Culture Mulch | Society

A manifesto for torn jeans

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The Indian online space has been agog with talk of ripped jeans in the last month or so, thanks to the spectacular foot-in-mouth-itis of Uttarakhand’s newly minted Chief Minister. But that is of very little interest to this column, so look it up if otherwise intrigued. What stood out to me, however, besides the bottom-to-top gaze of the esteemed minister, was the centrality of ripped jeans to this narrative. Yet again, denim or jeans become symbolic of that forever issue of navigating the tense relationship between the local and the global.

In a paper called ‘A Manifesto for a Study of Denim’, published in the 2007 issue of Social Anthropology, Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward argue for blue jeans as the ubiquitous choice for a majority of people in the world. Calling attention to how blue jeans are one of the only garments commonly sold as distressed, they make a case for its simultaneous capacity to be generic as well as individual. Their argument about such “distressing” in particular, traces its origin to the 1970s when “jeans became the most personalised and intimate apparel as they essentially disintegrated on the flesh through being worn to death by the nomadic and relatively impoverished hippies of the time.”

I gathered from the above two different things; one, that jeans are symbolic of a universal plugging in to a particular idea of a generic modern; and two, distressed jeans become both a form of rebellion, a plugging out if you will, and an intimate connection with clothing as continuous with the body. Lastly, one’s willingness to wear something down to its threads, literally, may also indicate a relative thrift, either out of compulsion or choice. Thus informed, I conducted my own online trawl for “distressed jeans” and this is what I found.

All-American icon

Zara advertises distressed jeans as suiting “dressed-down style temperaments”, being “at once cool and contemporary, either for downtime or after dark.” No mention of thrift or poverty or rebellion. Forever 21 merely calls their product as bearing a “distressed design”, sans any context of such a design. And Levi’s? The original home of this all-American icon claims that “Our ripped jeans are perfect for a laid-back look that’s casually slashed to perfection.” And in these oxymoronic words, “casually slashed to perfection”, lies a clue. For what distressed jeans mean is no longer distress. After all, it wouldn’t behove distress to spend ₹3000 on casually slashed jeans. Here we go again, as we land upon yet another obscene consumerist appropriation of the cultural lives of thrift and poverty.

Let’s lay aside our postmodern analytical impulses for the moment, however. For surely, the draw towards distressed jeans cannot be explained away so easily as inauthentic consumers performing authentic skullduggery.

My first pair of distressed jeans resulted from slipping down a hillock. I was all of 12 and came back home, bleeding, scraped knees and all. For the next many years, I wore these jeans as a badge of honour. In this story, I was not merely a bespectacled introvert; I was capable of heroic and ungendered acts such as falling down and living to tell the tale. When my grandmother berated my mother about her refusal to mend my torn jeans, my glee knew no bounds. In my undergraduate years, torn jeans and worn kurtas allowed me membership into those that protested many a political snafu in road marches of much naiveté and great heart. In graduate school, I tore down another pair into comfortable second-skin shorts that saw me through searing Ahmedabad summers of long classes and seemingly endless youth.

Something more

All this to say, perhaps that this business of tearing down clothing means something more. Even when appropriated by capitalist consumerism. In a society tightly bound to parameters of propriety, gender, and life goals, perhaps all we get to do is tear our clothes. Literally. I would be the first to admit that such an act, symbolic of something is perhaps fated to be just that, a symbol and a nostalgia for possibilities long gone at best. At worst, it is capitalism taking over all our rebellion and packaging it back to us, bow intact. All of it is fated to mean nothing in the face of an overarchingly grim structure characterised by power, violence, entitlement and amnesia.

And yet, even symbolically, distressed jeans seem to still rattle institutions and people, perhaps in their capacity to recall other lives and compulsions. For at the other end of this spectrum of distress as costume, are the figures of the madwoman and the madman, in dirty, torn clothes, and matted hair, heralding the end of the world and its rules. And in homage, even as we stay in our lane for the most part, every once in a while, we tear a few things, and let our knees knock around unfettered.

Mathangi Krishnamurthy teaches anthropology for a living, and is otherwise invested in names, places, animals, and things.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 4:32:27 PM |

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