Will’s War on Denim

George Will, who wears bow ties, has raised his blade against denim. He owns a single pair of jeans, worn once as a party costume. He alludes to the immaturity of adults who do wear them. How, he wonders, can you respect a guy in Levi’s?

Will’s starting point for this pinking indictment, this quivering of his quill against cotton twill, is a Wall Street Journal piece by Daniel Akst. Far more wittily, Akst condemns denim as “an unusually dreary form of sartorial conformity by means of which we reassure one another of our purity and good intentions.” He proposes a denim tax.

Complaints against the pants are hardly new. I remember a fashion editor lamenting, around 1980 or so, the ovine conformity of women who so readily wore jeans.

In our house, my father never wore denim. He aspired to the entrepreneurial and managerial class. A school portrait—it would have been taken in Monroe, Nebraska—vividly stands out in memory: the poor kid had to wear his bib overalls. His eyes had pensive look, perchance born in thoughts of percale. He wanted out of that clodhopper getup in the worsted way. When I started wearing overall pants—Levi’s—during high school, he probably wondered what had gotten into me. Answer: a parasite (the fashion bug). I wore my jeans with a colorful tee-shirt under a brown sports jacket that had somehow come into my possession.

Will is wrong about jeans. They’re highly flattering, making a good tushie look even better. The patch pockets deserve all the credit that doesn’t go to the hip-riding seams in back. And contrary to Akst’s assertion, I find that fat people look their best in denim.

sexandsuits01Anne Hollander, the author of “Sex and Suits,” which is surely one of the best books of criticism ever written, explains why jeans are so popular. After World War Two, a strong impulse toward conformity swept America. Great suspicions developed about fashion. The sexes became equal. “The expressive material used for fighting the [romantic myth] came … from mass-produced male working clothes, most notably the celebrated bluejeans that took over the second half of [the 20th] century,” Hollander writes.

She isn’t surprised that tee-shirts and jeans “swept the world … encompassing all sexes and classes and nations in a universal common nakedness.” With an emblem or a slogan on a tee-shirt, one wears more than clothes.

“Because poor adolescents in cities also wore the original jeans-and-tee-shirt costume, it had the repeatedly modish look of youthful lawlessness along with its older flavor of honest work. In the 1960s, it became the new sans-culotte costume, the scary dress of the restive urban masses. Like the original one, it came to stay and develop great variety in all social groups. Tee-shirts and jeans keep their fashionable subversive authority, their ability to weigh heavily among any proposed set of modes and to keep looking new, chiefly because their form is old and familiar, but also because they always suggest the Naked Man, the universal human being, dressed in neutral bareness to show that sex is not the issue for the moment.”

Attention, George Will and Daniel Akst:

“Their rough, lower-class male origins nevertheless combined with their stretching and clinging capacities to keep them pleasantly rakish and daring for women, and these flavors have only enhanced their latter-day, faintly perverse life as elegant garments.”

Here, Hollander would be writing about:

  1. tee-shirts
  2. jeans
  3. lingerie
  4. sweaters

The answer is that Coco Chanel adapted sweaters to feminine fashion after the Prince of Wales had made elegant these shepherds’ and fishermen’s garments. Might Will take up the cause against sweaters? Based on his slack judgments against denim, it’s clear he’d be in over his head.


Sans-culotte: A lower-class Parisian republican in the French Revolution

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