Archive for Saturday, April 18, 2009

Denim a symbol of American immaturity

April 18, 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 Levis. When the Gold Rush began, Strauss moved to San Francisco planning to sell strong fabric for the 49’ers’ 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.”

(A confession: The author owns one pair of jeans. Wore them once. Had to. Such was the dress code for former Sen. 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.)

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


canyon_wren 8 years, 8 months ago

I would like to think George Will is writing this "tongue-in-cheek," but I am afraid not. I definitely do not think that denim equals "slovenly." There's plenty of "slovenly" around in other fabrics and many neat-looking folks in denim. What a strange perspective! Probably it just represents the mentality of the East Coast, but out here in the West (and probably in most of the Midwest), denim is still highly regarded by other than just Rednecks. Very few of us today would want to look like either Fred Astaire or Grace Kelly!

Maddy Griffin 8 years, 8 months ago

Denim rocks. Wouldn't be caught dead in anything but my 501's. Thank you Levi Strauss. George Will, get over yourself. Marion, denim was around long before any of the rap stars, and they're not the only ones wearing it.You can do likeGeorge Will....

number3of5 8 years, 8 months ago

I neither want to look like Fred Astaire, not that he wasn't the bomb in his day, nor any rap star of today. Fred Astaire's style was his not mine, denim is not necessarily my style either, but I do like to mix it in my wardrobe on occasion. A long slim fit denim skirt does wonders to boost my ego, and to fit into a pair of size 12 denim jeans at the age of 65 is a hoot. My husband on the other hand is an overalls man. Denim is the best material for overalls for a man who works in them. They last the longest. He likes the looser fit. So, I guess, to each his own, but do not put the denim wearers down because of their style.

labmonkey 8 years, 8 months ago

Usually I like George Will...but come on George. This should have been one of those columns you wrote, then thought better of before submitting. If I can do it on LJWorld posts, you can do it with your columns.

He talked about Americans' infantile sense of humor....has he ever turned on one of the Spanish speaking stations? Now that is infantile humor.

Yea George....I'm gonna base my clothing choice from a long dead dancer.

RoeDapple 8 years, 8 months ago

If I am not buried in my jeans, I will not rest in peace......

classclown 8 years, 8 months ago

So in order to be mature in our dressing style, we need to wear pants that go up to our ribcage? How about black socks with shorts?

canyon_wren 8 years, 8 months ago

log--this is the first I've heard that wearing denim is a right-wing thing. Our local Episcopal priest, who is very liberal, wears demin most of the time--at 60+--and looks great! Denim is practical and a good choice for anyone. Of course, it isn't a dress-up fashion choice, but then out here in southern Utah, we don't have many ultra-stylish events to attend.

Good comment--Class Clown! I always enjoy Fred Astaire movies but found the high-waisted pants kind of weird.

Marion--you can dress like Fred Astaire if you want to. I doubt that it will either improve your reputation or do a whole lot to damage it!! I don't think the choice is between that style or rap, with nothing in between, but maybe for you, it is.

roger_o_thornhill 8 years, 8 months ago

I usually dress in tails, a top hat and a monocle, so I don't really know what this "denim" is all about. Classclown has a point, the "Fred Mertz" look IS due for a comeback.

But if I did know about denim, I would laugh, I mean really laugh at anyone wearing jeans that cost more than $40. Now that's one of the signs of the apocalypse, I think. At least a sign of serious priority misalignment.

sourpuss 8 years, 8 months ago

I don't like jeans, overall. I think they are uncomfortable and they don't look good on many people, but on the other hand, I don't really care what other people are wearing. Attire is a personal choice. What I find offensive about this article is that enjoying certain things or activities makes one "immature". Please. So is enjoying life, having fun, and taking delight in new things "immature"? I suppose if the counterpart is being boring, cranky, and close-minded, then yes, I am immature. I'm over thirty, I like my comic books, I like cartoons, I play video games... but I also teach at university, volunteer at hospitals, I pick up litter on my way to the bus stop and I, ahem, don't like wearing blue jeans. Get over yourself, G.W. You're suffering from fuddy-duddyitis.

canyon_wren 8 years, 8 months ago

log--my apologies. I got to thinking about it and you were saying that it was "right-wing" to SCORN denim--not to wear it. But I still don't think wearing denim makes any kind of political statement--at least not where I live--I can't speak for the "classier" sections of the country! And since probably there are more Rednecks than liberals who wear denim regularly (though, again, that depends on where you live) it seems strange that the columnist would take this position.

sourpuss--you're right--the word "immaturity" is the most ridiculous thing about this column. I can't imagine anyone writing such a thing!

labmonkey 8 years, 8 months ago

By the American made jeans. Good American made jeans that last for $30-45. These are the first sets of jeans I have owned in 10 years that haven't worn thin within 6 months.

viewfromahill 8 years, 8 months ago

George Will, preoccupied with fluff, a symbol of American immateriality.

Drew Alan 8 years, 8 months ago

This guy needs to get a grip... what he really should be writing about is how crazy it is that peple pay over 100 bucks for jeans... all of my favorite pairs of jeans have cost me less than 35 dollars, and those are my "going out" jeans... besides a well-fitting pair of jeans and a nice sweater looks much less "slovenly" than a ill-fit and poorly altered suit... I hate what I have to wear to work, life is to short to hate what I wear the rest of the time...

canyon_wren 8 years, 8 months ago

I would say that wearing denim is, in some ways, a sign of MATURITY--an indication (usually) that the wearer isn't preoccupied with how he/she is dressed, though the folks who pay a whole lot for their jeans just to impress others don't seem very mature, to me. I can't speak for the East Coast, as I have said, but I think it is healthy that most folks I know, at least, are not that hung up on what they or others wear. We have a good balance of liberals and right-wing in our town and most all of those wear denim most of the time.

I drove up to a performance of Ballet West in Salt Lake a couple of years ago and had accidentally left my "dress-up" clothes behind, so had to go buy something nice (I'm not that much of a shopper) but, as one might expect now, I guess, there were people attending the ballet in denims.

log--I haven't had TV for over 45 years so have "missed" some of the things mentioned on OTS.

jonas_opines 8 years, 8 months ago

Wow, George, you need to look in a mirror and repeat this line.

"I am getting too old. I am getting too old. I am getting too old."

devobrun 8 years, 8 months ago

Symbols? Statements?

Immature, infantile?

The notion that a person is defined by his clothes, cars, etc. is infantile, and immature. Whether GW is a liberal or conservative doesn't matter. What does matter is that there is a strong sense of fashion on both coasts. Style over substance is growing ever more important.

The reason for this is that style is arbitrary and modern morality and sense of truth, justice, right and wrong are equally ill-defined.

One's political views are more important than one's character. One's bumper sticker is more important than one's intelligence. One's pants are more important than one's accomplishments.

I wear jeans all the time. When I teach I wear slacks and a tie. Otherwise, I fix doors, jump start cars, mow, cut down trees, fix the pencil sharpener, computer, toaster oven, I-pod, snow blower, roto-tiller............

I wear jeans because grease doesn't show as bad. I wear jeans because they stretch when I am bending over to pick up a railroad tie. I wear jeans because they don't gather nits and thorns as bad as slacks. Nor do they tear as easily.

George has soft hands. George has a big city sense of the world. George probably couldn't find his own butt with both hands, unless instructions were given in Latin (or Greek) from a recently found papyrus attributed to Archimedes.

Chris Ogle 8 years, 8 months ago

chicken 4 sale cheep.... or trade for acceptable clothing. I guess it is time to grow up... Thanks for the reminder.

Darn it, I forgot about PETA.. scratch that idea.

viewfromahill 8 years, 8 months ago

devo: "George probably couldn't find his own butt with both hands...."

Sounds like George could use a pair of these...

Practicality 8 years, 8 months ago

I think everybody should wear Denim "Bib" Overalls.

Practical and stylish to boot. They also solve the problem of the all too often exposure of the social disease that commonly afflicts Plumbers, which has nearly caused me to go blind on more than one occasion.

average 8 years, 8 months ago

Our preference for workman's denim goes to our national character and aspiration. Jefferson's yeoman farmer. Of course, George Will, had he been alive in the revolution, would have undoubtedly been a bow-and-scrape Loyalist, no Jeffersonian he.

What was the article of clothing all of the repressed peoples of eastern Europe, China, etc, all wanted? Not euro-inspired 'mature' suits. Blue jeans. Levi's baby. That symbol of equality and eternal immature but joyous rebellion.

yourworstnightmare 8 years, 8 months ago

Oh lord, where to begin....

Will is, of course, half correct.

We have indeed suffered a populist-driven slovenization of dress in this country, and therefore the world.

Denim has its place, as casual wear and manual labor wear.

Denim does not belong in professional situations or social functions with gravitas, such as weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, etc.

Will's equating denim wear with political philosophy is just ridiculous. Liberals and conservatives often dress like crap in these situations.

camper 8 years, 8 months ago

I always thought you were supposed to dress for the weather most of the time. When it is cold, it is better to wear clothing that traps body heat. When it is hot, it is better to wear light colors and cotton that absorb sweat. As long as your garments are washed and clean, how can that be slovenly? Geeze I think I've already analyzed this too much. I guess fashion just ain't my cup of tea.

alm77 8 years, 8 months ago

Apparently George has missed the pajama/sweat pants crowd. I would have agreed with him wholeheartedly had this been the fashion he railed against.

Denim is very appropriate and in the right setting still conveys both a hard worker and a bit of rebelliousness. I wear denim to my sales job because the product I represent has an air of youth and rebelliousness to it. Most of the clients I meet with are also in denim. When I worked at the bank, our agriculture lenders wore denim to meet with their clients out on farms in the fields.

Not only does it occasionally still make these statements, but most people, globally, equate denim with being an American. In that light, this article sounds very unpatriotic.

youarewhatyoueat 8 years, 8 months ago

You know, I used to and still sometimes do wish people dressed more classy like they used to long before I was born. Until my mother, who grew up in an era where YOU MUST sleep in curlers every night and dress to the hilt just to go to the damn grocery store, explained the beauty process of the day to me. I have to appreciate that this is no longer the social more of the day. Not to mention how much "nice" clothes cost (and how quickly they wear and tear).

Most of the US works "real" work (or service-based work) anyway, how foolish would it be to show up to a construction site wearing a suit anyway? Or unnecessary for a hotel housekeeper to scrub bathtubs wearing a nice dress? I find it more rediculous that our society values the way everyone looks (or how they put the bread on the table) over who they are.

On one final note, with all the important issues facing the US currently, how is FASHION of such supreme importance?

verity 8 years, 8 months ago

Despite myself, I must admit to liking Mr. Will, even though he's a twit most of the time. I just love watching his body language on that Sunday morning show when somebody says something he disagrees with---he's so entertaining in his extreme uptightness and occasionally even has something interesting to say.

That said, unless they buy me new clothes after I'm dead---and I doubt that any of my relatives will spring for that---I will be buried in my jeans.

George_Braziller 8 years, 8 months ago

Yeah. Right. I'm going to dress like Fred to run to the store for some cat food. I did however used to see an elderly woman in Old West Lawrence who ALWAYS wore a dress, low heels, and pearls when she mowed her yard. It could be 90 degrees and she still looked like she just came from the beauty shop and stepped out of a "Leave it to Beaver" episode except the scene wasn't in black and white.

"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."

jumpin_catfish 8 years, 8 months ago

What? I wear jeans all the time and shorts alot too. George is way off on this one.

Jeff Kilgore 8 years, 8 months ago

George Will not deter me from my jeans. Mr. Will doesn't like jeans because he himself would look like an alien in them. Jeans are real men pants. Besides, what does he know about real Americans? Once in an article about the effect of Costco, Mr. Will, the brilliant Mr. Will, said that the difference between 14 and 17 dollars an hour wages would not make much of a difference to a lower middle class family!

He, in his dreamy, snobby world of "quarterbaked nostrums," a phrase he once used and one that I'm sure Americans can readily identify with, knows nothing about the real America. He sits in judgment over us because he is better than us. Georgie boy, If my life was in danger, and I had to reach out and grab your smooth hand connected to its ivy-league, pretentious, and wussy bow tied torso, or a man in a pair of jeans with a KU t-shirt or shoot, even a Mizzou shirt, I would grab one of theirs, not yours.

What's next, George? Are you going to tell us how to use toilet paper?

I hope that the Right is proud of its pontificating boy wonder.

George_Braziller 8 years, 8 months ago

Verity - When my father died two years ago we buried him in jeans we pulled from the closet and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. That was what he wore pretty much every day and how everyone knew him. We did however buy him a new belt.

Putting him in a suit would have been too weird even though he used to be a really snappy dresser.

verity (Anonymous) says… That said, unless they buy me new clothes after I'm dead–and I doubt that any of my relatives will spring for that–I will be buried in my jeans.

verity 8 years, 8 months ago

George, I think I look pretty snappy in my jeans.

beatrice 8 years, 8 months ago

Marion: "I have visions of a denim-clad army when the Second American Revolution begins!"

Charles Manson once dreamed of a second American revolution too.

Practicality 8 years, 8 months ago

As I stated earlier, real men wear Denim Overalls.

You can trust a guy who wears overalls. My grandfather, when he was alive, wore overalls everyday, except when he went to church or for special occasions, and he could do anything. Never asked anybody for nothing, just made do with what he had, or did with out it. Never complained, Never whined. Could fix anything, and if he told you he was going to do something, it was a done deal. Trust a guy in overalls I tell ya. It's the ones wearing bow ties and tweed jackets I worry about.

Aileen Dingus 8 years, 8 months ago

Heh. Hey George- take a look:{51CD0F8F-CBF3-4D42-8A74-AAA89846FBF6}

Does this mean I can keep wearing my jeans?

verity 8 years, 8 months ago

Oh, Beatrice, snap.

Real Americans wear denim. It's democratic and it's honest.

slowplay 8 years, 8 months ago

Wrangler - on sale 19.95. 5-7 years guaranteed.

feeble 8 years, 8 months ago

Clearly, George has just been watching a lot of "What not to wear" and "Project Runway". Perhaps the column woul have been more effective if George had ended with an admonishment to his fellow conservatives to "make it work, people!"

Tom McCune 8 years, 8 months ago

George Will is out sick today. Tom Wolfe is filling in for him. Tom Wolfe is the only straight man in America who can spend 7 pages of dialog describing the wardrobe of another man.

weeslicket 8 years, 7 months ago

sadly, george will is in his demise. reading george will is now like watching andy rooney, again and again and again. just remember that once, both of them use to make sense.

jaywalker 8 years, 7 months ago

George Will is undoubtedly intelligent. But what the.....? Methinks he protesths too much! That's one weak column.

verity 8 years, 7 months ago

Yes, George Will is undoubtedly intelligent, which is why I enjoy listening to him, but unfortunately he has always had a problem with his ideology informing his facts rather than the other way around. He also has a great disdain for the unwashed masses---which I suspect includes everybody in the midwest.

However, he has accomplished something quite amazing. All the people on this forum (well, almost) who are usually angrily antagonistic to each other are in agreement against him.

George, you're a miracle worker!

dandelion 8 years, 7 months ago

This Daniel Akst person needs to go get a job. Either that or he needs to start writing fantasy novels. His faulty thinking isn't exactly base in reality. He probably owns a lot of stock in company that sells suits. If conservatives aren't elitist why would they give this guy the time of day? Give me a break.

been_there 8 years, 7 months ago

FYI- Liberty bib overalls, with American Flag on label, are not made in America, they are made in Mexico. And yet I have found them on American made websites.

jaywalker 8 years, 7 months ago

"If conservatives aren't elitist why would they give this guy the time of day? Give me a break."

Poor column, dumb subject....but conservatives are all elitists because a columnist rails against jeans? Give us a break.

jonas_opines 8 years, 7 months ago

"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.”"

Yes, the lovely French state prior to the French Revolution. People starving in the streets, but at least the nobility looked awful pretty in their ballrooms.

viewfromahill 8 years, 7 months ago

... and, George...

speaking of attire what of your pale fire that wick in the mire? perhaps a new lampshade?

Off with his bulb!

Fugu 8 years, 7 months ago

Baggy sweatpants worn down to the knees is a sign of American immaturity.

beatrice 8 years, 7 months ago

Marion: "You have also accused me today of being 'cheesy'. Well…. I'll take “cheesy” over yeasty, any day."

Of course, when I say "cheesy," you know I'm talking about crackers, don't you?

viewfromahill 8 years, 7 months ago

Nil a chill pill George's quill is quite shrill Time to let out the twill? Free the dill?

camper 8 years, 7 months ago

It could be worse. Sometimes George writes about baseball.

alm77 8 years, 7 months ago

Aileen, you beat me to it! Excellent find!!

independent_rebel 8 years, 7 months ago

If George fees choosing denim makes one immature, what does he feel about those choosing to wear bowties? Irrelevant?

Paul Decelles 8 years, 7 months ago

Will wonders never cease! I agree with devo when he says:

"The notion that a person is defined by his clothes, cars, etc. is infantile, and immature. Whether GW is a liberal or conservative doesn't matter. What does matter is that there is a strong sense of fashion on both coasts. Style over substance is growing ever more important."

yankeelady 8 years, 7 months ago

Wow, finally a topic that we can all agree on. I rarely wear anything but jeans. But I do know when they are not appropriate. As I'm sure most people do. George must be having trouble finding a topic this week.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.