In Week 5 of class we discussed the duality of jeans in its ability to represent both conformity and resistance, and masculinity and femininity at simultaneously. This weeks readings, “The Jeaning of America”by John Fiske and “Consuming or Living with Things?” by Tim Dant, lead to a discussion in class about the idea of jeans being a “blank canvas” allowing people to attach their own meaning to jeans, from the style or brand of jeans a person chooses to wear, or the act of ripping or destroying jeans to represent resistance.
In “The Jeaning of America” Fiske outlines the unique ability of jeans to represent both conformity and resistance, as well as masculinity and femininity. Originally worn by American cowboys and blue collar workers, jeans have come to symbolize the characteristics associated with those groups of people. Fiske explains “The association of jeans with the cowboy and the mythology of the Western is still strong… familiar ones of freedom, naturalness, toughness. and hard work (and hard leisure), but also progress and development and, above all Americanness” (Fiske 4). For this reason the act of wearing jeans allows the wearer to feel like part of a larger group, who understands the American ideals associated with jeans.
Yet it is the sense of Americanness linked to jeans that allow jeans to paradoxically represent both conformity and resistance through the act of destroying jeans. Fiske asserts “If today’s jeans are to express oppositional meanings, or even to gesture toward such social resistance, they need to be disfigured in some way… If ‘whole’ jeans connote connote shared meanings of contemporary America, then disfiguring them becomes a way of distancing oneself from those values” (4).
Ripped jeans represent the rejection of a consumerist culture because the rips signify the wearer’s refusal to purchase new jeans and contribute to a society so focused on commodities (14). However this idea has been appropriated by many mass market fashion brands through the mass production of jeans that come pre-distressed.
Thus wearing jeans allows a person to both identify with the ideas associated with jeans on some level, but also resist such ideas simultaneously. Similarly wearing jeans allows a person to be both masculine and feminine in that jeans are linked to the masculinity associated with American cowboys, but are also worn by women whose form is highlighted by the tightness of the jeans. In “Consuming or Living with Things?” Dant argues that the design of jeans, with the seams highlighting certain areas of the body, the placement of the fly, and the back pockets present “the body as a fetishized object, chopped up ready for consumption like the images of women in soft porn when clothing is used to divide parts of bodies” (Dant 381).
This ad for Guess jeans illustrates Dant’s claim that jeans often present a sexualized version of women which can be easily marketed to the masses. Furthermore the man in the ad is shirtless and holding a cowboy hat which represents the masculinity that jeans are associated with.
The tight fitting material of jeans draws attention to the form of a woman, yet the idea of jeans is connected to masculinity as jeans were initially only worn by men. Dant asserts “As a unisex garment, jeans reflect the body and sex of the wearer while at the same time neutralizing gender distinction through form, material, colour or decoration” (382). Ultimately because of the many contradictions surrounding the meaning of jeans, the meaning becomes dependent on the context and the intended meaning of the wearer. However it is because of the “blank canvas” nature of jeans that so many people have chosen to use jeans to make a statement as an individual.
In Mark Grief’s article “Hipster in the Mirror”, he seeks to analyze and define a breed of supposed “individuals”, or rather “hipsters”. A hipster deviates from the mainstream and makes it known that he or she is “different” from those that follow popular culture. This gives them a sense of entitlement and a feeling of superiority, which is explained in Bourdieu’s “Distinction”. Academics and artists, or people within the same social group, distinguish themselves by the way they consume; it gives them status and capital. Grief says that “Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition (Grief 2).
In the clip “Over” from Portlandia, we see a man with the distinct “uniform” of a hipster (beard, seemingly homeless dress). Having a beard signals “I’ve been hipster this long”, which gives him cultural capital over others. Growing a beard requires time and effort just as jeans naturally fading and ripping requires wear over time. In Khaled’s essay “The Enduring, Insufferable Hipster” we’re told that “hipsters supposedly rush to consume the things that will become popular so that they can say they liked them ‘before they were cool'” (Khaled 4). This hipster man in the clip loves bicycles, his local coffee shop, shell art and street sweeping. As soon as he sees a non-hipster (clean shaven, white collar dress) doing these things, he decides that it’s “over”. He begins to disregard all the things he loved because a non-hipster started doing it. What unifies shell art, street sweeping, etc.? These are all things “normal” people don’t do. So hipsters essentially want to have status that sets them apart from the mainstream.
Can you buy hipster status? The hipster style is a marketable package for corporations, such as Urban Outfitters. These companies acquire subculture as though it is ready-wear. Levi’s Music – Street Style –SXSW video on Youtube tries to create an authentic voice for their brand by having random people talk about their personal styles. One girl talks about how her group is “individual” which contradicts the inherent meaning of the word. Another boasts of how she likes to incorporate other cultures without evidence of an authentic tie or understanding of those cultures. The Hipster “represent[s] the contemporary disconnect between symbols and their original meanings” (Kahled 6). An example of this cultural appropriation is Urban Outfitters selling bindis and consumers wearing them without understanding the cultural significance and link to Hinduism.
There is one central question we need to ask about hipsters: How can a hipster reconcile being different within a group of people all wanting to be different? Many NYU hipsters don’t want to be seen as hipsters because that would make them the same as all the other hipsters. “Perhaps one of the biggest condemnations of the hipster culture is that it is wholly inauthentic” (Khaled 6). An authentic hipster has an inner drive to do something regardless of others. The problem with hipsters is that they blame others while trying to be unique; they deem themselves authentic while everyone else isn’t. In the end, they’re the ones without the concrete identity.