The Politics of Pants

It was consumers, not marketers, that made jeans a symbol of youthful revolt.


In the 1950s, Levi Strauss & Co. decided to update the image of its denim clothes. Until then, the company had been depending for sales on the romantic appeal of the Gold Rush and the rugged image of the cowboy. Hell, it was still calling its signature pants, the ones with the copper rivets, "waist overalls." It didn't want to abandon the evocative Gold Rush connection, but the postwar world was filling with consumption-minded creatures called "teenagers," and it seemed time to rethink the company's pitch.

So in 1956 Levi Strauss tried an experiment, releasing a line of black denim pants it called Elvis Presley Jeans. It was the perfect endorsement. On the branding level, it was a successful marriage of an old product and its developing new character. People had long worn denim for work, or to "westernize" themselves; now a new set of customers was wearing it to identify themselves with the postwar scene of rebellious urban (and suburban) outliers. Upon the release of Elvis' 1956 hit movie Jailhouse Rock, writes James Sullivan in Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon (Gotham Books), "black jeans became the rage of the season." That transition would eventually make undreamed-of profits for Levi Strauss and its many competitors.

The endorsement was wonderfully revealing from within too. Elvis actually disliked denim. To him, as to most people from real working-class backgrounds, it was just a reminder of working hard and being poor. The less denim Elvis wore, the happier he was. As for the company suits at Levi Strauss, they had no idea where their new customers would take them. The company was a lot more comfortable dealing with a safe, midcult crooner like Bing Crosby. In 1951 Levi Strauss had presented Crosby with a custom-made denim tuxedo jacket, just the kind of empty P.R. stunt the company bosses understood. The eroticizing Presley was unknown territory to them, and they nearly fumbled the whole bad boy connection—one that had already emerged via Presley, Brando, James Dean, and even the Beats—that would help put their product on nearly every pair of hips in the Western world (and on plenty of hips everywhere else too).

In fact, as Sullivan, a former critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, tells the story, the denim industry worked hard to undermine its own success. When jeans started making a transition from working clothes to something darker—the preferred style of the dreaded "juvenile delinquent"—the industry got worried. When school districts started promulgating anti-dungaree "dress codes," it panicked. Suddenly a Denim Council sprang up to persuade adults that jeans were "Right for School." Young people who wore denim, the industry group argued, were exemplary citizens who studied hard and who honored their fathers and mothers. Happily for Levi's, Wrangler, and Lee (and for Jordache, Guess, Lucky, and the wave of designers to come) nobody paid much attention to the Denim Council.

It was civil libertarians who took care of the dress codes, with a legal strategy the industry never would have dreamed of. Groups challenged the codes as, in Sullivan's words, "an imposition on freedom of expression." In fact, the industry old-timers still don't get it. Looking back on the emergence of jeans wearing as an issue of "expression," one such old-timer can still tell Sullivan, "Amazing.…Just for a pair of pants."

This series of events takes up just a few pages in one chapter of Sullivan's 303-page book. But I've focused on it because it is a stellar example of a primary market issue that many people—not only markets' critics but some of their defenders too—have failed to acknowledge. It's neither makers nor marketers who successfully attach meaning to the products they want to sell. It's the consumers who impute meaning to those products they choose to buy.

The anthropologist Grant McCracken has done a lot of scholarly work to elucidate this distinction, and The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell has been a pioneer in reporting it. His famous 1997 piece "The Coolhunt" focused on consultants who attempt to monitor "coolness" as it is attached to—and detached from—consumer goods by a hierarchy of influential buyers. Gladwell offered case studies of brands, such as Hush Puppies shoes, that had become cool (for a while, anyway) without the manufacturer or its ad people ever having a clue. Jeans conquered the world—Levi's 501s are the single most successful garment ever designed—not because of the denim industry's efforts to give them meaning but in spite of them.

The rest of Sullivan's book is addressed to the culture, the fashion, and of course the business of jeans. The last of these threads is the most valuable, since it is probably the least known and the most revealing. Who knew, for example, that leisure suits were introduced by Lee? (And what does that episode say about the marketers' conception, let alone control, of a product's meaning?) Sullivan's book is as comprehensive on its subject as you are likely to want, if not more so. Jeans and Jack Kerouac. Jeans and the dude ranch. Jeans and the advent of the zipper. Jeans and punk. Jeans and disco. Jeans and the indigo trade. Thousand-dollar Jeans. Collectible jeans. Even pants (not jeans) and Brigham Young, who in 1830 charged that trousers with buttons in front were "fornication pants."

There's even jeans and the color blue. Sullivan has penned an ode to blueness that goes on for four pages. ("The deeper blue becomes," he quotes the artist Wassily Kandinsky as saying, "the more urgently it summons man toward the infinite.") Best of all, though, is jeans and Vladimir Nabokov, despite the fact that Nabokov has nothing much to say about jeans.

Sullivan uses Nabokov inventively, quoting from his 1955 novel Lolita to demonstrate how the narrator's "refined" sensibility is transformed by a whole world of low-end culture that has become—for him—eroticized. The novel's motels and shopping strips, writes Sullivan, "are the consummate low-culture backdrops for Lolita's jeans, sneakers, and lollipops." It's not just Lolita that Nabokov's intellectual narrator has fallen for. And if you don't see what eroticized low-end culture has to do with the triumph of American jeans, then Elvis really has left the building, and you've gone with him.

Charles Paul Freund is a Reason contributing editor.