Saturday, April 18, 2009

George Will on Jeans?

Two days ago George Will had an interesting article about, of all things, jeans. Read up and let us know what you think.


Demon Denim

By George F. WillThursday, April 16, 2009

On any American street, or in any airport or mall, you see the same sad tableau: A 10-year-old boy is walking with his father, whose development was evidently arrested when he was that age, judging by his clothes. Father and son are dressed identically -- running shoes, T-shirts. And jeans, always jeans. If mother is there, she, too, is draped in denim.

Writer Daniel Akst has noticed and has had a constructive conniption. He should be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has earned it by identifying an obnoxious misuse of freedom. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he has denounced denim, summoning Americans to soul-searching and repentance about the plague of that ubiquitous fabric, which is symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche.

It is, he says, a manifestation of "the modern trend toward undifferentiated dressing, in which we all strive to look equally shabby." Denim reflects "our most nostalgic and destructive agrarian longings -- the ones that prompted all those exurban McMansions now sliding off their manicured lawns and into foreclosure." Jeans come prewashed and acid-treated to make them look like what they are not -- authentic work clothes for horny-handed sons of toil and the soil. Denim on the bourgeoisie is, Akst says, the wardrobe equivalent of driving a Hummer to a Whole Foods store -- discordant.

Long ago, when James Dean and Marlon Brando wore it, denim was, Akst says, "a symbol of youthful defiance." Today, Silicon Valley billionaires are rebels without causes beyond poses, wearing jeans when introducing new products. Akst's summa contra denim is grand as far as it goes, but it only scratches the surface of this blight on Americans' surfaces. Denim is the infantile uniform of a nation in which entertainment frequently features childlike adults ("Seinfeld," "Two and a Half Men") and cartoons for adults ("King of the Hill"). Seventy-five percent of American "gamers" -- people who play video games -- are older than 18 and nevertheless are allowed to vote. In their undifferentiated dress, children and their childish parents become undifferentiated audiences for juvenilized movies (the six -- so far -- "Batman" adventures and "Indiana Jones and the Credit-Default Swaps," coming soon to a cineplex near you). Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy's catechism of leveling -- thou shalt not dress better than society's most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism -- of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste.

Denim is the carefully calculated costume of people eager to communicate indifference to appearances. But the appearances that people choose to present in public are cues from which we make inferences about their maturity and respect for those to whom they are presenting themselves.

Do not blame Levi Strauss for the misuse of Levi's. When the Gold Rush began, Strauss moved to San Francisco planning to sell strong fabric for the 49ers' tents and wagon covers. Eventually, however, he made tough pants, reinforced by copper rivets, for the tough men who knelt on the muddy, stony banks of Northern California creeks, panning for gold. Today it is silly for Americans whose closest approximation of physical labor consists of loading their bags of clubs into golf carts to go around in public dressed for driving steers up the Chisholm Trail to the railhead in Abilene.

This is not complicated. For men, sartorial good taste can be reduced to one rule: If Fred Astaire would not have worn it, don't wear it. For women, substitute Grace Kelly.

Edmund Burke -- what he would have thought of the denimization of America can be inferred from his lament that the French Revolution assaulted "the decent drapery of life"; it is a straight line from the fall of the Bastille to the rise of denim -- said: "To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely." Ours would be much more so if supposed grown-ups would heed St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and St. Barack's inaugural sermon to the Americans, by putting away childish things, starting with denim.

(A confession: The author owns one pair of jeans. Wore them once. Had to. Such was the dress code for former senator Jack Danforth's 70th birthday party, where Jerry Jeff Walker sang his classic "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother." Music for a jeans-wearing crowd.)


Anonymous said...

I don't always agree with George Will on politics matters, but in the area of sartorial matters, especially jeans, I am in complete agreement with him. We need curmudgeons like George to say "The emperor has no...pants"!

Horatio said...

George Will: right on the money. I do him one better: I own zero pairs of jeans, and have been jeansless for nearly two decades.

I would buy them if I started outdoors activities, though. Only Levi's, though. And I would wash them after every wearing!

Completely unrelated note: Will, would you consider changing your blog color scheme? Although it looks cool, white on black is the absolute hardest color combination for reading. Other than that quibble, I love the blog.

~Tessa~Scoffs said...

Read this column the other day in the San Diego Union Tribune. Will is on point. The other day I watched a Warner Brother's film about teenage hobos in the 30's. Those kids were homeless and they wore tweed suits and hats.

Unknown said...

That was the most pretentious asinine article I have ever read.

Anonymous said...

I think I've read other pieces more pretentious and asinine than this one, some of them from the very same source. But this one's up there.

Jeans are comfortable and they last. Why can't these be reason enough to wear them when comfort and durability are the main concern? I just got done wearing jeans on a long plane trip, and I noticed that even the men wearing nice sportcoats and nice shoes were mostly wearing jeans--because unlike Will they're not silly enough to think that even though you're being crammed into a too-small seating space and even though you're liable to have something spilled on your trousers (by yourself or a neighbor), you're obliged to dress up for the occasion.

Emily said...

Oh, good. The author mentioned nothing of sweatpants with words across the rear or Crocs. They must be okay to wear. Just not jeans.

Gabriella said...

I absolutely agree with Mr. Will's intent, which, I think, is to reiterate that Americans (or maybe just humans) as a whole are lazy when it comes to fashion, an overabundance of denim being the primary example. In a world where denim is not quite so socially acceptable, we'd all look a little nicer. That said, I wear jeans to work every day, despite spending all of my free time sewing retro skirts and dreses. I do draw the sartorial line, however, at sweatsuits with writing on the butt and flip flops in public. These are truly unforgiveable sins!

Will said...

Yes, this article is pretentious and snobbish, and wonderfully so. For when you take the time and effort to go beyond the average and are successful you should be able to brag about it, at least a little bit. Should we reward the extraordinary or the average?

Jeans are the great equalizer of our day: they bring everyone who wears them down to the lowest commen denominator. Denim has become the national (international?) uniform of homogeneity. When we slip on the denim pants, no matter how 'dressy' (talk about a contradiction) or sloppy, we all become the same; individualism dies. Jeans span age groups, ethnicities, political and religious beliefs. It is our modern "opiate of the masses".

And yes jeans are comfortable and long lasting but so are flannel trousers, khakis and gabardine slacks. I prefer flannel trousers to jeans; flannel is much softer against the skin and drapes so much better. So why not wear flannel instead of denim? Society rules against it.

Mind you, I do own jeans and wear them, especially when working or doing outdoor activities. But I won't try to make jeans something they are not: a masterful piece of clothing that lends style and individualism to the wearer. Jeans are jeans and should be treated as such. They started out as tough work pants and should remain so. They do not belong with a sports coat and tie.

So, every time you pull on a pair of jeans stop and say to yourself "baaaaaaa", for you are becoming one of the sheeple.

Anonymous said...

Will, may I please half agree and half disagree with you? First the disagree: (a) Don't beat the straw man. Nobody thinks jeans express individualism. Everyone knows they're the uniform of casual. (b) It's fine for Will to want people to dress up for dressy occasions. But he's really only once been on an outing that called for jeans, he's a wuss.

Now the agree part: (a) the jeans-and-jacket look is well-established, but I admit that the tension between the different degrees of formality is potentially off-putting. (b) Strolling through the Phoenix airport last week, I realized that there are better choices than jeans for warm weather. Your remark that more guys should consider khakis for everyday casual is on target. Give me a little more time and I may see the value of flannel, too.

Turling said...

Jeans are comfortable? Really? They are made from a modified fabric originally used to make tents. They are unlined with heavy stitching. I am currently wearing gaberdine pants 3/4 lined with silk. It's like wearing pajamas. So, tents are more comfortable then pajamas? Really?

Suit et Tie Guy said...

i haven't worn denim "jeans" in 20 years, and haven't looked back.

Bill said...

Mr. Will's comment on Fred Astaire kind of indicates what sort of silliness this article is. By referencing movies that were made 70 years ago, he is indicating a nostalgia for an era long since past. Fred Astaire did not dress the same way in the 1930s as the best dressed in the 1860s dressed, and our children doubtless will dress differently than we do today.

Now some other general thoughts.

1. If jeans really were an attempt to bring Americans down to the lowest common denominator, why is it that so many designer jeans cost so much? We would just buy our Levis and be happy.

2. Some of us really are more comfortable in jeans than any other trousers. Comfort is not necessarily just an issue of softness.

3. The pockets on jeans (in my experience) invariably hold items in better than any trousers made with a dressier cut and material. When I wear dress pants or casual slacks, almost invariably I loose change and or keys from my pockets if I sit down. In 30 years (since I was old enough to keep stuff in my pockets) I have never lost item one from the pocket of a pair of jeans.

4. Mr. Will might find this hard to believe, but there are many millions of Americans who do actual physical labor for a living. Even some of us who are lucky enough to work in office environments will from time to time be called upon to do manual labor. After a 15 year career in IT, I can't count the number of times I have had to get on hands and knees to get work done.

Unknown said...

No doubt Frank did not "dress up" as much as those of the previous era. That's the point I believe Mr. Will is trying to make. Our perception of acceptable attire is decaying. This may not seem like the end of the world, but dressing up is a show of respect for the situation. "Jeans" aren't really the issue. A lack of respect is. Note: I wear jeans, but I work in construction. I don't when I'm not at work though.

Michael said...

He lost me when he denigrated the great Jerry Jeff Walker.


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