To Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward, a pair of jeans is ordinary. I get this premise– it makes sense to go with this argument, especially when much of Blue Jeans stands to emphasize that jeans, while not always comfortable, aim to make us comfortable in the long run, both physically (especially because jeans become softer as they age) and socially. What I’m left thinking, though, is that clothes in general are ordinary. We make all clothes semiotic, and therefore, I am not buying the argument that jeans are a post-semiotic garment, especially here in America where class and brand can have so much to say for who and what you are. Jeans, t-shirts, shoes, dresses… they all speak.
For starters, not all jeans are equal and not all jeans are ordinary, even if you could argue they all aim to make us comfortable within society. I think that jeans could be a post-semiotic garment to some people (to some, clothes are for utility only)… but it just doesn’t work to say that across the board that jeans are all of the same vein. Jeans do convey something about a person’s fashion sense and personality (remember the Led Zeppelin guy from page 21?), and if a pair of jeans is too short, too baggy, too faded, too ripped, it can convey the “wrong” message or even incur ridicule within social circles. While that is unfortunate, it happens. Additionally, jeans as a whole are not accepted everywhere. Some jeans are acceptable in some work environments, but some environments will never accept any form of jeans. It seems a bit ignorant to discuss ‘jeans’ as an idea of ordinary as if they are all the same. Jeans do not all perform the same jobs.
Miller and Woodward recognize what I am saying here on page 90, as they discuss branded jeans, especially for women. “…many people, especially women, possess such marked jeans: branded jeans, skinny jeans, jeans that are for going out or for special occasions. But these are not the jeans that most people wear most of the time.” I find that hard to believe. Even my husband, who does not care about fashion, aims to wear jeans that are twofold– comfortable enough to “just wear” and also nice enough to wear “out.” Does he have old jeans for yard work or to run to the grocery store? Sure. Does he wear “branded” jeans? No, but the jeans he does wear to go “out” have an element of fashion to them, either in wash or fit, so that they look acceptable and presentable. While Miller and Woodward attempt to argue on page 70 that jeans could become less wearable due to fading and do not, I think that jeans become less wearable in certain places based on the condition of the jean. Wear-ability, in its entirety, is not the same as where and for what you can wear jeans. I believe there is a shift in jean agency and accessibility within the jean life cycle.
Whether or not jeans have the ability to be a canvas for anyone, as Miller and Woodward go on to say about, for instance, “goths wearing black jeans” on page 90, has nothing to do with the acceptance and class levels associated with jeans within our American society. The fact that jeans can say so many things does not make them a post-semiotic garment. It makes them a garment with potential for multiple signs based on aesthetic choices, brand, and more. Perhaps jeans are “ordinary” because they are simply everywhere, not because they are comfortable or because they have no message.
What I liked in terms of Blue Jeans in regard to the research on the dolman, is the thought of arbitrariness, that denim and indigo are “practical and pragmatic” in American society just because. So why was the fact that the dolman was silk with chenille fringe so special? And is it because silk and chenille have always been special that they remain special? Is this all arbitrary, as in what was just is, just because? I found that to be an interesting thought.
While I did not agree with Miller and Woodward’s argument about jeans, I loved what Miller and Woodward said on page 24 about agency of clothing in material culture studies in general. They wrote, “… in material culture studies clothing is seen more as an active agent or instrument, as it is a means by which people accomplish various tasks, including that of dealing with a difficult situation; in some cases as a catalyst that provokes further change.” This absolutely supports my premise to argue that Rosalie’s dolman was acting as her family’s admission ticket to Philadelphia society.
Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward. Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary. (Berkely and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2012).