Four weeks of cruising in the Bahamas is no excuse for a committed columnist to abandon his column. In fact, major breaking events like the war in Iraq, an Oscar for Nicole Kidman, an outbreak of SARS, ought to inspire a higher level of output even within the FROM THE STOOL context of random thoughts and observations.
The horror of war juxtaposed with the mindless enjoyment of deserted Exuma beaches seems to have restricted the flow of worthwhile ideas or subject matter that might be of some general interest. In order to decalcify the blockage, perhaps a theme of no significance to anyone but the writer is in order.
Very few consumer products remain the same for more than a few years, and even fewer maintain a cutting edge fashion cachet. There is, however, one item of apparel, with near universal appeal, which has remained essentially unchanged for well over a century, which continues to form the cornerstone of most people’s wardrobes, irrespective of age, sex or social circumstance – the unalterable, five-pocket blue jean.
Blue jeans, like tomatoes, go almost anywhere and accessorize almost anything, particularly in a world which has become considerably more relaxed and casual even in executive suites and five-star restaurants.
The Levi 501 button-fly denim jean, now in its second century, continues to be among teenagers’ most preferred. While it is no longer necessary to sit in the bathtub while they shrink, or wash and wear them for years before they are suitably soft and weathered, the construction, silhouette and fit are unchanged.
Developed as extremely durable, low cost utilitarian dungarees, workpants for the farmer/laborer, they have, like the VW Beetle, morphed into a classic contemporary icon with an extraordinary connection to the psyche of its user. Jeans, for most, are like old friends and lovers.
Stone washed, pre-torn, acid washed, low-rised and flared – pleated, plain front, oversized and baggy – a staggering variety of subtle tweaks successfully keep blue jeans fresh and exciting. The more they’re used, the better they get.
The world’s great designers – Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Hugo Boss – all package their signature jeans with very subtle differences in silhouette, color, weight and labeling. Arizona has become for J.C. Penney a major jean brand. The Gap, the world’s largest apparel retailer, started life as Levi shops. Gap jeans today represent a major competitor to Levi among young men and women.
Wrangler, the backbone of the Wal-Mart/Kmart/Target value jeans business, has always dominated the women’s market because of their uncanny understanding of female asses and how to drape them to their best advantage, irrespective of size and scope. The VF Corporation, which owns Wrangler, is the jeans industry acknowledged leader in this most critical area and, as such, has always commanded a bigger share of the women’s market than Levi and others. It’s hard to figure out why Levi, which developed fuller-fitting gentlemen’s jeans in order to give all adult men, irrespective of size, the opportunity to dress like kids, has never developed Wrangler’s reputation for fit among women.
Jeans today are worn by Hollywood’s celebrities, world class athletes and heads of state, with superbly tailored sport jackets in luxury fabrics, and by virtually all high school and college students, accessorized to cover the fashion spectrum from homeless derelict, to high class hooker, and from punk rocker to steeplejack.
While jeans for the most part are sold in denim, Levi has introduced cotton jeans under the Dockers label, and carried their inexpensive, comfortable wash-and-wear jean into business offices, making khaki and corduroy appropriate every day of the week, where in most companies blue jeans are OK only on Friday, if at all.
A comfortable, soft, faded, well-worn jean is truly an old friend, but never wears out its welcome. As kids, when our knees popped through, we’d cut off the legs and make jeans shorts. An occasional patch became a fashion statement. Stone washing made it possible to buy new jeans as well seasoned as a pair worn for years. It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone riding a Harley, roping a steer, or digging a ditch in anything other than jeans. People look happier because they feel better in jeans.
Steve McQueen, Jimmy Dean, Paul Newman, Bruce Springsteen – rugged guys, best remembered photos in jeans. Hard to image Cary Grant or Liberace even owning a pair. Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears – each makes a memorable statement, coming or going, in jeans. A drink tastes better in jeans.
Jeans are not profound, but are profoundly interesting. They are uniquely American. They are engineered for work, yet designed for fun. They get niftier as they get older. They require neither cleaning nor pressing. They are forever fashion right. Perhaps during periods of global conflict and market turmoil, it’s worthwhile to reflect on the value provided by a few well worn and weathered old friends.