Global Denim Edited by Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward


Global Denim
Edited by Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward

Global Denim


Notes on Contributors vii
Introduction 1
1 The Making of an American Icon: The Transformation of Blue Jeans during the Great Depression 23
Sandra Curtis Comstock
2 Diverting Denim: Screening Jeans in Bollywood 51
Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber
3 How Blue Jeans went Green: The Materiality of an American Icon 69
Bodil Birkebæk Olesen
4 The Limits of Jeans in Kannur, Kerala 87
Daniel Miller
5 ‘Brazilian Jeans’: Materiality, Body and Seduction at a
Rio de Janeiro’s Funk Ball 103
Mylene Mizrahi
6 Indigo Bodies: Fashion, Mirror Work and Sexual Identity in Milan 127
Roberta Sassatelli
7 Jeanealogies: Materiality and the (Im)permanence of Relationships
and Intimacy 145
Sophie Woodward
8 Carrot-cut Jeans: An Ethnographic Account of Assertiveness,
Embarrassment and Ambiguity in the Figuration of Working-class
Male Youth Identities in Berlin 159
Moritz Ege
9 The Jeans that Don’t Fit: Marketing Cheap Jeans in Brazil 181
Rosana Pinheiro-Machado

Index 197

Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward

To state that denim jeans are a global presence is, in itself, not a radical claim – the production, design and trade in denim evidently spans the globe, as does wearing jeans. But as we started to develop the Global Denim Project, we became increasingly aware of the sheer extent of denim’s global reach. Every time he went abroad for a conference Miller began to count 100 random people who passed him on the street to see how many were wearing blue jeans. This included a good range of sites from Seoul and Beijing to Istanbul and Rio. On the basis of these observations, along with some global denim surveys (Synovate 2008), we suggest that (discounting the major populations of rural South Asia and China) perhaps the majority of the people in the majority of the countries of the world are wearing blue jeans on any given day. Yet despite their global ubiquity, a lack of academic attention is given to denim jeans. After twelve years in publication there is not a single paper devoted to the topic in the journal Fashion Theory and, with the exception of historical works, any writing from a social science perspective is minimal.

Existing research into denim falls within the domains of textile technology, marketing and consumer perceptions, the global denim market, and historical research. Firstly, research within textile chemistry and technology analyses aspects of the material performance of the fabric (Tarhan and Sarsiisik 2009) as this relates to quality (Chowdhary 2002), including dyeing (Card et al. 2005), and the fate of reclaimed denim products (Hawley 2006). Secondly, running in tandem with this is literature within the arena of marketing and branding, which considers consumers perceptions of jeans and brands, as this relates to specific regions (Wu and Delong 2006). Thirdly, the existing literature includes papers on jeans production and labour conditions (Bair and Gereffi 2001; Bair and Peters 2006; Crewe 2004; Tokatli 2007; Tokatli and Kızılgün 2004).

The final area of writing on the topic of denim is also perhaps the largest, and includes books on the historical iconography of denim jeans (Finlayson 1990; Marsh and Trynka 2002; Sullivan 2006) and the way blue jeans became an American icon, linked to particular generations and values (Reichs 1970) and a part of popular culture. It is this historical narrative that, in turn, is generally accepted and adopted as the explanation for why blue jeans became ubiquitous, as though this was some kind of common sense. In the existing literature there is very little social science work that is not historical, and in particular very little qualitative or ethnographic work.

Fiske (1989) discussed how the meanings and wearing of jeans are contested, as a medium through which people live the contradictions of popular culture, yet this is in specific relation to American-ness. The approach of this book, instead, is ethnographic but we are also simultaneously attempting to understand the global. When we say ‘global’ it should be noted that our book does not refer to every country in the world, which would anyhow be beyond the scope of one collected volume – as there are, for example no papers in this volume on African or Middle Eastern countries (although work by, for example Hansen 2005, indicates the importance of jeans in Zambia).

The paucity of social science research into denim is notable when compared to the seemingly endless books and papers that are devoted to the clothing by major designers that exists primarily on the catwalk, and is subsequently worn by very few people. This suggests a paradox at the heart of studies of clothing and fashion: the significance attributed to clothing in such studies is probably in inverse proportion to the importance that items of fashion and clothing have to the population as a whole. This book is part of an attempt to shift attention from the spectacular to the mainstream and the everyday. In the paper that launched the Global Denim Project (Miller and Woodward 2007) we suggested that denim is the subject of that felicitous phrase, ‘the blindingly obvious’. That is, certain things have become so deeply taken for granted and omnipresent that we have become blind to their presence and importance. This book is, then, the first ever published specifically devoted to the topic of blue jeans as a global phenomena that effectively dominates contemporary clothing and fashion.

Of course, it is not a particularly attractive proposition to suggest that academics should study something just because it is there, and in this introduction we are really asserting something quite different. We argue, instead, that the study of denim, and more specifically blue jeans, matters as it can provide us with insights, understandings and advances in fashion and clothing studies beyond that of almost any topic that we might otherwise have focused upon. Coming from anthropology we tend to see the ubiquitous not as boring and taken for granted but as the critical point of departure for understanding our relationship to the world more generally.

Furthermore, this book is not just about denim – it is specifically about global denim because, once again, there are advantages to taking this particular perspective from which to expand our view of denim as a whole – to show how we can simultaneously understand the existence of denim as a global phenomenon and that which is specific and unique. We argued in the manifesto paper, that as social scientists, and especially as anthropologists, our explanations depend on the nuances of local context – that is, on knowledge about what people in South Korea do as opposed to Argentineans, or upper class as against lower class, shop workers as against factory workers. The problem is that none of these more parochial studies helps us to explain the existence of a global phenomenon such as denim. The explanation for the global has to be more than the aggregate of all the local explanations for why something is present in each place.

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