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.