09 February 2011

Three ages of denim

This month Gallery Didier Aaron in New York (didieraaron.com, via Boing Boing and NYT Magazine) is showing a newly-discovered fragment of an archaeology of daily life - an anonymous 17th century painter known as 'the Master of the Blue Jeans'. His paintings show scenes of everyday life in Italy: a barbershop, a woman sewing, a family begging, a poor child. In each one, we see a familiar blue fabric in a most unfamiliar setting.

Galerie Didier Aaron

The exhibition of seven works by this previously unknown painter was organized by Gerlinde Gruber of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and runs in New York until February 18th. She was the one who attributed these paintings to a single artist - previously they had been attributed to a variety of other masters.

Denim is so deeply ingrained into the fabric of everyday life today (excuse the pun), that its history has been obscured. I hadn't known until today, for instance, that blue denim-like fabrics have been in use since the 14th century in Europe. The name comes from 'serge de Nîmes': it was a type of serge, or twill, made in the French city of Nimes. It was a tough material for poor people. 'Blue jeans' as a name for denim trousers seems to come from 'bleu de Genes', or 'Genoa blue', since the trousers were adopted as workwear by Genoa's navy (according to wikipedia, anyhow).

The paintings make it obvious how totally we've forgotten the early history of the fabric that rules our lives. Putting 17th century characters in denim is weird and provocative - the kind of thing you'd expect from an art student's master's thesis. Look at this kid in his thrashed, too-big denim coat. He's ruddy, a little vacant, a little fearful maybe. He looks beaten down by life, and he's probably only nine. It's radically dissonant from everything we associate with a jean jacket.

I put this dissonance down to the power of the American ideal of denim. The fabric always had totally different connotations there. Since blue jeans became the iconic look of the California gold rush, they've been associated with the frontier, with its miners and cowboys. Blue jeans were the dress of free men and adventurers - the jeans might be ragged but they say 'hard work' and 'self-sufficiency' rather than 'grinding poverty'. The paintings in the Master of the Blue Jeans exhibit not only show denim fabric, but associate it with the ragged, hunger-stalked life of the urban masses of Europe: lives of subjection to which America formed a symbolic counterpoint. They present an almost total contrast to the cowboy image.

Look at these miners: hard-working frontiersmen, not sad-eyed beggars (The Fashionary)

In the 1980s we started the third age of denim: thanks to the Hollywood-industrial complex the fabric of working men, greasers, and hippies has become a massive, globalized business that dresses billions. For the first time, we no longer pretend that denim is workwear, or supposed to be cheap. Try finding a decent pair of jeans for under $60 (I recommend 511s)! In a lot of places, wearing jeans is a mark that you've emerged from developing country gloom and joined the global society: check out, for instance, Levi's new China-focused branding and marketing efforts. Rather than signaling poverty, donning denim is now a marker of its opposite. An object lesson in the mutability of material culture, and a good reminder for the archaeologist that the meaning of objects is never fixed.

Look, they're wearing denim. But are they European beggars, or gold miners? I'm confused.

Some extra links:
More denim history is here.
Fawning yet nonetheless interesting microhistories of many luxury denim brands at Denimblog.
See the 100-year old pair of Levi's discovered in the Nevada desert.


  1. wow, this is my favorite of your posts. fashion/clothing history is interesting in that there is often an "up to down" and "down to up" movement of trends within social strata. it seems that a great many fabrics, modes of productions associated with the working class or even destitute through time find themselves as trendy items. for example, ready made clothes used to be thought of as cheap and now even the fanciest fashion houses have ready to wear lines.

  2. Exactly, clothing is an example of a type of material culture where social context totally determines the meaning. It's not what you're wearing, but the social context that you're wearing it in. I'm reminded of Diesel's classic 'The Luxury of Dirt' campaign from back in 2001/2002: looking filthy as status symbol.