CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 18 . . . . January 13, 2012
People have been wearing jeans for more than a century, and, in America, the denim industry earns more than $13 billion per year. It all began when Levis Strauss, a fabric supplier in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush, joined forces with Jacob Davis, a tailor who made workpants in Reno, to create and patent "waist-high overalls". At first, these overalls were sewn in homes, but increasing demand resulted in the building of large factories. When the patent expired, Henry David Lee made his own version of jeans- overalls and coveralls (known as Union-alls), the latter style supplied to American soldiers during the First World War. In 1924, Lee manufactured the 101 Cowboy Pant, then versions of jeans suitable for loggers and sailors. He was the first to add zippers to men's jeans. After the Stock Market crash of 1929, people could not afford to buy new clothes, so jeans' durability was especially important. The drought of the Dirty 30s resulted in farmers no longer being able to have large herds, so some entrepreneurial ranchers decided to invite rich Americans from the East Coast to "dude ranches". These wealthy tourists wanted to dress like cowboys, and so jeans gained in popularity. This was also the beginning of the Wrangler brand which capitalized on people's interest in dude ranches, rodeos and Hollywood cowboys, such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy.
With wartime rationing during World War II, there were shortages of fabric and jeans, and so owning a pair became a status symbol. Women began to work in factories on assembly lines, and, because they found their dresses and accessories to be dangerous at work, being easily caught in machinery, they started to wear slacks and coveralls. Levi Strauss & Co. created the first women's jeans in 1934. After the war, jeans fashion was influenced by movie stars Marlon Brando and James Dean, both of whom played rebels in their respective movies (and, of course, wore jeans on the silver screen), and by Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot who wore jeans to meetings and when they went out for the evening. With more families having access to television, teenagers watched Elvis Presley, another so-called rebel, wearing jeans, and the craze took off. Some schools banned jeans, associating them with juvenile delinquents. Then came the hippie movement of the 1960s, when hippies decorated their bell-bottomed jeans with embroidery, ribbons and painted peace symbols. People began to wear jeans everywhere, and it became more socially acceptable to do so. Jeans became the "social leveler", meaning that anyone- of any race, gender, or social class- could wear them. The Punk Rock movement brought forth ripped, shredded and frayed jeans. Denim and jeans factories in Europe proliferated, though communist countries banned jeans because they thought them to be a "corrupting force" and by doing so, created a black market for the sale and distribution of jeans. In the 1970s, designer Gloria Vanderbilt took jeans to a whole new level, making "designer" jeans upscale, symbols of wealth and power. From the 1970s to the 1990s, styles and fabric finishes were many and varied- stonewash, acid-wash, destroyed (ripped), tight, baggy, faded and boot-cut. There were jeans to suit every budget, taste and body shape. A pair of Roberto Cavalli jeans with an embroidered waistband sold for $1840, while, in 1999, Gucci jeans with torn knees were an instant sellout at $3715 a pair. Hip-hop and rap music spawned the low and baggy jeans style known as "saggin". Many prisons had set up sewing factories, and the inmates were not allowed to have belts, hence the sagging pants with some of the underwear showing. Even designer Alexander McQueen, known to be controversial, introduced low-rise jeans called "bumsters" that revealed a part of the rear anatomy.
With the prevalence of sweatshops in poor countries in the past several years, people who purchase jeans and other articles of clothing are being encouraged to read labels to find out where, and under what conditions, the items are made. Purchasers are developing a social conscience, becoming aware of poor working conditions and child labour in clothing factories, and finding out how the clothing is made. For example, cotton crops use one-fourth of the world's insecticides every year; coal and oil, used to make synthetic indigo dye, have toxic by-products such as cyanide. With every American now owning, on average, seven pairs of jeans (and Canadians have almost as many pairs), jeans fashion continues to dominate. Fairly new trends in jean design include light beams scanning the body to obtain exact measurements for custom-made jeans (introduced by Levi Strauss & Co. in 1999) and American Eagle's inviting customers, in 2002, to customize their jeans with stencils, razor blades or pumice stones to create specific patterns and designs.
The 10 chapters of The Lowdown on Denim comprise a thorough, well researched, chronological history of denim jeans. Readers will learn how economic trends, world events and culture influenced the design, wearing and ever skyrocketing sales of the popular pants. There are bits of trivia printed on scraps of denim throughout the book. One example is that in 1951, Bing Crosby was refused entry into a Canadian hotel because he was wearing jeans and a denim jacket, and when Levis Strauss & Co. heard about it, they produced a tuxedo jacket, made entirely of denim, specifically for Crosby.
The illustrations, in comic form, not only complement the text, but also tell a story of their own. At the beginning of the book, a comic shows the principal of a school who finds his jeans hanging from the school flagpole. For punishment, he gives the culprits, Shred and JD, an assignment to research the history of jeans and write a report. As the teens discover more information, they are shown in many different comic book scenes from various points in jeans' history.
A table of contents, an index and a brief list of books for further reading are included.
Middle school students will find the book to be quite interesting. They will especially relate to the information in the last few chapters.
An informative, fun read.
Gail Hamilton is a former teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.