On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Whether you’ve had them for years or just bought a new pair, odds are good you own at least one pair of jeans. How and why we wear them says a lot about who we are and how we want to be perceived. They can cost $30 or $300, and the variation in styles is nearly endless. So how did heavy duty work pants become a wardrobe staple? We explore the history, culture and versatility of your favorite pair of jeans.
- James Sullivan Journalist; author, "Jeans: A Cultural History of An American Icon" (Gotham)
- Rosana Vollmerhausen Personal stylist, Style for Hire; owner, DC Style Factory
Video: How Jeans Are Made
The Discovery Channel’s piece on the making of our favorite pants:
MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm MARC FISHER on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Well, whether you still have what your mother called dungarees from your high school years or you just bought a new pair, chances are you have at least one pair of jeans in your closet. On a weekend Metro ride, it can seem as though nearly everyone is wearing them. At any given moment, in fact, almost 70 percent of the world's population is wearing denim.
MR. MARC FISHERFrom London to Brazil to Washington, jeans have become a universal staple for comfort and style. But why? How did they become so ubiquitous? Here to help us sort through the styles, meaning and motives behind a piece of clothing we rarely think twice about, James Sullivan. He's a journalist and author of "Jeans: A Cultural Icon of American History." He joins us from the New Hampshire Public Radio. And in studio with us, Rosana Vollmerhausen is owner of the DC Style Factory and a personal stylist with Style for Hire, a national network of stylists.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd, James Sullivan, jeans became a symbol of youth and rebellion in the '60s, maybe the '50s worn famously by James Dean and hippies and even as recently as the Arab Spring young protestors wore denim. How have jeans managed to maintain this err of counterculture?
MR. JAMES SULLIVANWell, thanks for having me, Marc. So the idea of blue jeans has been fascinating to me because the product has been able to go through the generations, as you mentioned, from the '50s through the '60s, every generation from the '50s and maybe even a little bit earlier when the Wild West was a big part of American culture in the 1930s and '40s with western films.
MR. JAMES SULLIVANEvery generation since then has found a way to take this very plain, humble, utilitarian product and make it its own. So every generation has -- whether they've rolled up the cuffs or the hippies wore their jeans as bellbottoms or the hip-hop generation started wearing their jeans, you know, baggy and sagging down the rear end, every generation has taken this very humble product and worn it in a way that distinguished them from their parents' generation. And so I think that's one of the keys to this.
MR. JAMES SULLIVANI mean, one of the amazing things about blue jeans I think is that they are almost literally a blank canvas for American symbolism.
FISHERAnd, Rosana Vollmerhausen, jeans started out as work clothes and they've become something that sell for anywhere from 3 to 30 to $300. What is it about them that allows them to be universal, almost a uniform that people wear? And yet they still have the power to send a style message and a very individual one at that?
MS. ROSANA VOLLMERHAUSENWell, thank you for having me. And I think the whole blank canvas part is really important. When I go into a client's home really one of the first questions I ask them is to see their jeans. And that is because you can put jeans with so many different things and create your own style. So basically, you know, they could be anywhere from something you wear on the weekend with sneakers and a T-shirt all the way to nowadays, you know, putting them with heels, you know, if you're a woman, and a great sparkly top and a jacket and it's dressed up.
MS. ROSANA VOLLMERHAUSENSo just having that versatility is what makes them, I think, assessable, you know, to so many different people.
FISHERWell, we're certainly going to get into where you can and perhaps still can't wear jeans over the course of this conversation. If you'd like to join us, you can call 1-800-433-8850 and tell us about your favorite pair of jeans, what do you like about them? Are you someone who doesn't wear jeans, why not? And maybe you weren't allowed to wear jeans growing up, if not, why not? Tell us your stories about your first pair of jeans, 1-800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also send a tweet to @kojoshow. And James Sullivan, take us back to the start. You've chronicled the history of jeans in your book of the same title. And when and where were they first born?
SULLIVANWell, one of the many fascinating things about blue jeans is that although they do seem to be such a quintessentially American produce, they like the -- like, most Americans came from somewhere else. You know, they're effectively a European product, first and foremost. Peasants in the fields and in the factories of Europe, as far back as two, three and even 400 years ago, were wearing a variation of denim clothing, jeans, overalls, aprons because they were protective and they were utilitarian work clothing. As the story goes, in America, you know, there were Americans wearing homemade blue jeans throughout the 19th century, certainly and as far back as the 18th century.
SULLIVANBut the classic story is that Levi Strauss and Company was the first company or at least they claim to be the first company to mass produce riveted blue jeans which are the blue jeans that we, you know, know and love today. So that was in the 1870s, prior to that, blue jeans were worn as work clothing but they were typically made by your local tailor or, you know, by someone at home.
FISHERWhat's the purpose of those metal rivets?
SULLIVANKeeping pockets, keeping the pockets safe from, you know, stress. Basically, they were invented by a Nevada tailor because, during the gold rush, the miners were complaining that when they were filling their pockets with nuggets, when the pockets got overloaded, the stress on the seams was ripping the pockets away from the pants. So that's where the metal rivets came from. And the tailor who came up with that innovation took it to Levi Strauss who was a supplier of denim to the tailor. And the tailor went to San Francisco and said I've got a great idea, I think we should go in on the patent together. And he had an ulterior motive in mind, he didn't have the money for the patent. So Levi Strauss put the money up to arrange for the patent.
FISHERAnd as I understand it, denim was initially used in Italy as material for making sails on ships, what...
SULLIVANSail cloth, right. I mean, denim is very similar to canvas which is, you know, as I mentioned earlier, the blank canvas idea. But -- so Genoa, Italy was a port city and the French called the Genoans, Le Gen, which is by many accounts, one of the ways that the word jeans came about. And then, the French -- the Industrial Revolution in France had much to do with a development of jeans too, the word denim comes from Nimes, France, the factory town that produced denim and denim like material. Serge de nimes was denim, was denim material used for pants, produced in France.
FISHERAnd were jeans initially meant for everyone to wear or were they strictly for workers?
SULLIVANStrictly for workers. It really wasn't until the 20th century that the manufacturers themselves started to realize that youth culture and in particular, Americans who were interested in the idea of the Wild West as the Wild West was closing off to suburbanization in the early part of the 20th century, rather.
SULLIVANMore and more Americans from the East would go visit the West, stay on so-called Dude Ranches, you know, spend a week riding horses or whatever, playing cowboy, essentially. And they would come back East and say "You know, everybody out there wears these jeans and they're very comfortable and they're great kick around clothes." And that's kind of when the idea started that they could be worn for leisure wear and not strictly for work wear.
FISHERRosana Vollmerhausen, the stuff that jeans are made of, denim, is used for other clothing items as well. Certainly jackets, shirts, even dresses, what is unique or special about denim?
VOLLMERHAUSENWhat I see -- when you go out to the stores, say, you are going to see, you know, chambray shirts, you know, sleeveless denim jackets. I mean, denim, the cloth, like you mentioned, is everywhere. I mean, it's especially hot this spring. But, you know, what denim gives you is a youthful quality to your look. It's, you know, I think James Dean was just mentioned, Marlon Brando. I mean, I think it starts from there. It gives you that youthful edge to your look. You could be wearing something very classic, you know, and if you put a pair of jeans, you know, with that, like, classic blazer, you know, and even a button up shirt, it's just going to make your -- give your look a little bit of that young feel.
FISHERAnd why is that? Is it the nature of the material itself or is it that connotation that it has where it originally was a work clothing? Is that what gives it that youthful feel?
VOLLMERHAUSENI think it's all of that. I think it's the rugged quality of the material. I think it's the history of the material. And, you know, and we've seen it go through numerous incarnations, you know, in history. And I think all of that, you know, brings us to where we are today which is, you know, is that youthful feel.
FISHERAnd speaking of where we are today, let's get down to cases. There are very strong opinions that some people have about where and when jeans are appropriate and when they're not. I should, for full disclosure, I should note that I am not wearing jeans but Rosana is. I should note that of the seven people in "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" office this morning, two were wearing jeans and only one of them was just because we're doing this topic today. And I should note that where I work the rest of the time at the Washington Post, I have never seen someone in jeans, under any condition, on any day, ever, ever, ever. But Rosana, are there still restrictions, social morays that say you cannot wear jeans in one place or another?
VOLLMERHAUSENWell, if you're in a formal work setting. You know, I'd never recommend my clients wear jeans to work unless it is specified that they are permitted to, like, on a casual Friday, you know. With that being said, jeans, it's an interesting time for denim right now. You see so many different styles and the pair that I'm wearing today, you know, is a trouser cut jean and that's denim that's made to look like pants, basically. So, you know, if I do have a client that has a little more flexibility in the workplace, maybe a casual Friday, I'll still recommend a denim that looks like a trouser, you know, not -- usually not the five pocket.
FISHERAnd James Sullivan, has the change in where and when jeans are allowed? Is this an ever broadening universe of uses of jeans or do you think there will always be some places where they're just not appropriate?
SULLIVANI, you know, I think the barriers have been dropping for years now. I mean, you know, you do see people in work places, very often, a guy just walked down the hall from me where I am a moment ago in a sports jacket and a tie and a pair of jeans.
FISHERThat's public radio, of course.
SULLIVANYes, of course. And I'm actually kind of shocked to hear you say that no one at the Post ever wears blue jeans. I mean, we all know and journalists are notoriously supposedly poor dressers.
FISHERWell, that's quite true. I'll certainly cop to that. Let's turn to Sherry in Vienna, Va. Sherry, you're on the air. Sherry, are you there?
SHERRYYes. My question was along the same lines, the permissibility of jeans in the office. And I've worked in offices in the West Coast where jeans are worn every day. On the East Coast, it's a very different mentality on permissibility of casual jeans, everyday to the office. So what does that say about West Coast versus East Coast mentality and I guess, work productivity and culture, office culture?
FISHERRosana, you want to take the first crack at that?
VOLLMERHAUSENSure. You know, there are -- you know, we're in D.C., you know. And most of my clients, you know, are not going to be wearing jeans to work and I think that's a product of...
FISHERYou're probably lucky if they own any.
VOLLMERHAUSENExactly. I've actually been to many closets where there might be one, you know, very, very old pair. And I, you know, I tell them "You got to get a couple pairs in there." Because this is today's fashion. But yeah, there -- you know, there is that feel, I guess, that out West, things might be more relaxed although I will say, I have a client who works, right now, at Google, you know, in New York City and she's, you know, she wears jeans to work every day. And of course, it's not the tattered, you know, beat up jeans. She does have to look a little more dressed up and put together. But, you know, a pair of great dark wash, you know, more formal looking jeans, you know, at work.
FISHERJames Sullivan, did this change where jeans went from, the fields where people worked to something that young people wore, now, into the workplace? Was that a natural progression or was there a marketing campaign or strategy that led us in this direction?
SULLIVANIt -- at the beginning it was a natural progression. I mean, as I mentioned earlier, we saw kids in the 1930s and '40s and vacationing families visiting the West. Kids, in particular, watching their favorite western films and seeing the cowboy heroes on screen wearing jeans and that carried over into the young adults of the 1950s and the obviously with the rise of early rock-n-roll. We saw blue jeans really become part of the culture. At that point, the major manufacturer, including Levi's and Lee and Wrangler and the other companies, started to realize that, hey, you know, we have a readymade market here that we're not yet catering to.
SULLIVANAnd the advertising and marketing of those companies started addressing the young people of the country. And what happened next was kind of a funny bump in the road, there were many parent groups, concerned parents and educators who had the impression that the kids, the rock-n-roll kids, who were wearing blue jeans and starting to wear them to schools, in particular, were, quote-unquote, "The bad kids." And so there was sort of a concerted effort among the blue jeans companies in the late 1950s and early '60s to market directly to that idea.
SULLIVANAnd to, in particular, appeal to mothers to say, you know what, not only is wearing a pair of jeans not inherently -- that doesn't inherently make your kid a bad kid, but also, as a mother, you know who has to wash the clothes, if your kid changes into a pair of jeans after school to play outside, you're going to have to do a lot less laundry. They're a lot more easy to care for then their nicer, you know, school clothes.
SULLIVANSo there was, you know, a concerted marketing campaign to address that idea that jeans, you know, the bad kids were wearing jeans. And we've seen that go on up until much more recently. I mean, you know, it was only 10 years ago or so that everyone seemed to be up in arms about the hip-hop generation wearing their jeans, sagging down, you know, below the waist line.
FISHERWell, and certainly jeans send a message, even a political message, and the jeans of political figures have become a significant issue in a number of campaigns over the years. And, in fact, both of our Presidential candidates have had jeans controversies of their own. Barack Obama, back in the all-star game, baseball all-star game in 2009 in St. Louis, he wore what then Washington Post fashion critic, Robin Givhan said that this was -- she called them unfortunate dungarees.
FISHERShe said that when he appeared on the mound to throw out the first ball, the jeans he was wearing seemed to have only a passing acquaintance with the dimensions of his body. They were too short, one could see the tops of his sneakers and a hint of white socks when he was at a standstill. They were baggy but lacking in old school urban swagger. The jeans sagged, Rosana, is this -- are we being too hard on our politicians here?
VOLLMERHAUSENI remember that article and I think there's actually a term for those type of jeans and they're called...
FISHERThey're dad jeans.
VOLLMERHAUSENDad jeans, yeah. And, yeah, I mean, I think today, when I work with people and we talk about jeans, fit is paramount. I mean, that's really, you know, I mean, you get into premium denim and all that kind of stuff too but really, you know, whether it's men or women, people do care most about how their jeans fit and how they look. So it's no surprise, you know, that there was -- that there's criticism, you know and attention paid, you know, to public figures and their jeans.
FISHERAnd James Sullivan, just so that we're bipartisan here, I wonder if you could comment on Mitt Romney's jeans? He wears them to virtually every campaign appearance. They are so perfectly creased, so impressively pressed. What is the message there and is it working?
SULLIVANWell, I don't know about the crease but the -- you know, it's no surprise, at this point, when a politician shows up at a, as you know, somewhat casual event wearing a pair of blue jeans. I mean, in so many ways, blue jeans are shorthand for an idea. And in the case of politicians, it very naturally means, you know, I am the guy who you wouldn't mind having a beer with. I'm a guy who might be going home to chop some wood or, you know, hang out at the diner. You know, I mean, that's what that idea expresses. You know, as soon as a politician wants to seem like a regular guy, you can rest assured that they're going to show up at the next appearance in a pair of blue jeans.
FISHERWell, and I imagine that the kind of blue jeans matters. In Romney's case, he's clearly trying to dress down to take the focus off his wealth and to present himself, as you say, as a regular guy. But the jeans that he wears seems so fresh out of the box that I wonder if they really are sending the message that he intends.
SULLIVANFor most people, I think so. I mean, you know, he's not -- it's not like he's going to break out a pair of bell bottoms or, you know, you know, or the pair of jeans that he wore when he was in college. You know, we can quibble about what, you know, exactly how the jeans look. But just the fact that the denim is there really gets the idea across to most people that he is at least trying to come across like a regular guy.
FISHERAnd you, in your book, "Denim: A Cultural Icon of American History," (sic) you have a little bit of history that involves Mitt Romney's church, the Mormon church who's leaders, I think, had a special name for jeans.
SULLIVANThey did. Well, so at the time, jeans were -- the zipper hadn't been introduced to jeans yet. The classic Levi's 501 button-fly was the way that people buttoned their pants and when a lot of early jeans in the 19th century, for workers, were buttoned on the side and when the button-fly moved around to the front of the pants, the term went around that they were fornication pants because the -- for obvious reasons, easy access.
FISHEROkay. Well, we'll probably have to leave that one right there. But...
FISHER...we do want to hear from our audience about what you wear with your jeans? Do you remember your first pair of jeans? Our number's 1-800-433-8850. And when we come back, we'll hear your views about jeans and what goes and what doesn't go. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We'll be right back.
FISHERWelcome back, I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about jeans with James Sullivan, a journalist and author of "Jeans: A Cultural Icon of American History," (sic) and Rosana Vollmerhausen, owner of the D.C. Style Factory. And let's go right to your calls. Here is Katherine in Washington. Katherine, you're on the air.
KATHERINEKatherine here. Yes, I'm in Washington, D.C., enjoy your show.
FISHERThank you. Go ahead.
KATHERINESo I am curious about what the show has to say about men in the 20s or 30s. I have two friends. They both grew up in a prep school. One actually went to a boarding school down in Alabama. Now they're both professionals here in the Washington D.C. area. They don't wear jeans. They don't have one single pair of jeans in their closet.
FISHERAnd why do you think that is?
KATHERINEAnd then to me -- it sounded like to me, a couple of our friends say that they might be just -- they view jeans as -- they're probably a little bit elitist. I mean, it's just something that people talk, but why (unintelligible) it's almost like it's strange for men -- young people to not wear jeans these days.
FISHERRosana, are you seeing a backlash against jeans among any younger people, or is there a statement that they're making about being an elite or something like that?
VOLLMERHAUSENNot so much. I mean, one of the trends that -- I will say this. One of the trends that is going on right now is this sort of preppy, you know, sort of chic trend, and so I am seeing a lot more, you know, of that buttoned up, you know, kind of look among the younger generation. But still, even in that group, what I'm seeing is like actually bringing some of that preppiness and giving it a little edge, you know, with denim. So it's not like a complete head-to-toe preppy look, you know, but it's more of making it your own, and jeans are still a big part of that, you know. So I'm still seeing -- I'm not seeing that backlash as much.
FISHERAnd at the other end of the spectrum among older folks Marty in Bethesda has a question. Marty, go ahead.
MARTYHi. I'm wondering if there's an age beyond which older women, grandmothers even, should not wear jeans, assuming that we don't look gross in them.
VOLLMERHAUSENThat's a great question. You know, there's always -- if you read fashion magazines, there's always gonna be lists about, you know, what you shouldn't wear past a certain age, and, you know, there are some people that will say, you know, past a certain age, you know, don't wear jeans. I'm not of that school of thought, because as I mentioned before, I think nowadays especially, jeans come in so many different styles that can be appropriate for so many different ages, age groups.
VOLLMERHAUSENAnd, you know, you might not, you know, if you're over 50, you know, you might not feel comfortable wearing a pair of skinny jeans that a 23 year old might wear, but there's gonna be so many other options, and -- and, you know, it's gonna add a little -- it's gonna make your look contemporary basically. It's going to give you that little bit of youth, you know, in your look.
FISHERWe have a tweet from (word?) who says, "Growing in Iran, jeans were banned from schools. You were a rebel if you wore them, and I loved being that rebel." James Sullivan, so that sense of rebellion that you talked about earlier is still very much alive. Have you seen jeans playing role in any political movements, rebellions around the world of late?
SULLIVANAbsolutely. I think you mentioned the Arab Spring earlier. I mean every time you see an instance of protest around the world, almost invariably, the people that are facing off against the authorities are wearing, you know, wearing blue jeans, or at least some of them are. There's great stories over the decades, in the 1970s for instance, towards the end of the cold war, American travelers in eastern Europe and in Russia were literally selling the jeans off their backsides to the people in those countries who were desperate to acquire a pair of blue jeans.
SULLIVANA lot of backpackers actually funded their trips by selling pairs of blue jeans because the black market for blue jeans in those countries at that time was sort of outrageous. I mean, people were selling pairs of second-hand blue jeans for a couple hundred dollars at the time in the 1970s.
SULLIVANAnd there's stories like that throughout the history of clothing.
FISHERI never sold any, but I remember on my first couple of trips to the Soviet Union, we were advised to bring extra pairs of blue jeans and give them away, and we visited with dissidents and gave them away, and it was, you know, this was like the most precious gift that you could give in a sense. Here's Tom in Bethesda. The point about jeans as rebellion and the association we have with jeans and motorcycles. Tom, you're on the air.
TOMThank you for taking my call. I had an uncle that used to ride and he said that the next best thing to a good pair of leather pants was a pair of worn blue jeans if you went down on the road, and I just wondered if there was any truth to that. He claimed it was the tightness of the stitch after they were washed.
TOMOr the tightness of the weave.
SULLIVANYeah, absolutely. I think that the, you know, they're certainly -- it's certainly a durable material. I think there's absolutely something to that. That's one of the many reasons why, uh, riders do wear -- motorcycle riders do wear denim.
FISHERAnd that biker era of the 1950s, jeans were really starting to be associated with rebellion in that way, you know, who were some of the key figures who sort of spread that reputation, James?
SULLIVANWell, the classic ones are James Dean, and Marlon Brando, who wear a pair of blue jeans and a black leather jacket in "The Wild One," the classic motorcycle film. But, you know, there's -- most of the rock and rollers, I mean Elvis wore, you know, wore blue denim in "Jailhouse Rock." You know, most of the early rock and rollers at some point or other, you know, wore blue jeans. I mean, that was really when the look became a pop cultural phenomenon.
FISHERAnd at the other end of the style spectrum, Rosana, are the mom jeans, the dad jeans that everyone loves to make fun of. How did they come to be? Who thought that was a great idea, and why have they persisted?
VOLLMERHAUSENYou know, I think nowadays you see, again, like I mentioned, you know, how important fit is. I think, you know, there's that element of comfort, you know, to a pair of mom-dad jeans, that I think, you know, I think there's a stereotype that moms and dads don't care, you know, the way they look, they just need to comfort, and I think that's where those jeans came into play. But, you know, that's definitely changing.
VOLLMERHAUSENI mean, I have, you know, many, many mom and dad clients, you know, nowadays who care, you know. They don't want the mom jeans. They don't want the dad jeans. They want to step it up.
FISHERAnd here's Julia in Columbia. Julia, you're on the air.
JULIAHi, thank you for taking my call. I just had a question. I'm 21 years old, and I just started a new job recently, and I'm like the youngest person by several -- I think I'm like the only person in my 20s, and I'm noticing that with my wardrobe, like it's really frustrating that I have like the work clothes and then the clothes that I wore in college, and like for example, I'm going down to visit my friends in school now, and I was realizing like I have nothing to wear.
JULIAEverything that I wore in school, like I don't wear anymore, just because I'm either like at work or I just feel like I'm having a hard time with that transition. If I'm wearing jeans, I feel like I look like a high schooler or a college student. I don't feel like I look like I'm a young professional or anything like that. But obviously I'm not going to wear like my work clothes to go to the supermarket or something. So I was just wondering like how do people my age like figure that out? Because I'm not.
VOLLMERHAUSENIt's a big -- that age group, it's a huge transition going from, you know, being a kid basically to being an adult that has to project a certain in a workplace. In terms of, you know, your work wardrobe versus your casual wardrobe, there are many different ways, even like using probably some of the things you have in -- you know, that you still have from college, and just giving it a little makeover, like a blazer, you know, over a t-shirt maybe, even a graphic t-shirt that you had in college, you know, makes it feel a little bit more grown up, you know, then maybe the way your wore it in college.
VOLLMERHAUSENIn terms of jeans, you know, you have to look at what kind of jeans, you know, look at the style, you know, of jeans. A pair of, you know, great dark skinny jeans are, you know, you wear them the right way, they're gonna look sophisticated. They're gonna grown up. Do I recommend them for the workplace, you know, not so much. But, I mean, in terms of going out with your friends, you know, and wanting to feel like, yeah, I'm grown up, you know, is -- I think that's a great place to start, you know, that dark -- that dark wash.
FISHERThanks for the call, Julia. Rosana Vollmerhausen is a personal stylist and owner of the D.C. Style Factory, and James Sullivan is the author of "Jeans: A Cultural Icon of American History," (sic) and we've talked a little bit about where jeans are allowed or should -- are okay, but there are still some places where jeans are banned or frowned upon.
FISHERBonnie tweets saying, "I have a rule, no jeans in church. No jeans in a theater," meaning to live theater performances. James, what's your list of places where they're still inappropriate or banned?
SULLIVANI don't think they're really banned anywhere anymore. I mean, if you got to a fancy restaurant, there are probably some people wearing blue jeans. Nightclubs are maybe one of the places where, you know, no jeans and shirts have to have collars. That sort of rule is sometimes still in effect. But most of those barriers have come down over the years. I mean, you know, we've already talked about the work place. Some workplaces it's more accepted than others, but other than very formal events, you know, weddings and, you know, White House dinners and things, you know, I don't think that it's strictly forbidden anymore.
FISHERRosana, it's still shocking, or at least striking, when you run into someone in jeans at the theater or at the symphony, the Kennedy Center. Is that changing? Should it change?
VOLLMERHAUSENShould it change? I think in my opinion there's still -- there's something to be said for formality, you know, and for those events where, you know, you want to project, you know, a certain image, you know. And jeans, as I mentioned, you're projecting that sort of every, you know, we talked about politicians projecting that every man sort of image, you know, and yeah. I think, you know, black tie events should stay black tie. But with that being said, I will say that, you know, you'll see on the red carpet sometimes celebrities, you know, they'll do jeans with a sparkly top, you know, to make it evening, you know.
VOLLMERHAUSENSo people are definitely, definitely pushing the envelope, and, you know, I think it's a personal choice.
FISHERSpeaking of personal choices, Janet McLean has a memory of a personal choice she made. Janet, you're on the air.
JANETHello, yes. I wanted to tell you about my first pair of jeans, which I was able to get thanks to my mom my senior year of high school, and I graduated in 1951. But there was one rule for wearing those jeans, I couldn't go downtown in them.
JANETOnly in the neighborhood, and I was in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, southeast of Pittsburgh, where the steel mills were going great guns then.
FISHERAnd did you abide by that rule, and did you want to wear them downtown?
JANETWell, I wanted to, but I listened to my mom like most kids did back then, even when you were a senior in high school.
FISHERSo just wearing them around the neighborhood was the act of rebellion. You didn't have to wear them downtown to fully rebel.
JANETI could wear them around the neighborhood, that was what she said, but I had to change into a skirt if I was gonna go downtown.
FISHERRosana, have we lost something in society when we don't have those kinds of rules and expectations?
VOLLMERHAUSENYou know, there's a lot of rules that used to -- you know, the no, you know, the no-white rule, you know, and that don't hold as true. You know, even mixing colors, you know, that used to be hard and fast rules, you know, that you see people mixing today. And I think that's all about creating your own look, you know, and having, you know, your own style, and I think that's a good thing.
FISHERAnd yet there are still some fashion rules and I have to ask you about one that people always talk about, double denim. Is it still a faux pas to wear double denim?
VOLLMERHAUSENI'm so glad you asked me that, because that is, you know, that's a conversation that goes on and on, but nowadays you will see people doing the double denim.
FISHERMeaning one kind of denim up top and another kind below.
VOLLMERHAUSENExactly. And that's -- if you're gonna follow a rule of thumb with that, just don't have them be the same shade.
FISHEROkay. Good advice. Let's hear from William in Bethesda. William, you're on the air.
WILLIAMHi. My question is to the stylist. There's a trend that I've seen, most especially with our ladies of late. I'm in my 50s and we don't choose to see our ladies wearing their jeans to sight on their body as to show the very contours of their body, and I'm kind of wondering when did this trend start?
VOLLMERHAUSENI think you're referring to skinny jeans, which, you know, started years ago actually. I think, you know, Kate Moss, you saw her, you know, wearing the skinny jeans, and I think when she first had them on, a lot of, you know, regular, you know, folks were like oh, my gosh, you know, the -- how could anybody wear them. But now, you know, skinny jeans are a staple, and, you know, when you're wearing boots, you know, in the winter, you know, they're easy to tuck in your boots. So there's a reason why, you know, there's a reason why they are a staple now.
VOLLMERHAUSENI mean, you see them at huge retailers like Banana Republic, Gap, you know. They're just something that every woman wants and I -- yeah. I think they're here to stay.
FISHERContinuing on this theme of where jeans perhaps are not allowed, here's Pat in Herndon. Pat, you're on the air.
PATThanks for taking my call. I had worked in law enforcement for awhile, and the state prisons in Nevada actually have jeans as part of the inmate uniform. So if you're working -- if you're going there to work or to visit, you know, you're not allowed to wear jeans at risk of being mistaken for one of the inmates. So I thought that was an interesting…
FISHERThat is fascinating. And James Sullivan, that is, I guess, one way in which jeans still represent rebellion in that states are choosing to clothe prisoners in them.
SULLIVANYeah. Well, that's been -- and that's been the case for decades. You know, the certain prison systems have used denim as the prisoner's uniform for decades going back to the early 20th century if not earlier. One of the books that I wrote was about James Brown, the singer James Brown, and one of the fascinating things about him was that he refused to ever let -- even in the 70s when all other soul bands an rock and roll bands were, you know, really dressing wildly, and when the hippy culture was flourishing, James Brown insisted that his band members continue to dress formally.
SULLIVANHe would never be caught dead in a pair of jeans, and he specifically said -- he addressed it and he said it was because it made him recall poverty, and also prison, and, you know, that's what jeans meant to him. So, you know, there's, you know, when the hip-hop generation began wearing jeans, that was part of the message there as well was that, you know, if you wore your jeans a certain way, that was a learned experience from on the inside from a prison stint.
FISHERSo then how do you explain how it is that people will spend a few dollars for jeans at a thrift shop, and as much as $600 for a high-end pair of jeans? How is it that the same -- essentially the same product covers all those different strata?
SULLIVANWell, the brand name, you know, and the style, you know, as Rosana was saying, the fit, the wash, the quality of the denim that's being used, all those things are what the premium jeans companies make clear that they are delivering so that their jeans stand out from, you know, a sort of run-of-the-mill, knock-off pair of Levis or Lees that someone who is shopping at, you know, a big box store might buy just to do the yard work or whatever.
SULLIVANThe idea of premium jeans has been around for decades. Again, I mean, everything about blue jeans was one of the things that I love about is that it's all cyclical. We were talking earlier about how blue jeans...
SULLIVANYeah. About how blue jeans, you know, might lose their appeal occasionally, but they always come back around, and that's true for the premium idea as well.
FISHERWell, we'll have to leave it there. There's a lot more in James Sullivan's entertaining book "Jeans: A Cultural Icon of American History." (sic) Rosana Vollmerhausen is owner of the D.C. Style Factory, and a personal stylist with Style for Hire..
FISHER"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney, with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. Diane Vogel is the managing producer, and A.C. Valdez is on the phones. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting for Kojo. Thanks so much for listening.
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