Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary

Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary

by Daniel Miller, Sophie Woodward

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520952089
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 184
File size: 220 KB

About the Author

Daniel Miller is Professor of Anthropology at University College, London. He is the author of many books, including The Comfort of Things, Stuff, and Tales from Facebook. Sophie Woodward is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester and the author of Why Women Wear What They Wear.

Read an Excerpt

Blue Jeans

The Art of the Ordinary

By Daniel Miller, Sophie Woodward


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95208-9



If we had simply approached people and asked them to tell us about their jeans, we suspect the response would have been muted. The very clothes-conscious or fashion-aware might have jumped at the chance to engage in detailed discussions of their wardrobes or their opinions on style and fashion. But many others, especially men, might have felt awkward and unnatural, preferring to see clothes as merely something they need to wear but not necessarily make the foreground of conversation. Some older men may hardly ever have been called upon to talk about their clothing, let alone their jeans. In fact, being so focused upon denim in particular comes across as unusual to almost everyone simply because jeans are so ordinary and ubiquitous. Compared to the discussion of more individual or special clothing, jeans just seem rather uninteresting as if it is self-evident and obvious why people should wear them. Our impression was that most participants within the project had barely given their current jeans a second thought after the initial decisions involved in selecting and purchasing them.

Clearly, however, it is a premise of this book that the lack of verbalized discourses around jeans does not mean that they are insignificant. Indeed, both of us were schooled in the writings of Bourdieu (1972), who suggests that such mundane and ubiquitous objects of life (those that have become "second nature") should be regarded as more significant than things whose importance to us we are actively aware of. Given our lack of awareness of these material frames (Goffman 1975), we are less likely to challenge the way in which they structure our lives and expectations. This stance differs considerably from arguments in the social sciences, in part arising from Ricoeur (1987) and more recently expounded by, for example, Lawler (2002), that the narration of a life is part of its examination, and that such narratives are necessarily pivotal to how we make sense of our lives. As Woodward has discussed elsewhere (2010), such expectations fail to acknowledge the extent to which the relationship people have to clothing throughout the life course is largely embodied and material, and subsequently difficult to verbalize. This is especially marked in the case of jeans, our most taken-for-granted garment, whose presence goes without saying.

Consequently, we started out first interviews not with detailed histories of people's jeans but instead we adopted a strategy that concentrated more on a broader, succinct history of the person. Not surprisingly, this is something most people are more than keen to respond to, since in general they rarely encounter anyone with the patience to listen to, let alone continually encourage, these accounts. We did, however, guide such narrations toward the topics we were concerned with: key relationships, the person's broader clothing history, and the place of jeans within these. As a result, it seemed that even those who had started skeptically and claimed they had no time enjoyed the encounter and talked for long periods.

As fieldwork progressed it became increasingly evident that this oscillation between stories of personal lives and the more specific discussion of clothing and jeans seemed to have a kind of natural resonance with informants. Quite aside from our encounter with them, styles of clothing have become increasingly important as ways people mark for themselves certain periods and episodes in their lives. Since the "narrative turn" there has been a move toward the elicitation of life histories, situated within wider social trends (Gullestad 1996; Allan and Jones 2003; Gilleard and Higgs 2005). Clothing is certainly not the only material marker that plays an obvious role here (for autobiography and objects more generally, see Hoskins 1998 and Lofgren 1994), but it is probably the most important. Consider the way we use clothing styles as a rapid means to at least approximately date a family photograph or contextualize a film we are watching. Clothing stands in a special relationship to time, partly because of the strong association with fashion and the temporalities of style, making clothing particularly effective as a temporal marker. As a result, we found that after a while we were able to align our interview technique with this relationship between clothing and the life course in a manner that seemed to work for informants.

In paying attention to such narratives it also becomes clear that this is not simply a very general relationship where clothing becomes a marker of dates or events, standing in for time in general. Furthermore, given the topic, jeans, this was rarely just a story of the degree to which people felt they were in fashion or fashionable. Rather, clothing seems to take on a slightly more abstract or analytical role, in which it stands for a general sense of what people wore during a given period. As we shall see, the key category that marks this relationship between life course and clothing is the concept of generation, particularly for those born in the United Kingdom.


The potential resonance between a personal life narrative and the history of jeans in particular is exemplified by Eric, now in his seventies, who recalled being given a pair of jeans by an American GI in the mid-1940s. At that time the introduction of jeans into the United Kingdom was closely associated with the presence of American GIs stationed in Britain for the war. It wasn't that he was looking for anything particularly American, but he liked the idea that jeans made him look a bit different. In fact, after a while this seems to have been rather too effective, and he stopped wearing them when he began to feel they marked him out as a bit of an oddball. This is a balance he is still concerned about, in that even today he tries to achieve this sense of being marked out, but not too much, through wearing quirky ties and, curiously, by deliberately not wearing jeans on casual occasions when he knows that other people will be wearing them. So while the initial gift marks a pivotal moment in the original introduction of jeans into the United Kingdom, for him it was simply a means of measuring the extent of his own individuality against that of his contemporaries. Putting this the other way around, we can see that while this is his quite personal and individual trajectory, it was still determined by the public reaction to denim as a historical moment. This is even clearer in the case of a female participant who told us about a relative who in 1958 or 1959 was one of the first women in the area to wear jeans and was promptly beaten up for her effrontery. At such a moment our general statement about the alignment between personal narrative and more-public history seems very apropos.

Rather more common and less dramatic are the ways prevalent styles and fashions become a suitable anchor through which to stabilize autobiography. Susan was born and brought up locally, working mainly in retail, and now lives with her husband and mother-in-law. She first wore jeans in the mid-1960s, when she was a teenager. She tells us that when she was a child, "my mother never let me wear trousers. I always wore dresses. She desperately wanted a little girl and when she had me she was determined that I wouldn't have trousers." This was in the 1950s, and she therefore became one of those "frilly little girls with bows at their backs." She says that this is what "everyone was wearing—it was no different from anybody else." Her brothers by contrast, wore jeans. She remembers her eldest brother at eleven "desperately wanting jeans. I can remember him having a pair of jeans and he wore it with that snake belt.... That was what all the boys wore." This was in the midto late 1950s, "around when rock and roll first started." For her, even today wearing jeans still conveys that sense of excitement over a time that, in retrospect, seems like the birth of modern popular culture.

Susan's recollections mainly pertain to her sense of what was in fashion at a given time. When she first wore jeans, "they were the fashion then"; prior to that she wore stretch trousers because "jeans weren't particularly [in fashion], not in the early days.... It was at the end of the later sixties when jeans became the fashion for girls." Her first pair of jeans was blue, although "fashion changes so quickly, doesn't it? When I first started wearing them they were blue—but maybe within a year they were colored."

Susan's relationship to jeans occurs within the context of being in tune with fashion. "You know, they were the thing that people were wearing. When you are a teenager you wear whatever everyone else is wearing ... and so I wore jeans." Fashion dictated not just what you wore but how and when. Jeans were casual wear; "when you went out at the weekend ... you dressed and you wore dresses. You were a girl and you dressed up." Her sources of fashion knowledge include references to various key films that show 1950s or 1970s style and to Twiggy, an iconic fashion model in the 1960s. It becomes clear that she wanted to "fit in" but also that fashion as a broader concept provided the key explanation and rationalization for what she wore. She exemplifies the classic ambivalences of fashion that Simmel first wrote about in 1904 (Simmel 1957): the tension between standing out and fitting in, between wanting to be noticed yet wanting to wear the same thing as everyone else. She recalls she was a "show-off" when young, and that when she had dressed up in her going-out clothing she wanted people to look at and admire her when she entered a room. Yet this occurs within the context of her sensitivity to keeping within a genre, and fitting in with what others wear. Jeans go even further than other clothing in terms of being different and simultaneously the same, since they start to represent both being in fashion but also the garment that she claims not to care about, precisely because she now sees jeans as a kind of "opting out" from fashion through which she can remain relatively unnoticed. This theme will be developed throughout this book.

Susan's clothing reflects different periods within the life cycle. The unequivocal desire to be in fashion was paramount during her teenage years and her twenties. There was a significant change when Susan got married in 1970 and had a son three years later. Initially she still wore skirts, with jeans mainly as her casual attire, but then she stopped going to discos and instead took to cycling and camping. At this point jeans became her default clothing, what she wore most of the time. By the 1980s she had stopped wearing skirts altogether. She now saw jeans as practical, suitable for her busy life, and the perfect item for when she did not care about her appearance. In the 1990s, however, she stopped wearing denim, and now she wears cotton twill trousers—a transformation she is unable to account for other than on grounds of comfort and habit.

Despite all this, there is no point in her life during which Susan actually regarded jeans as of any special importance or mattering much to her (as was also the case for many other participants). Fashion certainly mattered, as did other activities such as going to discotheques, but jeans come into her narrative precisely as a means of explaining how certain things didn't matter, or mattered less than before. Jeans are used to show how she relinquished her attachment to fashion and relaxed instead into casual clothing. They came into prominence when, with her husband and child, she felt she had other priorities. Yet from the perspective of an analytical engagement with her narrative, one could argue the precise opposite: that jeans were pivotal to her ability to enact these very transformations. They were the means by which she was able to step away from the cycles of fashion, or to be disinterested in clothing while remaining, of course, clothed. So in some ways the less jeans mattered as a genre of fashion, the more they mattered as an instrument of her clothing practice, allowing her to blend in, to be unseen, and not to care about her appearance, or at least to look as if she didn't care.

Again there is an affinity between the place of jeans in our participants' narrative and what we are learning about them. Had we insisted upon jeans taking center stage in their narrative, it would have seemed unnatural and uncomfortable. By contrast, accepting jeans as background or context for the discussion of fashion seems to reflect the experience and ultimately the real significance of jeans.

There is often a difference between males and females in the way clothing and periods of time are aligned. Precisely because Tom does not have the explicit relationship to fashion declared by Susan, for him jeans are not merely the "other" to fashion, which means that he has a more positive and identifiable link to jeans themselves than Susan does. Tom is from the north of England and has lived in London for fifteen years. He works as a teacher and lives with his wife and young daughter and started wearing jeans when he was fourteen. Although his parents never wore jeans, his mother bought them for him; when he first wore them he liked them, as they were fashionable. They were different from school trousers, and it was "what everyone else wore then." He later clarifies this position by saying that he wasn't "fashionable ... I wasn't following trends," yet he also notes that at the time "nobody wore anything else ... everyone wore jeans." With Tom, as is typical for many of our male participants, his ambivalence is slightly different from that found with Susan. He is less concerned with a relationship to fashion. Rather, he was a typical male teenager in that his primary concern was simply to fit in. His mother bought Levi's for him, and for a long time he simply "got into the habit" of wearing them. He wore flared and then straight-leg jeans in a "very plain" style.

Tom talks about how he loved jeans and how after wearing them for a while they become more personal: "I felt they were mine." His initial influences included his peers— "everyone" who was wearing them—as well as an uncle ten years his senior. Later he developed a sense of himself through a more personal and particular clothing biography. He shifted from simply fitting in to finding his niche. "I was always behind the fashions. I had long hair during the punk period. I was grungy during the New Romantic phase. I was always very behind. I didn't worry about my appearance."

Although Tom claims he doesn't care about his appearance, this is in respect to what other people wore. By contrast, he showed concern that his jeans should be aligned with his tastes in music, such as Led Zeppelin, even if they seemed anachronistic. "When I was in the university in the eighties, to say you were into Pink Floyd was the faux pas. Everyone else was into New Romantics. Pink Floyd were definitely out." Similarly, the flared jeans he wore, which seemed appropriate when listening to such music, were clearly out of fashion: "I wore flares until I was laughed at on the streets.... I can remember being in the university in flares and some local kids laughing as I went past."

This experience seems to have become, in his memory, the turning point. He bought a pair of straight-leg jeans and stopped wearing flares. Still, clearly the issue of jeans was secondary to his deep relationship with music. He tells how he wished he had been born fifteen years earlier: "It wasn't deliberately trying to stand out. It was just knowing the sort of music I liked."

It would seem misleading to consider Tom in relation to any general sense of fashion. What remains consistent is his concern with fitting in. At first the contradiction was expressed by wanting to look right for the small subgroup that shared his musical tastes, but then gradually he was confronted with the discrepancy between this group and everyone else, culminating in his being laughed at in the street, at which point he shifted back to conformity with a larger public. Similarly, when he subsequently obtained a job as a teacher he started wearing cords rather than jeans, which are not allowed at work. But he also welcomed these cords, which gave him a sense of himself as more "grown-up." Once he stopped wearing jeans, denim as a material started to seem too harsh and the cut of jeans too restrictive to his body. He now only wears chinos.

If in the case of Tom it is music that mediates between jeans and the period he is living through, for most participants this mediation comes through a generally very broad sense of fashion. In short, they don't see themselves in terms of specific linkages to jeans. More often they recall the past in terms of a general age bracket associated with a particular decade. Tom talks about the way he, like others, took to wearing flared jeans in the 1970s or combats—loose cotton military-style trousers with large pockets that were popular in the UK in the 1990s. For him this goes with the way he converses about the music of bands from the seventies or eighties; others see it as natural to frame their sartorial biographies in terms of clothes from the 1960s or the 1990s.


Excerpted from Blue Jeans by Daniel Miller, Sophie Woodward. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Life
2. Relationships
3. Fashion
4. Comfortable
5. Ordinary
6. The Struggle for Ordinary
7. Anthropology: From Normative to Ordinary
8. Sociology: The Ordinary and the Routine


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"Blue Jeans provides a useful introduction to sociological theories and methodologies; it would be an ideal text for students."—Ornament

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