Are blue jeans in distress?

BLUE jeans are fading - and we don't mean that some fiend of a manufacturer has stoned or distressed denim beyond its already abused limits. We're talking figures, as in dollars and cents. The sales of jeans - one of the most reliable upward curves in retailing of the '60s and '70s - have shrunk (excuse the expression) from an annual 502 million pairs to a mere 387 million or so.

Figures, in the other sense of the word, are alleged to have something to do with it. As the baby-boomers - who 20 years ago in their youth made jeans practically a uniform - have grown older, and bigger, they are inclined to encase their bodies in less skintight clothing, like jogging suits, capable of parking five or 10 extra pounds without a trace. Well, almost.

A couple of footnotes ought to be written to the history of jeans before sales simply drop out of sight to, say, a mere 200 million pairs a year. First, jeans were not the invention of the estranged middle class of the '60s. Jeans - then known as dungarees - were in fashion back in the early '40s on the very best Ivy League campuses, worn in conjunction with seersucker jackets and penny loafers. Jeans went out of fashion in the '50s because, during the war, they had become identified as the swabbing work uniform of the Navy, and who wanted to remember that?

It was only in the '60s - combined with boots, a backback, and long hair - that jeans came to ``make a statement,'' as the saying goes, serving as the first humble clothing since Puritan homespun to send a reverse signal of spiritual elitism. Boy, were the Philistines known as parents annoyed! - until a decade later they began to wear jeans, as in designer jeans, in imitation of their children, adopting the dress as the weekend uniform of the suburbs.

In the end, alas, all clothes ``statements'' are reduced to chic. So much for spiritual elitism - or even plain and simple cheap utility.

When blue jeans began to go with fur coats, what ``statement'' was left?

At the moment, there seems to be no clothing fashion making a ``statement'' because, at the moment, there seems to be no ``statement'' to make. In the honorable succession of rebels with a cause (or even without a cause), one finds only skinheads, dangling Nazi paraphernalia.

At the opposite or dress-for-success end of the spectrum, the three-piece suit has become a bad yuppie joke for men, while the fur coat - the ultimate self-reward for the woman who has ``made it'' - is being attacked by animal rights activists as a cruel indulgence.

Who wants to be a yuppie anyway, now that the breed exists only in the time-lag zone of TV sit-coms?

The fading of blue jeans appears to coincide with a period in which life has become a costume party. Clothes, rather than ``making a statement,'' express only bored whims.

In a revealing remark, designer Eleanor Brenner said the goal of her fashions is to help her customers say, ``I like who I am.''

Have clothes as a ``statement'' ever hung looser, vaguer than that?

And what does this say about the people who wear them? - ``putting on'' clothes as Peter Sellers used to ``put on'' disguises and accents.

In the matter of clothes as ``statements,'' we appear to have fallen into still another case of ``double-speak.''

A Wednesday and Friday column

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