A lot of people have commented on George Will’s recent commentary on Blue Jeans and the Fall of Western Society. Will was taking points from Daniel Akst’s Down With Denim. No reason I shouldn’t join in, too.

Akst and Will both try to make aesthetic, practical, and cultural points against jeans as the flashpoint of our culture’s inability to dress itself. The problem with this is that aesthetics are valid but subjective, they’re wrong on practicality, and the cultural significance of jeans is no longer what it once was and it doesn’t so much matter what it once was as it does what it presently is.

The real problem with jeans, from a culturally conservative perspective, is their ubiquity. Akst does a pretty good job of pointing this out, but Will mostly misses the boat on it because he just dislikes them so too much to bother coming up with good reasons why. The ubiquity is a problem, though, for the same reason that cultural history is not.

The main point of dressing in particular clothes is that they are signifiers. They tell us something about us and how we view an occasion. If we’re dressing in a suit and tie we are declaring that this is important and that we expect that. If we go to something where a suit and tie is significant, refusing to wear such, we are signaling a rebellion against the code. Or laziness or clueless. How we perceive these clothes clothes are the main cultural point. That jeans used to be an act of rebellion is somewhat irrelevant when it comes to their current application. Jeans currently signal comfort and casualness over formality.

We can expect a conservative like Will to be horrified as such mass displays of casualness. And I’m not unsympathetic. Whether this truly represents a cultural problem is a matter of what we think that culture should be. Those who would prefer a greater degree of formality understandably detest this trend. Similarly, I am discomforted by the increasing trend of girls and young women wearing what seem to be pajama bottoms out in public. Or people that wear sweats everywhere. On the other hand, if 40 years down the line (God help us) everybody is doing these things, the future arguments I have with my future daughter turn to mud.

But we’ve reached the point where jeans’ ubiquity don’t really represent anything at all. We have jeans that are so tight as to be uncomfortable and others that are made too large. Jeans make so little of a statement that you have to sub-signal. The kinds of jeans you make are the statement. Will admits as much when he talks about those jeans that come out 0f the factory looking like they have already been worn. Those are now what represent casualness. Jeans, ironically, now more represent conformity than anything else.

I say this as that guy that never wore jeans in school up until I forced myself in late junior high. For some of the same reasons that Akst gives. They are hot and uncomfortable in the long Delosian summers (spanning from April to October) where I was raised. They always seemed itchy. So when we were banned from wearing shorts to school, I wore slacks. At this point, I was being the rebel. Unfortunately, the kind of rebellion that you pay a social cost for. Will should approve of the fact that I paid a price for bucking convention.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come around on the jeans front as they pertain to me. In the cool weather up here, they provide a little extra warmth compared to most of the slacks and cargos I wear. Some of the discomfort I experienced when I was younger is gone now, probably due in part to “relaxed fit” jeans that fit my legs better. And I think I got used to the way that they rub against my legs. Now I see the upsides of jeans. They don’t significantly wrinkle. They’re flexible to go with whatever shirt you happen to have handy. Even if it weren’t the norm, it’s probably what I would wear when appropriate.

Of course, some of the things that I like about them are the things that people like Will and Akst don’t. The fact that they’re easy and don’t need to be ironed means that I don’t have to put much effort into it and are thus inferior. It’s the male equivalent to the female need to make dressing as complicated (and uncomfortable) as possible. It shows effort. And, of course, that they go well with anything could be turned around to say that they don’t really go with anything.

I’m sort of sympathetic to that last part. The problem with jeans is the ubiquity. Or at least how jeans symbolize the ubiquity of modern dress. In my perfect world, we would have one type of clothes to wear on our downtime, another to work, another to church, and so on. When I was a kid, I had to dress nicely for church. I objected strenuously. Ties have always been particularly uncomfortable around my big neck, who the heck wants to wear a jacket in the southern heat, and so on. By the time I was graduating from high school and when I would go to church afterward, this custom had relaxed and young people were coming to church in jeans and later {gasp} shorts. I welcomed the development at the time, but now I see what Mom was talking about.

Now we can wear the same clothes to work and church that we might want to wear on the weekend. I feel sort of robbed of the chance to dress like an adult. I don’t dress exactly as I did when I was younger (worse, back then I didn’t wear jeans!), I rarely wear t-shirts, for instance. But I usually dress within a comfortable range. I dress for work wearing the same sorts of things that the janitor wears and the auto guy wears. My employer wouldn’t fire me for wearing a suit-and-tie to work, but the symbols of my progression in life have become pretense. I share with Will and Akst a sense of loss in that.

That is where I do feel a sense of common cause with those scolds. Dressing up and dressing down may be arbitrary cultural dictates, but I do think that such things are important. There’s a reason we don’t dress in togas or African robes, after all. I think that targeting jeans is a big misguided, particularly on the grounds that they do.

On the other hand, if I really want differentiation-in-dress, I guess we do still see that. Most offices (my current withstanding) don’t yet allow employees to show up in shorts and flip-flops. The young girls wearing pajama pants are doing some differentiation of their own, however-much I disapprove and will forbid my future daughters from doing the same. Somehow, I doubt that Akst will approve of this any more than I do. So I guess in that sense I am trapped in the same sort of thinking that they are. A preference for a more classical look losing, day-by-day, in the face of modern culture.


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5 Responses to The Devil in Blue Jeans

  1. Peter says:

    One concern I have is that the current economic troubles will spell the end of business casual and the return of the suit. The mild downturn following the implosion of the dot-com bubble at the beginning of the decade was a partial setback, with some workplaces going back to the suit, but the changes weren’t that widespread. Things might be different now, however, as the downturn is more severe and puts employers in much stronger bargaining positions. Perhaps the one saving grace, so to speak, is that some of the hardest-hit sectors are also the strongest bastions of the suit, for instance finance and BIGLAW.

    On the subject of clothing, have you been in an Old Navy store recently? This past weekend I went to the one nearest me for the first time in at least a few years, and was most surprised to see that the men’s department had shrunk to almost nothing. It was no more than a few shelves, not much more than 10% of the total floor space.

  2. ? says:

    Trumwill: I liked what you wrote about social signaling. I would add this insight, not original with me, but something I read on NRO or isteve or someplace: the suit was originally invented to flatter the shape of the “typical” (in other words, largely pear-shaped) adult male. (Something could probably be said for women’s fashions of yore.) They originated with army uniforms that strove to create the appearance of broad sholders on aristocratic army officers, for instance.

    Our present fashions do the exact opposite: they are designed so as to be wearable exclusively by those with pre-existing physicality. They look best on men of athletic build and on women of size zero. (Relaxed fit jeans represent a partial exception to this trend.)

    I suppose this is a function of the overthrow of an aristocracy of wealth in favor of an aristocracy of beauty.

  3. a_c says:

    Phi: at least the earlier insight was in Fussell’s Class book.

    I was never a big fan of jeans, for the reasons that Trumwill gave: they’re rough and uncomfortable.

  4. Peter says:

    the suit was originally invented to flatter the shape of the “typical” (in other words, largely pear-shaped) adult male.

    Minor nitpick (is that redundant): the typical adult male shape is described as apple-shaped, with excess weight generally carried in the abdomen. Pear-shaped refers to women, who usually have their excess weight mainly in the hips and rear end.

    Newer suit jackets with their 3-button design are no longer quite as flattering to men who are thick around the midsection. They look better on men with long, lean torsos.

  5. Becky says:

    I wear jeans to work quite a bit b/c they are comfortable and go with any type of top (not to mention, they offer “relaxed fit” options and most women’s slacks do not). But, I think the difference for me is what I pair it up with. For work, I wear nicer shoes, tops, jewelry, etc. but for casual outings, I might wear tennis shoes, t-shirts and minimal accessories. And, I will come out of the closet here and admit that I wear Adidas mesh type pants (looser, not tight) when I run errands on weekends…out in public.

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