Levi’s Capsule Collection
Sarah Nicole Prickett’s Late Bloomer Denim Dreams
The jeans are not skinny. They are straight, but they are not dad jeans or boyfriend jeans, nor are they mom jeans. They are jeans without loved ones. Norma jeans, really. Marilyn wore a pair for a photo shoot on a ranch in Northern California in the late fall of 1945, but she is not yet Marilyn in the photos, she is Norma Jeane Baker with a mess of undyed brown curls and a credulous smile. The jeans appear to be, like herself, unbranded, due either to wartime rationing on fabricated details or to their imitative provenance. A red bandana serves as a belt, and a matching little blouse is tied high above her navel. She, like me, must have liked it when the stiff, unshrunk denim grazed her hips, the waist gaping improbably around the new moon of her abdomen, making her feel… skinny.
The Levi’s I am wearing and writing about are minimally branded. The pockets and rivets are all there, and are what make the jean itself. In Reno, Nevada, toward the end of the Gold Rush, a woman enlisted the services of a tailor named Jacob W. Davis to make a sturdy pair of duck-cloth trousers for her extra-large husband, which Davis did using copper rivets to reinforce the crotch and pockets. Because he did not have the $68 needed to obtain a patent for said “riveted pants,” Davis went into business with his materials supplier, Levi Strauss, who like him was a Russian-Jewish immigrant and unlike him had cash flow, so that in 1873 the brand became Levi’s and not J.W.’s, and a century later the descendants of Strauss, not Davis, all became millionaires. (As for the fat man’s wife, she remains anonymous and, in the company’s annals, uncredited.)
These jeans are the product of collaboration on another, distant order, made in limited quantities exclusively for SSENSE. Some distinguishing features are erased. The stitching is white instead of the original orange-tan. The pockets are clean squares, without the trademark arcuate stitching that made Levi’s recognizable from behind. A zipper replaces the button fly. There is also, rather than the classic “red tab” introduced in the mid-1930s, a navy blue one to signify a material contiguity with styles of the early 1950s, when a pair cost $3.50. (That would be about $37 in today’s money, whereas red-tab jeans today start at $60 and blue-tab jeans at $148, with these costing $190. One difference is that the jacron with the two-horse illustration is made of real leather, not the cotton-paper blend normally used—to save money—since the 1950s.)
All this reductiveness highlights the perfection of the cut, which is almost trouser-like in its sharpness, and reminds me, on second thought, of the Lee jeans that Marilyn wore as Kay Weston in River of No Return (1954), a Hollywood Western set in the mid-1870s at the birth of denim. That Kay wore jeans at all is doubly an anachronism: Cowboys did not start wearing Levi’s until the company added belt loops to 501s in the early 1920s, and Levi’s did not make a ladies’ style, the 701, until the mid-1930s, apparently inspired by rich women from Europe who visited dude ranches in the West and got denim envy. An advertorial in Vogue c. 1935 depicted a couple of dudettes with their horses, their identical jeans extravagantly belted and cuffed: “The cut of the denim,” assured the ad’s copywriters, “has been altered just sufficiently to conform to feminine lines without destroying its distinctiveness.”
The colour is really the thing. A noctilucent, inky indigo. A blue this deep and yet bright requires the denim to be dyed at a Cone Mills in Parras, Mexico, there being no longer a Cone Mills in Greensboro, North Carolina, before being sent to a Levi’s-owned factory in Corlu, Turkey. When I unwrap the product, gleaming from navy tissue, it seems immediately like the only hue jeans could be. I feel, glancing at the stack of denim in my bedroom, like one of the local women in Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil (1962), shopping and asking, confused, why people in a country as rich as America prefer faded blues. False romanticism is the reason, says Bishop. That is to say, a mania for continued adolescence. There was also another, dumber reason, which was that the worn-in look announces that the wearer got into jeans before being told to do so, when it felt like a choice. Now the choice is not whether to wear jeans but which jeans—label, style—to wear, a choice infinite enough to feel chore-like.
“A blue haze floats over the pavements of the world,” sighed Kennedy Fraser, then the resident fashion critic at the New Yorker, in a 1973 piece on jeans. She seemed annoyed. She had begun covering clothes in 1970, a year in which Betty Friedan, at the Women’s Strike for Equality, marched down Fifth Avenue linking arms with a girl who would be remembered, by Friedan, as “one of the young radicals in blue jeans,” the urban context rendering those identifiers near-synonymous; and yet also a year in which Yves Saint Laurent, inspired by the wares at stateside army and navy stores, was selling blue satin jeans for ten times the price of Levi’s. Fraser had, presumably, received in the mail the January 1971 issue of Vogue with its cover story on “Levi’s, a pullover, and a marvellous belt” as “the uniform of the world, the way we all want to look when we’re feeling easy, moving fast—a way of life.” She had, presumably, read the newspaper on March 3, 1971, when Levi Strauss & Co. went public at a valuation of $500 million, and the newspaper on August 6, 1972, when Levi’s reported sales of $226 million in six months. (“We happen,” said Walter Haas Sr., the chairman of Levi’s and a great-grand-nephew of Levi Strauss, “to represent a lifestyle.”)
Fraser had received and rolled eyes at, one imagines, an invitation to a fête at the Neiman-Marcus store in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1973, where Walter Haas Sr. accepted on behalf of Levi’s an award for making “the single most important American contribution to worldwide fashion.” Appropriate here, had it been in use at the time, would have been the word ‘neoliberal’ (now the verbal equivalent of blue jeans for young radicals) for what she calls “the illusion that denim brings freedom.” More insidious, to her mind, even than the delusional middle-aged, middle-class people trying to “revolt” against dress codes are the younger, cooler consumers whose way of wearing denim—faded, unadorned, with the labels torn off, baggy with the occasional drab patch—she terms “the totalitarian mode.” To wit:
“Theorists of blue jeans in the sixties claimed that one’s individuality was made more apparent when it was contrasted with the sameness of denim, and that the malleable clay of blue jeans brought out the touching differences in human bodies. But in those days self-expression in the form of [accessories, embellishments] was still permissible. The new style eliminates virtually all such frivolities. The almost fanatical rejection of color and individualism in dress by those in our society—people in their twenties and thirties—to whom such things have generally meant the most is a further reminder of the passing of an era. … In the late sixties, blue jeans were to a degree an emblem of militancy, an indication that the wearer wanted to end the war and change the system; they are now to be seen as an expression of the urge to lie low and keep out of trouble.”
Compared with those downtown ex-radicals, the chic uptown wives, knowing less and caring more about style, struck Fraser as more sympathetic in their erroneous ways of wearing jeans:
“This variety of denim enthusiast wears her jeans tight enough to show off a well-groomed figure. She is, in spite of her enthusiasm for what she takes to be the latest fad, a late bloomer in the denim world…She is fashionable in her denim, but only in an old-fashioned way.”
This is suddenly the exact kind of “denim enthusiast” I want to see in the mirror, and, as if I were a rich woman, I unwrapped from the navy tissue not only the jeans but also the matching cropped jacket, button-up shirt, and long skirt. I cut off the tags and packed the items into a large suitcase without trying them on, and flew to New York.
It was when I unpacked that I remembered the problem with not being rich. The perfect, crisp fit and shining indigo of the denims, worse than a pair of new white sneakers, made my favorite t-shirts and sweaters look faded, shabby, un-chic. It became apparent how boringly I often dress, as I had gotten used to the sameness of the weather in the desert where I live and had forgotten how to layer, how to mix and/or match, how to dress for, in a word, civilization. I had brought, apparently in lieu of sneakers or any flat shoes, a pair of pool slides bought at a Rite-Aid in Palm Springs, as well as a pair of hotel slippers designed to look like pool slides. I had what felt like surplus taste and no uniform. It was luck and not overkill, I realized, that SSENSE had sent all four items: the only thing that goes with these jeans is a jacket made of exactly the same jean. A Canadian tuxedo, about as Canadian as French fries are French.
Given the early September weather, thick with alternating currents of mugginess and chill, and then occasionally, without warning, ten degrees too hot for one’s chosen layers, often I felt dressed for the first day of school: pleased with my efforts at first, but by lunchtime embarrassed by the co-ordination, feeling itchy and hot.
When I wear the jeans with the jacket, how I feel is more specifically like the blushing, awkward high-school sophomore I was. A late bloomer in the denim world as elsewhere, the teenage me wore straight-leg jeans in dark washes when everyone else was wearing low-rider flares, and the summer before eleventh grade I purchased at the Gap outlet in Saratoga, Michigan my first denim jacket to match. (Stinging to this day is the self-pity I felt when I ripped the jeans in a biking accident and, halfway through the first semester, left the jacket on the back of the chair in computers class, knowing that neither item would be replaced.) I also feel like Brooke Shields on the cover of POP Magazine two years ago, paying homage to the famous Calvin Klein ads she shot when she herself was a high-school sophomore, though “like Brooke Shields” is not, of course, how I look.
When I wear the jacket with the skirt, I feel dressed for a long Sunday at a fundamentalist, evangelical megachurch in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When I wear the skirt with the shirt tucked in and buttoned all the way, a fake dread materializes like a tumbleweed, as if moments from now a kid on horseback will come to the house and tell me that my husband, the sheriff, has been shot and killed in a bank robbery in town.
Wearing the shirt unbuttoned with belted jeans, however, it appears that I am—per the singer Mitski’s recent instructions—being the cowboy.
That the Hollywood Western-fuelled rise to market domination of Levi Strauss & Co. occurred during the heyday of structuralism, made famous by the French linguist and ethnographer Claude Levi-Strauss, and by acolytes and critics like Roland Barthes, must be a coincidence of the highest order. Yet in structuralism there are no coincidences. Levi, the name, means the same thing as a copper rivet: it means “joiner.” Levi-Strauss, who once said he had hardly gone a year in his life without receiving an order, usually from Africa, for a pair of blue jeans, might have explained the purchaser’s desire. He might have elided the obvious, which is that when a worker’s garment was patented not by the worker and tailor who together invented it, but by the tailor and the capitalist who paid for the patent, the destiny of jeans is sealed. Another Levi-Straussian possibility is that, given the same raw material, the same indigo dye, cultures everywhere would have invented the blue jean, so obvious is its mythic potential.
[[EXAMPLES OF STRUCTURALISM:
Jeans = sex, as Calvin Klein said. The idea is that jeans are synonymous with sex, when really jeans replace sex, make it redundant. Halston said, of Calvin Klein, that only a pig would put his name on blue jeans. I once read in a tabloid that Tommy Hilfiger had purchased, for the sum total of something like $50,000, three pairs of jeans worn by Marilyn on the set of that 1954 movie. Hilfiger said that he might put his name on them, which was probably a “joke.”]]
Janet Malcolm recalls, in a recent autobiographical essay for the New Yorker, that as a girl in elementary school, in the 1940s, she “envied everything about” a peer named Anna and “not least her bluejeans, which were faded and soft, unlike my own immutably dark, stiff ones; in those days, you couldn’t buy pre-faded jeans, you had to earn the light-blue colour and the softness.” The use of ‘earn’ is potent, as is Malcolm’s later realization that the jeans were likely hand-me-downs from an older sibling, both parts of the same systemic disillusionment. The slippage, too, between their and her, between her and her jeans. She continues: “I was part of the background of ordinary girls who secretly loved and, unbeknownst to ourselves, were grateful for the safety of not being loved in return.”
Do I even like myself in these jeans? After years of wearing denim that could best be described as “deconstructionist,” putting on Levi’s that look like the emoji for jeans in Unicode 1.0 makes me feel like someone who earnestly uses the words “common sense” but puts the word “society” in air quotes, someone who rails against post-structuralism in the universities and proudly refuses to understand a deconstructed text, who insists that, actually, it’s more radical to not have tattoos, to not be slutty, to not be queer, to start a nuclear family with a man; like someone who, understandably edging away from shared illusions of progress among a refined demographic, trips and falls backward into the stagnating, toxic pond of Bible-based opinion. The technical term for this weight and stiffness of jean is “rigid” and seems to designate a corresponding style of thought, exercised most often by those who are “just being honest” instead of being something interesting.
Recalling Fraser’s sudden nostalgia for "frivolities," it felt wise to counter the rigidness with embellishment, to choose from my suitcase the thrifted pieces with brighter colours, more glitz. High heels in olive green suede, lower heels in lime. Clashing animal prints. I left my blonde hair raw, or untoned, after bleaching à la Marilyn or, like, Svetlana Svetlichnaya, or really, like an imagined girl in Soviet Russia imitating Marilyn and Svetlana. Compared with the persistent greyness of the sky, my outfits sometimes verged on early Technicolor, a new development for me, and perhaps this is why I began to find myself less and less recognized, even by people I knew.
Luckily what is said about me, to me, interests me more than what I think of myself. At a beach house on Fire Island an acquaintance’s boyfriend began talking about a writer with my initials, apparently not realizing, as I did not realize for almost a minute, that the writer was me. A new friend asked whether I “identify as cool,” and I thought she was joking. A friend of nearly six years used a word to describe me that I had last used to describe my mother, and I hoped she was joking but she wasn’t. “You look almost American,” said another old friend when we met at a gallery on the Upper West Side, having arranged to see new work by a reformed bad-boy artist, formerly big on the Lower East. It helped that the piece next to which I was standing was a drawing of the American flag. It was very realistic. Outside a bar in Dumbo, a man who owns a barbershop paid me a compliment too sincere to be repeated, and offered to buy me a plane ticket to visit him in the future. What do I look like to you!? I said, surprised that I wanted to know the answer, and that I wanted to know it only slightly less after getting it.
Maybe these are the first pair of jeans I’ll manage to wear until they fade to the color of the sky, that is if life lasts that long. Maybe I will throw out all my other pairs, a superficially anti-capitalist purge. In the last book I read before I started writing this, the Derek Jarman memoir Smiling in Slow Motion (1991), the director remembers a guy named Pat, a great dinner-party companion with a taste for aristocracy and for trashy movies, a gigolo who wore only blue jeans, a blue denim shirt, and cowboy boots. Pat, said Jarman, “lived in a tabula rasa, a blankness that allowed him a certain mystery,” akin to the mystery of Norma’s jeans. Always broke and staying at other people’s places, nonetheless he “laughed quickly and often, and was able to move on.” Beautiful, and new, to have a style icon of whom I’ve never seen a picture.
Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer from Canada.
- Text: Sarah Nicole Prickett