by Carolyn Purnell
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Pub Date 12 Jan 2023 | Archive Date 31 Jan 2023
The one-size-fits-all appearance of blue jeans hides a history of contradictions.
Jeans are the perfect emblem for opposing values. They may seem like uncontroversial garments, but they can be nothing short of revolutionary. Over the course of their one hundred and fifty years, they have become a universal signifier, ready to fit any context, meaning, and body.
Once a symbol of American culture, jeans are now a global good. Levi Strauss made blue jeans in the 1870s to withstand the hard work of mining, but today they represent the epitome of leisure. In the 1950s, celebrities like James Dean transformed the utilitarian clothing of industrial labor into a glamorous statement of youthful rebellion. A few decades later, luxury jeans walked chic fashion runways. For some, indigo of blue jeans might represent freedom, but for workers producing the dye, it has often been a color of oppression and tyranny.
Surrounded by such contradictions, jeans are, at once, a garment that means everything and nothing. Blue Jeans considers the versatility of this iconic everyday item, revealing a world of significance beneath a superficial layer of anonymity.
This book is the latest in the Object Lessons series. Published in association with the Atlantic, it explores the hidden lives of ordinary things and what they can teach us about ourselves and the modern world.
Carolyn Purnell is a historian and writer. She is the author of The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses.
“Like a best friend in a changing room, Purnell provides funny, fascinating, and sometimes horrifying commentary on your taste in jeans. Never again will you slip on a pair without thinking about the global historical and economic forces shaping your rear end.”—Erin Thompson, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY