The Post Modern Pair

The post modern pair
What jeans mean is now more important than what they are.
McKenzie Wark

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Supermodel Naomi Campbell digs for victory in the style wars.
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It’s strange how an idea as contradictory as ‘designer jeans’ comes, after a while, to seem quite normal. Jeans are a practical garment that made their way into the quite impractical world of the post-war fashion system. Right alongside Tiffanys and other designer brands on New York’s classy Fifth Avenue sits an outlet for Levi’s jeans. In this paradox lies one of the most striking changes in the shape of the fashion industry.

Jeans are a garment that puts together the ingenuity and resources available in the US at the time of the civil war. This very large-scale conflict was the incentive for the industrialization of a good many work processes. The first example of what we would now recognize as mass-production techniques was for civil-war firearms. The need for military uniforms led to similar techniques being used for clothing, and to a system of standard sizes that is still with us today.

Fashion and clothing were – and to some extent still are – a modern, industrialized system with two distinctive rhythms of production and consumption. Whatever people wear until it wears out is clothing. Whatever people wear until a new style comes along is fashion. Jeans were once clothing rather than a fashion garment, until something happened to them that was part of a whole shift in the workings of the fashion system. Where a style would usually pass down the fashion system, jeans were one garment style that moved up.

Think of a classic image from the US of the 1950s in which jeans figure. James Dean or Marilyn Monroe are likely to come to mind. Actually, these Hollywood stars were not the first to borrow this lowly garment and use it as a sign of style rather than as a practical garment. The fashion career of jeans probably starts with subcultures on the fringes of American society such as the ‘rough trade’ side of male homosexual life and the demobilized wartime pilots who took up the motorcycle as recreation.

In the 1960s, jeans proliferated as a garment that could appear to its wearer to be a statement against the whole hierarchy of fashion, while in the end fitting quite well into a new kind of fashion order.

Easy Rider was a low-budget film, made on the fringes of the Hollywood system, and it indicated that much the same thing was happening to the movie industry as to the fashion industry. The orderly mass production of cultural artefacts and signs gave way to a much less stable pattern of culture industries without as definite a hierarchy of price and quality. An idea or an image could come out of nowhere and pass into mass popularity.

The cut and colour of denim jeans started to vary seasonally, just like a fashion garment. Here is the beginning of the paradox of the ‘postmodern’ fashion system. Jeans are functional and cheap to assemble. Yet, in spite of their basic cuts and exposed seams, they can support an elaborate range of meanings.

With ‘modern’ fashions, the material quality of the garment and its ability to signify fashion and stylishness went together. With ‘postmodern’ fashion there need be no such connection. What the garment signifies might be quite at odds with its material qualities – as it is in the archetypal case of the blue jean. Much the same garment can support quite a wide variety of meanings with a few minor variations in its appearance.

The 1960s saw a great proliferation of pop culture, as incomes rose throughout the developed world and more and more people went looking for something on which to spend their disposable income. This was both a good time and a bad time for mass manufacturers of a clothing item like blue jeans. Rising incomes meant more purchasing power and a bigger market, but it also meant rising costs. While the production of the fabric lends itself to automation and to economies of scale, some parts of the cutting and assembling of garments do not.

To make matters worse, the 1960s also saw an explosion of small-scale manufacturers and retailers who took advantage of the vast expansion of pop culture to market a bewildering array of ever-changing styles. Big manufacturers often found it hard to keep up. The aura of style created around the blue jean by Hollywood and Western pop culture did not end at the borders of the US. The names Levi Strauss and Wrangler found their way onto the behinds of people living far from the badlands of American life from which the garments allegedly arose.

The proliferation of pop culture, with its unpredictable style shifts, its valuing of cheap materials, its multiple-entry points for new expressions of style, was a difficult time for the mass manufacturers. Such a basic garment was easily copied, even counterfeited, in the developing world. Moving production there might have lowered costs, but it also created an industry that could quickly duplicate such a basic commodity.

One response was to absorb jeans fully into the bottom end of the fashion system, with annual variations in styles, with decorative stitching, choice of colour, distinctive ranges for men and women, extremes of cut such as the flare and even the zipper on the back – a shortlived innovation of the 1970s. The point of these changes was the effort by the big manufacturers to stay one jump ahead of imitators. Ironically, just as big firms like Levi Strauss benefited from the circulation of images, so their imitators benefited from the advertising campaigns, which promoted the idea of the garment as much as any particular brand. Hence the continual efforts to distinguish products made by the leading brands.

Another change ushered in during the 1970s was the adoption of the garment by formerly high-status designers much further up the old fashion chain. The mass manufacturers had trouble adapting to the unpredictable tastes of pop culture before cheaper imitators caught up. But things were getting just as hard for the more up-market designers, who once had a secure lock on élite tastes.

The high-fashion houses responded by licensing their own names to less-than-the-best-quality goods, including designer jeans. And so, in the 1980s, jeans appeared with the names of European design houses on them. These garments often had little to do with the designers who owned the trade mark, which would simply be licensed to a mass manufacturer. The design houses came to depend on licensing fees – particularly for perfumes but also for products like jeans – to offset the rising cost of exclusive lines and the extravagant marketing they required. The production of élite-design products became less a business in itself and more a way of generating a mass market for the brand. One might not be able to afford an Armani suit or Versaci dress, but there might be a subsidiary line marketed as a cheaper alternative.

While the élite brands cashed in on the value of the sign that is their label by moving it discreetly down market, pop culture was also throwing up its own kind of style élite. It isn’t just the subcultural credibility of Levi Strauss that can be copied: so too can the aura of style of a high-fashion house. Designers such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan built names for themselves in ready-to-wear clothing that could then be marketed as a sign of certain kind of style and taste, which in turn could be branded onto the seat of a pair of jeans.

The designer jean also incorporates a third phenomena – the mass marketers who decided to differentiate their product by setting up several apparently distinct labels, each with their own house style and target market, but sharing the same manufacturing, distribution and accounting systems. So besides the high-class label moving down market and the streetwise label moving up in the world, there is the mass-market label moving sideways. The Gap and Banana Republic are basically variations on the same corporate structure, but tailored to different niches in the world of brands.

In all of these cases, what you will find are basic garments that all meet at least minimum standards of quality and durability, but are in many ways interchangeable. What distinguishes them is not their material qualities, but the signs stitched onto the back pocket, the environments in which they might be sold, and the marketing campaigns that define the range of possible meanings for the sign. This is the paradox of the ‘postmodern’ fashion world.

The same proliferation of communication that made possible the pop-media world of culture and consumption also enables a fragmented production system. The cotton might come from wherever the exchange rate and the weather is favourable this season. The fabric might be made in a newly industrializing country with high levels of capital and skilled labour, if perhaps rather fewer environmental constraints. The cutting and stitching might be relegated to sweatshops in a less-developed part of the world. The designers, on the other hand, might be close to the New York garment district, where you can also find skilled garment makers who can run up experimental batches for the new-season range. The advertising firm who has the company’s account might be nearby on Madison Avenue where suppliers of image-making skills, from hair stylists to photographers, are clustered.

The point of the whole process is to make a basic garment as cheaply as possible and attach it to a sign that conveys just exactly the right range of meanings to just exactly the right range of consumers, who will be happy to walk around with that sign on their backsides.

McKenzie Wark lectures in media studies at Macquarie University, Sydney, and is the author of Virtual Geography (Indiana) and The Virtual Republic (Allen & Unwin).

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New Internationalist issue 302 magazine cover This article is from the June 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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