The Austin Chronicle


Reviewed by John Dicker, November 24, 2006, Books

Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon

by James Sullivan

Gotham, 303 pp., $26

No one who's reconnoitered a bookstore these past few years can be ignorant of a trend in nonfiction that might as well be called the microhistory. Now firmly established, the trope finds authors pushing in on seemingly ubiquitous matter (Salt, Cod, etc.) for the investigative close-up. Embedded in a seemingly small story is a much larger one that speaks to something profound about our past and future.

At least that's how it's supposed to work.

Enter culture critic James Sullivan, whose basic contention in Jeans is largely unassailable: "Blue jeans – not soft drinks, or cars, or computers – are the crowning product of American ingenuity." Sullivan quite thoroughly chronicles the history of denim, from Gold Rush days to the long rise and quick fall of Levi Strauss, a manufacturer whose 501 jeans were the most successful clothing item in the world and whose annual sales tanked by nearly half in recent years. He does an admirable job historicizing the major shifts in denim's ascendance – the transition from a workingman's trouser to something gender nonexclusive and, more recently, to high-end fashion with designer jeans blasting past the $400 mark.

However, the story lacks anything resembling urgency, depending more on the author's hyperbole. Yes, jeans are iconically American, but however many ways this is restated, it does nothing to quell the question of ... so what? Which is all this critic could ask as Sullivan catalogs every movie star to wear denim, ever. Then it's out of the theatre and into the streets: Sixties revolutionaries in denim, punks in denim, disco in denim, Bruce Springsteen's denim-assed album cover. Are you tired yet?

However, just when you're convinced there's nothing more to learn about jeans, Sullivan puts his finger on a trend that's most telling about what the American trade has become: a brand extension. Levi's shuttered its last U.S. manufacturing plant two years ago, and most of the jeans on the boutique market are little more than a marketing team with a relationship to foreign suppliers. Jeans created for – and worn by – generations of working Americans are now as redundant as so many of their livelihoods. Even if they're still happily covering the great American backside.

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