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Forever in Blue Jeans?

Some months ago, I noted on these pages the expected and coming "demise"--pronounced, of course, by the fashionistas on high--of that time-honored fashion article known as "the dress." Almost a year later--in no small part because of Michelle Obama, I'd add--I am happy to report that this looming danger seems to have escaped us. Americans are justly proud of Mrs. Obama's good sense and good taste in dressing--and I am glad that this American woman appeared in Europe even to show up the French Sarkozy's supermodel. In part because of her, the dress appears to be cool again and looking glamorous has taken on a refreshed kind of respect. Even Old Navy is promoting a line of dresses for the summer. True, they are a rather sack-like sort of thing--vaguely reminiscent of the flower-child peasant dresses of the 60s--but, still, they are a welcome relief from the low-riding (and ill-fitting) blue jeans that sprout muffin-tops on most young women.

Having said that, George Will in today's Washington Post, still sees enough cause to take aim at what remains America's favorite fashion article: blue jeans. Will is spurred on by a very clever column from Daniel Akst in the Wall Street Journal last month. Both Akst and Will see a kind of demonic leveling instinct at work in our obsession with denim. For the open-minded and not easily swayed, I think Will and Akst offer a much-needed corrective with their none-too-gentle opinions about blue jeans.

On the other hand, the point that they have (and this is especially true about Will) is taken to an extreme that demonstrates the weakness of their point. They go too far in condemning Americans for their iconic fabric. After all, the original reason for the popularity of blue jeans is something uniquely and wonderfully American. They were born of the practical necessity of creating an attire that suited the grubby and difficult work of pulling riches from our soil. Levi-Strauss--an industrious and ingenious American if ever there was one--made those pants to fill a need for miners and struck his own gold in the process. Indeed, the actual gold of the 49ers might be said to fade in comparison to the luster of the gold Strauss created out of cotton, indigo, and copper rivets. From miners to cowboys, jeans became the uniform of America's eternally youthful and optimistic striving. If, at first, denim was the uniform of hard-work and striving, it is also no wonder that it made a turn with James Dean to become the symbol of America's youthful rebellion against bourgeois conformity. And it is equally revealing, of course, that this rebellion against bourgeois conformity led full-circle right into itself in another form. Instead of despairing it, Will and Akst might do better to be bemused by it. Will and Akst both despair, that everyone (and most especially the American bourgeois) wears jeans today. The real rebels of today, it seems, would do better to wear bow ties. And perhaps they do.

But maybe that's the point of Will's article--though the tone of his rhetoric seems to work against him if persuasion is his intention. Does he have no love and sympathy for jeans wearing, rock-and-roll loving Americans? If he has, he does not betray it in this piece. He posits Fred Astaire and Grace Kelly as the sartorial models for American men and women. But really?! Grace Kelly was a fine woman and one could do a lot worse than to aspire to her charms . . . but it is ridiculous to think of her as a balanced American model. After all, she left America and became a monarch! And that seemed to suit her. Far too delicate a flower, if you ask me. And Fred Astaire? Again, very charming . . . and I, like most women, love to watch him dance and imagine myself spinning across the floor with him. But one would get rather dizzy after too much of that, I should think. And then, what is all that dancing and finery going to do about the looming injustice and tyranny of this world? A friend of mine noted, in passing along this article to me, that the one thing Europe still has over America is that they still know how to dress. Maybe that is so. But at what price? I guess they will be able to boast that they all looked good as their civilization deteriorated and their numbers dwindled. Mark Steyn might wryly note that they should enjoy their finery while they can . . . for a much less stylish wardrobe item is lurking in their future.

It bears mentioning that Akst made a point of noting in his article that the elements of fashion which always take on the widest appeal are those associated with heavy work and the martial spirit. Well . . . there's a reason for that. There is need for those tough men and their hard work and we do right to honor it by attempting to emulate it--in whatever poor way we can.

Of course, we can over-do both kinds of dress. A life entirely devoted to finery or to grubbiness is incomplete. And if we have a predominant vice, it is that we have become too slovenly and disrespectful in our jeans-wearing indifference to time and place. Our youthful (and American) disregard for the hoity-toity putting on of airs that repulsed us from our motherlands and into the unknown vastness and remote possibilities of America can sometimes lead us directly into another version of self-importance--as the jeans wearing rebellion against conformity led to a new conformity. There is snobbery abounding in every crowd of enthusiasts. Better to develop a measured kind of respect for both types of dress, regulated more by what suits the occasion than by what suits our taste. A good American woman, perhaps like Michelle Obama, knows when (or, in some cases, whether) to don blue jeans and when to don a stylish evening gown. She is not caught up in either extreme--she adapts, she bends, she does what is required by the circumstances and within the bounds of sensible good taste. She is neither a pig nor a fop. And it goes without saying, of course, that the same is true of a good American man.

Categories > Presidency

Discussions - 17 Comments

All due respect to Will (and based on past service he is due quite a bit), his column was a kind of parody of snobbery. To paraphrase an old Jay Leno joke, it was like he had smoked some bad tweed.

Reading Will's screed, it's hard to believe it's not some kind of April Fool's column that was run on the wrong date. "Demon Denim"????

I think Mr. Lawler can safely add George Will to the list (presently composed of Rush, Newt, and Hannity) of "ridiculous, old white guys" - as evaluated by youth, youth defined as anyone younger than Will. Also, toss in "absurdly cranky" to the description. Now that George Will HAS SPOKEN I'm sure most American men will run out to their nearest haberdashery and purchase themselves a grey flannel suit. Perfect for that telemarketing job.

Will is clearly in synch with the concerns of average Americans. He should run for president - for my amusement.

I thought the point of Will's article was that he was not in sync with average Americans on this topic.

I am guilty of denim most of the time. I feel guilty about it, too, thinking that mature ladies ought to be wearing something more dignified. I do not wear jeans in front of my students, which is another kind of hypocrisy, the kind where I am paying homage to virtue.

And yet, Akst calls jeans uncomfortable, but they are not uncomfortable to me. I do wear them to grub in the dirt, but I also wear them to the store and lots of other places and a pair of jeans not worn for gardening will last for years. I probably do look like hell in them, but the joy of their ubiquity is that there are lots of people who look worse. (Though what is worse than looking like hell?) Even if folks dressed like Grace Kelly or Fred Astaire, they would not look like them. I have never resembled Grace Kelly. Life is just unfair in that way.

low-riding (and ill-fitting) blue jeans that sprout muffin-tops on most young women. snap...mabye they just need to eat better foods and waste less time with technology than hide under a dress. Mabye the jeans are just a subconscious yearning to be a part of the outer parter and wear blue jean overalls.

Wonderful post, Julie. My official non-work outfit is jeans, white T-shirt, and boots. As a chain smoker I have a hard time justifying tennis shoes. I have one of the least physically demanding jobs in America and feel most at home in this outfit. I suspect my taste for jeans may be because I have some, hard to articulate, longing to cover over my physically slothful occupation. Maybe it is born of a streak of populism that I would like to, but can't seem to, shake. That being said I tend to agree with Will. American democracy needs an injection of aristocratic mores, even if it really is little but pretension. Will is right that we don't give appearance enough credit.

Snobbery has developed an inordinately bad rap. As Mark Steyn points out in witty discussion on multiculturalism, only in democracy is hierarchical a pejorative word.

Craig, "absurdly cranky" sounds like the title to your autobiography. Chapter 3 "Pissing in the Wind on No Left Turns."

I wonder if Joe the Plumber should shed his demonic denim for saintly seersucker now that he's an author/journalist/pundit? I think Will may be out of touch with GOP strategists. Kinda hard to market a revolution with a dress code.

JC ( it you??!!), I won't dignify your comment with a response, you slothful chain-smoker. You're beneath me. (Remember, snobbery has developed such a bad rep; just doing my part to make it cool again ;) )

Very solid post Julie. Great comment by Kate and good posts as always from Craig even when I may disagree with him(I hope your sister in law is doing well). I don't see any reason why George Will can't be counterintuitive. Still to be even more counterintuitive I think one should wear suits when one knows one will get dirty. There is nothing gentleman like about wearing a suit if you aren't willing to throw your jacket over a puddle for ladies to walk over...the simple suprise one might get from doing something like this is I think priceless and well worth dry cleaning costs.

Still being a gentleman is quite a bit easier with a levi-strauss jean jacket, not to mention that denim was originally canvas material for tents...rugged water and dirt proof.

The endless levels of clever ridiculousness ring eternal...but I think the Marxists are right that the market(occupation) determines proper behavior and attire...yet I think the market also has something to say about spotting trends and being counterintuitive about to joke with Dr. Lawler and the more serious bioethics people and play with the idea of synergy the following parable struck me... First you take an upity jean company(Guess, quite dated I know) and you merge them with DNA(Genetech) on the force of market buzz...Guess has a stock price of $50 and DNA has a stock price of $100... On the grounds that Wall Street will love the idea of a company that sells jeans for 5 times what they are worth and genetic buzz for 50 times what they are worth... a bunch of buzz words, heated comments and backdoor dealing by cigar smoking armani wearing investment bankers and suddenly you have an IPO combining $50 and $100 shares to make a $278 share. The company sends some memo's over to marketing and after some coffee and doughnuts you get two ideas to test market..."There is no Guessing about Our Genes" vs. "Our jeans fit your genes" also tap into the fears generated by a Brutus...and explain the future synergy to Kate on the grounds that with the right kind of genetic work, your genes can fit our see you can look like Grace Kelly or Fred Astaire, or Brad and Angelina...with stylish genes and jeans.

Sadly our guess jeans girl died from a nasty Trimspa and drugs combo...ruinned the possibility of achieving fruition on this front, and probably tanked the entire brand...

I think you have got it down Craig you buy snobbery when it is out of style and sell populism...when there are no more bears you call a top, and when there are no more bulls you call a bottom.

So when Craig starts doing his part for snobbery, I turn on the discovery channel and sing "I love the whole world" which is why Dr. Lawler knew Starbucks was post-bobo...soilders and marines in the army loved it in Iraq, got in on the trend late...and a tipping point occured...not unlike what happens when black folks move into a white neighboorhood...So if you are as much of a nominalist as I am you simply think that politics and culture isn't much different from business and the stock market...but don't listen to me, I am actually crazy enough to call my own bottoms and tops and trade from my own our Cartesian foundation...Dan sees incredible evil in the soul of Michelle Obama, and Julie likes her dresses and sense of style...hillarious stuff.

I say wear what you will, just don't ware/wear it out.(or do so, in all senses that you can mean it.)

The question is, you dislike Joe the Plummer or do you feel sorry for you dislike Ana Nicole or feel sorry for her?

Also how do you feel sorry for a person wealthier than you are(dead in the case of Ms. Smith)? Also is it fair of these conservatives and liberals pundits to punch Obama so often when he only made about 2.5 million while Rush Limbaugh pulled in 30 million plus? I am still a conservative but if you are open to making these sort of arguments then I will join see the question of dress and uniform and honor and praise and respect is at work here.

Which is also why the AIG question is political...but the academics/intelligencia must wear bow-ties...or they can get er' done in blue jeans like Larry the Cableguy(who also made more than Obama).

Hard to take seriously any praise for Michelle from NLT, given the characterization of her as a female William Ayers on this site prior to the election.

One knows Mr. Will has hit a nerve when even the conservatives get angry with him. Surely his goal is not to win votes for the Republicans, but to offer a cultural critique. Whatever one thinks of the politics of blue jeans, his larger point is that clothes are one way in which we both show how seriously we take something and a way to demarcate between childhood and adulthood. This is not that different from the point Joseph Epstein made some years ago in his Weekly Standard essay "The Perpetual Adolescent." Children should aspire to be adults, not adults mimicking the children in a sad attempt to be "hip."

Similarly, there was a time when the lower classes aped the manners of the upper class (or at least the manners the upper class promoted, if not always practiced). Lower classes did not follow those manners perfectly, to be sure, but the idea was that in literature, music, dress, manners, etc., the lower classes at least tried to simulate the more refined culture of the upper classes. Now the only place one sees a similar phenomenon is in weddings, with lower and middle class couples driving themselves crazy to meet all the requirements of a "class" wedding. To have "class" is precisely to at least attempt to meet the standards of the upper class.

But for some time now the upper classes have aped the lower classes.

This discussion reminds one of this passage: "As the teacher in such a situation is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers, as well as of their attendants. And, generally, the young copy their elders and compete with them in speeches and deeds while the old come down to the level of the young; imitating the young, they are overflowing with facility and charm, and that's so that they won't seem to be unpleasant or despotic."

Maybe Jon S. but that is an old line, all I am saying is that your sociology is following a script. In many ways in order for wearing jeans to mean something there must be a script. An equally likely script is that old people follow the script they knew and seem disoriented that no one else is following it, everyone who has a different occupation follows a different script and wears a different uniform, by wearing jeans and a t-shirt you are simply signaling that you are in civilian mode, not acting in an official capacity...what you wear signals where you are comming from...if anything the general american dress allows people who wish to be unamerican to signal the autonomy and status they have by dressing as they think best. George Will is simply frustrated about being over dressed because this sin is usually commited by the types of people that aren't the most productive. It is hilarious to suggest that Steve Jobs by wearing jeans has somehow ruinned things...I am sure the folks at AIG wear nice suits, while the folks at Google are much more casual...but it is really a corporate mood question and I am certainly long Google and Apple and short AIG.

It is all a question of corporate governance, employee happiness and productivity...if you require them to wear suits you might have to pay them more, and if you put it this way many people might decide to wear suits(and many employers will quickly be on board with casual)...the problem is that no matter what you stipulate as your story/narrative/script/sociology it will always be gammed, and this truth of game theory also explains our Airport security.

Wear what you wish(or must) wear, and think of it this way, if the vulgar masses no longer have a taste for Rembrandt then you can pick one up cheap...pretentiousness is neither over nor not over, and to Edmund Burke's Asthetics I give you David Hume's.

There is no sense affecting a taste of iron or a taste of leather if your pallate is capable of neither ergo familly dollar and $2 Merlot is for you(I did well with this pick but sold it too soon). This in no way means that the cask contains no lanyard or metal key.

The upper classes have been aping the lower classes in my estimation because they wish to conceal how fraudulent they are, but again all this stuff goes in waves. Appearances are deceiving and apperances are all we have to go by, but if I sniff a bad balance sheet I am gone even if the pope himself stands behind the company. My dearest wish is to take this country Cartesian, even if I have to ally with Craig...eventually we will cut back government when we realize that they are just "empty suits" producing nothing and redistributing inefficiently.

Good for Apple and Steve Jobs even if I am a PC and think Apple about is still apperances that rule the world, as it always will be(I am certainly ruled by my own, but would be no less blind for tasting at a higher price what was there but not there(to my pallate.)

If you want to know what sank this country don't look to jean wearing Steve Jobs or Google...look to the democrats and republicans wearing suits and trading favors. Look to folks who bought and sold what they knew not because it obeyed the cultural script.

Still I think Toqueville is strong, prescient and insightful.

As if in answer, Peggy Noonan writes "Goodbye to Bland Affluence, Get Ready for Authenticity Chic", which is all about Americans escaping pretentiousness and a gaudy life. This implies more jeans and less Feed Astaire flair. Less of what "Walker Percy called the 'trivial magic' of modern times" and more simple living.

"The cities and suburbs of America are about to get rougher-looking. This will not be all bad. There will be a certain authenticity chic." and even to people who "will be allowed to grow old again."

The essay is a bit confused. She predicts a New York that looks like it did in the 1970's, which it really can't; those buildings are gone or all made over into condos with elaborate security systems. Even sillier, she thinks New York of the 1970's was something to aspire to, in the way of authenticity chic, which it was not. It was dirty and dangerous.

Back to our argument: If our generation is dressing much as it always has, then are younger people aping us? The kid in t-shirt and jeans is dressed like his father is dressed and as his father was dressed 30 years before. I dress for my job and that formality gives my students an excuse to treat me with respect. (It seems to work.) If I dressed as most professors of my age and older dress on campus, I would still not look like the kids, as neither do they. Jeans and casual shirts are what they have always worn. I picture nursing home full of the aged in jeans - that is if the coming generation allows us to live.

John L.,

By "script" one could say "convention." It is true that humans are conventional animals. The question is whether any old script will do and do we all just write our own script. Convention is one way in which a society signals what it expects out of its people, in this case "grow up" and "take serious things seriously." The spirit of our times is to undermine all conventions, indeed that's almost become conventional (notice how our college students are such a herd of individualists).

Lest their be confusion, I do think Will becomes a bit absurd in his attack on blue jeans, but I do think his larger point is instructive.

We await the effectual truth about jeans and civil principalities from Nicholas "The Suit" Antongiovanni.

"in comparison to the luster of the gold Strauss created out of cotton, indigo, and copper rivets."

Straussianism rules

lol Old School. Look I don't know that it is true that everyone is wearing jeans, but in 8 I am responding to the posts and what Julie writes with immagination...and in 10, I am responding to the ridiculousness of Asks theory for Wall Street. In society change occurs very slowly...In Wall Street change occurs very fast. Sometimes Wall Street might even assume that change is occuring too fast...too many politicians might never note that the average age of the country remains in a tight range from 29-31. If change occurs at different rates of speed then convention will be different in different sectors. Most progress is technological, and if learning the technology occupies a large amount of time then addopting a default morality/convention will probably be the order of the day. The truth is that there is an american convention and blue jeans are part of it. Rather than engaging in a senseless war over fashion men agree by invisible compact to only wear jeans and t-shirts. The truth about resentment towards homosexuals may be that they dress themselves in a floppish manner. By doing so they have violated the general will and brought themselves into a state of war with men not eager to kick off an advertising campaign(what spending more on a wardrobe ammounts to). In any case you can spend a lot of money on an Armani but you are better off in a wife beater if you have a sixpack. So gym memberships are "substitutes" for expensive clothing...and perhaps "complements" as well in some cases.

If you pay attention Jon S. I am not making up my script in quite the whole cloth fashion some people do. I am not out to impose a script on reality but to discover the script with which reality is already informed(which is what Wall Street wants to hear). Nature to be commanded must be obeyed and Convention to be commanded must be obeyed unless one is really a Prince...but if one is Prince one is gay(literally in the case of the musician), and to dress flopishly is as likely to signal that you are gay as to signal that you are dignified. Nor are many not suspicious of such signaling. It is precisely because of convention that straight folks wear blue jeans and t-shirts.

That an Nicholas Antongiavanni or a George Will are desireous of bringing new modes and orders is not here disputed, but the times are wrong by my calculation and unless one is foolishly bold one must know when to wear the denim and when to adorn oneself in silk.

One must also seek council carefully, which also goes to the root of 12. It may be that each man has become a prince in his own right and by social compact agreed not to set off a fashion war. This I find highly likely, and am perfectly willing to illustrate with macroeconomics what occurs in a prisoner delima when one party sets off an advertising war.

Also if I advertise my brilliance or ignorance online then as they say underwear is the only required garment.

All the elements on my warmap warn against floppishness, but when some are bears(fox) there is potential upside in being a bull(lion)...

In terms of advertising in this market, Google had a good quater beating analyst estimates, but I suspected they would regardless of the "conventions/warmap" in California per Julie.

Of course actually I do agree with George Will and Antongiovanni and am about to make some moves for high fashion names at super low prices, now that everyone else likes Familly Dollar...but I will do so cautiously paying attention to ballance sheets. It always pays to be cautiously contrarian about the culture.

And that is part of how I beat Random Walk.

Trade stocks by day, read classics of political philosophy by night...albeit due to modernity "robes" are somewhat optional, but might have psychological impact.

So buy the high end fashion names with care, hold for about 6 months...(18 before became 12 became 8 so I made it 6 to get ahead of those who made it 8 but some will make it 4 and some will take a 5-7% gain in three days)

Jon S., you can't write the script you must read it and act accordingly.

"The question is, you dislike Joe the Plummer or do you feel sorry for you dislike Ana Nicole or feel sorry for her?"

Sorry John, I wasn't ignoring you, I had just kind of abandoned this thread, so I only just now skimmed your comments.

To answer your question; I don't see why the two sentiments are mutually exclusive. More than anything, though, I don't have well-developed emotions toward either one of the people you named, as I don't really KNOW them. I know Joe the Plumber (note spelling, he's not Amanda's brother!;)) much less well than I feel I know Dick Cheney or GWB, and even for them, it's not on a personal level. That said, I feel about an 85/15 mix of contempt/sorrow for Joe, as he's taking sides with those who he wants to be among (the wealthy) and pretends that their interests are one and the same as the working class of which he is a part (or at least, was). Mostly, though, I think he's a sleazy opportunist who sees that the Rush/Glenn Beck Bloviation Gig is a much easier way to fast money than trying to build up an honest plumbing business, regardless of what the tax structure may be. But I've also watched him on YouTube and when he's faced with a couple of intelligent questions he freezes like a deer in the headlights, and it's hard not to feel sorry for that in most cases.

Honestly, I hadn't given Anna Nicole much thought lately; I'm not big on tabloid stuff. I guess her life sounds like a tragedy of sorts.

Will is just promoting a gussied-up version of shallowness and vanity - we SHOULD judge people by their appearances now? Jeans are (mostly) cheaper than suits and nice dresses, and don't require special care. They hide our nakedness and allow us to do our work, whether it's working in a mine or transcribing documents in a cubicle. I would marginally prefer talking to a George Will dressed in discount jeans than a Joe the Plumber wearing a $5,000 suit. Hmmm.... maybe.

It appears that Will has touched a nerve. Is there a place for denim? Sure. Is it a gentleman's dress? No.

The fact is that a more formal type of dress was the standard. The question for those who find Will's opinion snobby, a question for you: when you want to impress someone, do you wear jeans, or your Sunday Best? If you want to get a job, are you wearing jeans? If you are picking a girl up for a date, are you wearing Levis?

There are all sorts of sites that speak to the manly art of dressing like a gentleman: Off the Cuff, Elegant Life, English Cut, Dandyism, and Ask Andy about Clothes, to name a few.

BTW, here is how boys used to dress. Who would rather see this again instead of the sideways hat, the barely held up jeans?

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