This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unwittingly turned himself into an object of ridicule for claiming that among the various freedoms denied to Iranians was the right to wear jeans. In no time at all, social media immediately buzzed into life to prove Netanyahu wrong – at least with regard to jeans-wearing. Setting aside all the claims and counterclaims that might be made (and have been made) between Israel and Iran, what is striking about this example is that jeans-wearing should have been invoked as an indicator of a free citizenry in the first place.
Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward first drew our attention to the protean nature of denim around the world in their essay, Manifesto for a Study of Denim (Miller & Woodward, 2007). Certainly, the remarkable capacity of jeans to find a place within schemes of dress worldwide is testament to the powers of worldwide production and distribution networks that now bring jeans within the reach of so many. Equally important though are those material qualities of jeans that, in interaction with the wearer’s body, make jeans such a supple and appealing garment. What all of this entails for what jeans “mean” is complicated, though, for just as the association with youth, autonomy and individuality has valence in location after location (just ask Mr. Netanyahu), so also, as anthropologists might expect, there is also some important variation. The Global Denim Project, hosted by University College London, gives a taste of the research that is being done to probe both the continuities and discontinuities of jeans production, circulation, and consumption.
Wearing jeans carries few to no connotations of political liberty in India; they are, though, resiliently symptomatic of modernity, and by extension, of the wearer him or herself as modern. With the “consumer-citizen” having taken on the mantle of normativity in urban India, the more ubiquitous and familiar jeans become, the more modern the sartorial landscape appears to be. Wearing jeans, as opposed to wearing a uniform, a business suit, or an item of “Indian” or “traditional” clothing, is an act that speaks of individual motivation, global fashion consciousness, and personal choice. Jeans are not considered suitable for many of the same settings from which they are debarred in Western society (formal occasions, workplaces and so on). Media events though are a key exception, and film award ceremonies commonly feature major male film stars (though not female stars) wearing jeans — sometimes quite dramatically distressed jeans — under a formal jacket and with formal shoes.
As a peculiar distillation and selection of the broader dress spectrum in India, film – even in the “realist” mode – can clothe a larger or smaller number of cast members in jeans, depending upon the tastes and preferences of director, designer, and actor. Extras (known as “junior artists”), dancers, all can wear jeans, though only if they are, like the hero or heroine, young. But when putting denim on lead actors, female or male, more strategic thinking comes into play. Dressing the leads communicates about the character’s flair and distinctiveness, and also serves to confirm the actor’s credibility as a style leader in their own right.
Appearing in jeans – any jeans — began in the 1970s as an unmistakable sign of heroic energy and fashion consciousness; since the floodgates have opened to allow in more global brands, as well as corporate alliances between designers and textile producers (e.g. Diesel and Arvind Mills), having a pair of jeans by itself no longer proclaims the wearer’s sophistication and distinction from non-wearers (formerly committed to synthetic trousers and working men’s pajamas). Now that these self-same working men (though not yet women) wear jeans to dig ditches and build offices, the rich must exploit their knowledge and access to exclusive brands to keep themselves apart – a gambit that only works to the extent that fashion knowledge becomes more widely disseminated, since jeans, to put it baldly, are difficult to make appear different one pair from another. So it is among the topmost consumers that squabbles erupt over ever-finer discriminations in the jeans they buy, their choices basically revolving around particular brands, some of which have only entered the sub-continent in the last few years.
Film stars are in this top layer as personal consumers, although as product endorsers, they attach their names to brands as mundane as Levis and Wrangler. And in a reflection of the lingering association of film with all that is common and crass, fashion commentary often dismisses “filmi” denim as “big brand” style, as opposed to the ruinously expensive designer jeans that the more discriminating customer likes to buy. Stars are by no means universally lauded for their personal taste: far from it. Even designers lament the “cluelessness” of some of the celebrities they have to dress. But tales from the film world contain plenty of evidence for stars issuing firm directives that they will only wear the most exclusive, most hard to get jeans, meaning that the “regression to the mean” to which denim is strangely prone can befuddle the most enlightened consumer.
Stars want top brands because they feel they have “earned” them, but the intensely personal experience of wearing jeans is a factor in their choices as well. From the point of view of the wearer, fit, finish, and internal detailing set apart the exclusive brand label from the cheapest variety. There is also the “feel” of denim, where – in one of the curious paradoxes of jeans that simultaneously explains their massive popularity – the softer, the more relaxed, the more “used” it feels, the more comfortable and desirable it is.
In 2013, jeans are so common for film heroes as to have become banal. Young women wear jeans in films to a marked degree as well, but the as-yet unquestioned propriety of saris and salwar-kameez in India means that play with women’s costume remains more complex — spanning Western and Indian styles, and incorporating fusion where possible, to a much greater degree. What one doesn’t see in film so much is the irruption of jeans into the dress of characters that are in fact much more prone to sartorial reductionism than either heroes or heroines: I mean here older character actors. In my visits to Mumbai over the past few years, I have noticed more and more middle-aged, even elderly middle class people wearing jeans either as at-home wear or as casual wear to put on at weekends. Women pair their jeans – typically of the loose “Mom” variety – with a kamiz (tunic top); men opt for a kurta. This is not the stuff of “fashion” in the conventional sense, although it does suggest some shifts in fashion understood as a variety of self-making, with clothes as its primary device. That these trends are not typically picked up in film costuming reminds us that performance stresses dress as iconography more than ethnography. In films, for the most part, jeans maintain their association with youth while older characters stick to their saris and suits, in keeping with the expectation that the young hero and heroine are the ones with emancipatory ideas in mind, while the oldsters stick to the values of tradition.
Which in turn provokes a final thought: if it is a small matter these days for youth to get access to jeans – in India, in Israel, in Iran – what does it mean when jeans spread into other generations? Do the wearers thereby acquire the “freedoms” of youth? Or do they take on the dress the better to suppress such imaginings?
Miller, D., & Woodward, S. (2007). Manifesto for a study of denim*. Social Anthropology, 15(3), 335–351. doi:10.1111/j.0964-0282.2007.00024.x
A clip from the film Dulaara featuring Clare’s contribution to this edition’s music mix
Arey Ek Hai Anaar Yahan (Meri Pant Bhi Sexy/”My Pants are Sexy”) by Govinda, Alka Yagnik & Nikhil Vinay: