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6 December 2010
Jeans as cultural artifact

They are, almost literally, everywhere, one of the great demotic cultural artifacts of all time—part of the great mass casualizing of America. If you don’t have a pair somewhere in your closet or chest of drawers, we’ll be shocked. They can signal high fashion, disregard for fashion, or both at the same time. They can last for years or be delivered off the rack so “distressed” that they disintegrate after half a dozen washings. Indeed, in their stonewashed comfort, they make a great metaphor for many other things.

What do jeans make of the world? They connect us to a hard-working past and to a leisurely present. They signal that we are all the same even as their prices spiral upward. For at least half the species, finding a pair that fit can become an epic quest, reminding us of all our imperfections with each over-the-shoulder glance in the fitting room mirror. For much of the other half of the species, they make a great substitute for a napkin.

What do jeans make possible and impossible? What do they tell us about our culture—the way it is, the way it ought to be? Chime in below.

1. What do jeans assume about the way the world is?

Jeans say that, like you, they can take a beating and still function.

—Erik M. Peterson

Jeans say that the world is a place were anything can happen, be ready.

Deets Johnson

Jeans assume that our day to day lives should be comfortable and easy.

Kathleen Popa

Jeans assume that everyone can find a personal fit…even in this world of conformity.

Ellen Chang

Jeans indicate prosperity;  In my youth only “rich” people could afford to buy them.

—Ian Ross

when I began wearing jeans they made me feel like I fit in. I loved the feel and look of them. As I have grown older, jeans make me feel comfortable, young, and it’s like a rite of passage when I start wearing them again in the fall after months of shorts.

2. What do jeans assume about the way the world should be?

That life is sometimes chaotic, so our clothing should be durable and easily coordinated enough to handle it.

—Shu Ming

Jeans assume we should live in a world of equals, where we all wear the same practical, comfortable, unpretentious uniform.

Kathleen Popa

Jeans assume that their should be a connection, similarity between people, because to some degree, we’re all the same

—Ellen Chang

The world should be multi-generational.

3. What do jeans make possible?

Outfits that match without too much effort (very important when you’re rushing to uni!).

—Shu Ming

If nice jeans are your office pants, when they get old they can be relegated (or promoted!) to your outdoor pants. From desk to forest.

—Paul Grant

Jeans make it possible to get dressed in the morning without excess concern for putting an outfit together - almost like a monk’s habit.

Kathleen Popa

Jeans make possible for girls to play the drums.

Ellen Chang

Jeans make it possible to get on an airplane and with the confidence that, if it crashes, your legs have some chance of surviving.

4. What do jeans make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

Jeans make impossible a too-serious conversation.

Howard Freeman

Jeans are comfortable.  After wearing them it is difficult to wear suit pants and feel ready for anything.

Deets Johnson

jeans make impossible for people to say, “I have nothing to wear.”

Ellen Chang

When you are an executive, jeans make it impossible to institute casual Friday without specifying whether or not jeans are considered appropriate. Really!

5. What new culture is created in response?

A culture where the hard life is sometimes co-opted as a fashion statement (stonewashed, $300 designer jeans, for example). Or a culture where fashion is allembracing of social class, depending on how you think about it.

—Shu Ming

In Paraguay (where I am currently), a certain level of political functionary is allowed to wear jeans to work: male, European-descended, incredibly wealthy. Everyone else has to wear uncomfortable “business-casual” (the cheapest polyestery stuff from China). And so, when I walked into a government agency meeting wearing jeans on Friday, it was remarked on… and an act, on my part, of asserting gender equality.


A holistic culture. Jeans are cross cultural! From hard work, to play, to fancy restaurants, to red carpet movie premiers, jeans encompasses the different aspects of lifestyles—a culture of a cross-cultural implication.

Ellen Chang

Jeans have created, or made me more aware of, cultural and generational borders. There are borders between those who think jeans are appropriate in any setting and those who don’t. There are borders between those who think high-priced or specifically branded jeans are required and those who think any denim will do. There is a border between “can I wear jeans?” and “no”. And there is a chasm between those who look ok in Levis and those who don’t.