and look good.
“Stretch gets this really bad shot,” McClendon says. “But the reality is, it’s really hard to get a good fit with out-of-the-box sized clothes.” Stretch changed that. “If you look at fiber labels on all types of pants, all types of shirts, a huge percentage of clothing is now stretchy and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
What will vary are wear patterns and cuts. The difference between cheap jeans and expensive jeans lies in the cuts offered by the designers.
“There are many different types of denim, as well as the fibers and dyes they use and how they finish them,” adds McClendon. But another thing that goes into the price is where they make them. “What are the conditions not only of the place that grows the cotton or weaves the fabric, but also of the finishing washhouses that create all those distress marks that we love so much?” Rips, for example, could be done by hand. “You’ll have that fade in one place across the entire product line.”
To maintain the integrity of denim, some “denimheads” don’t wash them, McClendon says. “Every time you wash it and put it in the dryer, it removes an even amount of dye. But if you wear it for a really long time and then put it in the washing machine, you’re going to start to see spaces. uneven spots where the dye has rubbed off from the way you wear it.
If you do not wash your jeans, they will accumulate friction from your body and become more personalized. To keep them from smelling bad, these denimheads put them in the freezer. “That’s how you’re supposed to get rid of the smell.”
When Ford graduated in 2005, black women were eager to buy Seven for All Mankind and Citizens of Humanity jeans because they were symbols of luxury. “Things that have particular monetary value or luxury value mean something very special to African Americans because of how we’ve been excluded from high fashion,” she says. “We had to experience a red line – not having access to home loans.”
This story – from its days in the fields to its time on the catwalks – cannot be claimed by any other fabric. Why? Nobody knows. “What’s really fascinating about jeans is how much they say about us, about us as a culture and gender from where we are and where we’ve been,” Strachan says. “That’s something really interesting about denim that other clothes don’t necessarily do.”
“Riveted: The History of Jeans,” an “American Experience” documentary, airs Feb. 7 on PBS.