The best history money can buy-The meaning of blue jeans
Ms McClendon describes economic and commercial forces at work in the 1930s. Denim sales to working-class customers slumped during the Depression. At the same time ranchers in need of extra income touted their properties as [dude ranches" at which affluent tourists could play at cowboys, apeing favourite film stars. Even Depression-era protectionism arguably played a role: Sandra Comstock, a sociologist at Reed College in Oregon, has written that tariffs on imported French clothing prodded department stores to promote domestic fashions including jeans.
Myth-making about jeans suggests a political conclusion, too: that for a supposedly classless country America takes a complicated view of work. Study denim's history and it is hard to avoid concluding that heroic individuals roaming the land, such as cowboys, are easier to sell as fashion icons than folk who toil by the hour in a factory, garage or field, taking orders from a boss. The first gallery at the FIT exhibition shows how the earliest denim clothes were often uniforms: it includes a prison uniform, sailor's overalls and, most tellingly, the sort of blue work-shirt made of chambray (a cousin of denim) that inspired the term [blue-collar worker" back in the 1920s. Yet, other than to a few urban hipsters in recent decades, chambray shirts have mostly lacked the [cross-over cool" of denim jeans, says Fred Dennis, senior curator at the FIT-they did not fit into a [romanticised, cool-dude weekend look". Small wonder that blue-collar workers feel forgotten.