I have a friend who spent three successive weekends washing out her jeans. Not that they were dirty, you understand. They were brand new, with the $22 price tag still attached. But as anybody with the slightest sense of radical chic these days knows, there is only one thing more gauche than spiffy, stiff-as-board, unfaded, unlived-in and generally unadulterated blue denim and that is being caught out at the wrong time wearing no blue denim at all. And so my friend kept sending her jeans through the automatic washer trying to lop at least the first two years off their life. She tried the gentle cycle and the regular cycle and the heavy duty cycle. She tried Javex and Fleecy Fabric Softener and' hanging them out in the sun to dry, and finally she even sat in them for two long clammy hours in a bleach-filled bathtub waiting for the proper aesthetic processes to take place. But in the end her jeans just looked as if they’d had a recent brush with bubonic plague and she was plunged into despair.
“I’ll just never be hip,” she wailed. “I’ll never make it. I mean, I can’t even get my jeans right.” Which is why I want my friend to catch the Art Gallery of Ontario’s current Toronto exhibit called Decorated Denim where there is not even any insouciant beating around the bush about it anymore: finally somebody has come right out and acknowledged the humble blue jean as a work of art.
Art! Why, there they are, hanging on the wall just down the way from the Rembrandts and Tom Thomsons, a pair of faded dungarees with two long red calico tree trunks winding up from the ankle to the posterior and suddenly bursting into a blaze of magenta blossoms just about where a person might make contact with a chair. There are jeans with little woolly lambs appliqued all over them, and jeans dripping silver coins and' spangly tassels like some Las Vegas vision gone berserk, and jeans so breathtakingly embroidered with yellow lions and scarlet parrots staring out of an eerie indigo jungle that you would swear they were painted by Rousseau. One girl sewed multicolored zippers up her jeans’ legs and titled the work Super Fly. Another layered white gloves with little red-painted fingernails down the arms of.her jeans’ jacket so it takes on the aspect of some Daliesque chicken. And then there is the grand prizewinner of all who painstakingly studded his jeans’ jacket with thousands of steel rivets, rhinestones and tiny bicycle reflectors, not to mention a single hotel desk clerk’s bell artfully placed just about where his gall bladder should be.
The whole exhibit was put together from a continentwide contest sponsored by Levi Strauss and Co., the San Francisco denim tycoons whose original uncle Levi settled down in gold-rush California 124 years ago and sewed up the very first pair. He whipped' them up out of some stronger-than-dirt blue cotton from Nîmes, France — “de Nîmes” became denim — added rivets when prospectors complained their ore samples were ripping right through the pockets and, when somebody was rude enough to suggest that his pants weren’t as sturdy as they were cracked up to be. uncle Levi coupled a pair of freight cars with them and showed them a thing or two. With a history like that, it was no wonder the Sixties counter-culture chose jeans as the official uniform of the revolution. In a world aw'ash in wrinkle-resistant drip-dry, jeans were the real thing. They were anti-synthetic, anti-style, anti-everything the consumer society stood for. Jeans were of the people, and there was a kind of purity about them you could feel just by the way they scratched your legs.
But along the way the same thing that happened to the revolution happened to blue jeans. They were co-opted. The anti-style became the new chic. Suddenly there was a right length and right look to have to your jeans, and the lengths could change from week to week. You could go out into the street and find jeans’ bottoms zipping up and down like Venetian blinds. There was a right kind of patch to patch to and a right kind of shade to fade to. And pretty soon they started to come pre-patched, pre-pressed and pre-faded. Jeans became big business, perhaps America’s greatest contribution to global culture next to Coca-Cola, IBM and the Big Mac; why, in Moscow they’d give away their entire life savings just to get their hands on a pair. In a single year uncle Levi’s grandnephews sold $654 million worth of jeans.
Now there is not a self-respecting hipster under the age of 80 who doesn’t own some. Jeans have become the uniform of the middle class, the little black dress of the Seventies. You can wear them almost anywhere — and sometimes they are really the only respectable thing to wear. Conventioneers in shiny white plastic shoes are sporting custom-made suits in blue denim like some quick ticket back to youth, and society matrons are turning up on the fashion pages saying they positively live in their jeans, even if they mean little couturier patchwork numbers at $170 a shot. A stockbroker I know went right out and bought his first pair the instant he ran into the president of the Toronto Stock Exchange wearing them one Saturday morning, because then he knew it was alright. And admen are pulling on ties and sports jackets over their jeans with visions of the new badge of hip dancing in their head's. There are blue denim placemats and attaché cases, blue denim portable TV sets and car upholstery, and the mass marketing has only just begun.
But already blue denim is a faded dream. In the Sixties, when we tried going back to the land and eating our crunchy granola and putting up two fingers to the sky to show that in the face of all odds to the contrary we were full of peace and love, jeans looked like the answer. But none of it quite turned out the way it was supposed to back then. The apocalypse approaches still and to talk of peace and love today is only to date yourself. Cosmic consciousness is a quaint relic of a decade past. The kids I know are into little cashmere sweaters and glitter now, Twenties feather boas and Fifties flash, and the search is on for another dream. It was only a matter of time, really, until blue jeans were pinned up on some art gallery wall and celebrated — a museum piece.
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