LEGEND has it that Levi Strauss made his way to California at the height of the Gold Rush intent upon marketing canvas covers for wagons. It soon became clear that the miners didn't need supplies for covered wagons; what the '49ers did need was trousers that could meet the challenge of their rugged lifestyle. So he fashioned pants from a spare bolt of canvas for a miner who had complained about the cheapness of cloth, thus inventing "denim jeans." And he guaranteed them for life.
Before long these prototypes evolved into dungarees much as we know them today. These double-stitched, bar-tacked, button-fly, five-pocket wonders entered the national folklore. These humble jeans, rivets and all, became the uniform of miners and cowboys, as much a part of the American work ethic as the blue collar. If the pioneer spirit has a color, it is indigo.
We have not ended our love affair with denim, but the relationship has changed. We adapted our blues to the times. The rebels of the '50s wore theirs not on horses, but on motorcycles. Pegged or rolled up, these jeans expressed a spirit of mild resistance to authority while affirming themselves a part of Americana. The 1960s rang in a new era with bell-shaped bottoms. The only thing you could trust that was over 30 was your patched pants. The 1970s saw the upwardly mobile claiming slimmer, dressier, designer versions. The "me generation" liked someone else's name on it hips. Despite the changes in symbolism and silhouette, Americans for over a century have played out their hopes and dreams in their faded glories.
But what of our postmodern times? With capitalistic yearning for anything new, the market has seen a series of disturbing denim developments. Perhaps we should have seen the early danger sings in the trend toward jeans which had been tinted a second time in pink or yellow or green, as if to subvert their indigo predecessor. These "overdyes" should have reminded us of overkill. Maybe we could have spotted the violence we were soon to unleash on our clothing.
Next came stone-washed denims; tumbled in pumice, these jeans were not lovingly worn and frequently washed, but abraded. It wasn't unusual to find a pebble in the pocket, a reminder of the stoning.
Soon came acid washing. Like the Joker in "Batman," these jeans were subjected to chemical processes which left them mottled and somehow unnatural. High school students approximated the effect at home with undiluted bleach. Before long they were selling us pants which were "frosted" or "iced" as if by hit-men from Chicago. After that we no longer waited for the violence to be first performed by other hands. We slashed our own and let the shredded white wound remain open.
And now, for a price, you can purchase jackets and jeans that have been shotgun blasted.
What's next? Nuked?
David Mamet has written that our fashions show that "the middle class unconsciously avows not only the aridity of its lifestyle, but the complete failure of its fantasies, and of its very ability to fantasize." If our attack on the clothing of our national mythology is our last attempt at fantasy, we are a nation with more fear than imagination. We symbolically get ourselves before someone gets us.
The fear that the shirt will be taken off our back is real in our cities. Our children shotgun blast clothes with our children still in them.
How could Levi Strauss foresee this when he made his guarantee?
Monica Johnstone teaches writing at Loyola College.