Tuesday, May 21, 2019
May 21, 2019: As American as Blue Jeans: Cowboys
[On May 20, 1873 dry goods retailer Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis received a patent for work pants reinforced with metal rivets, and blue jeans were born. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Strauss and a few other contexts for those uniquely American articles of clothing!]
On myths, realities, and an iconic American type.
As is often the case with mythic images, the cultural narratives of the American cowboy developed most fully in an era when that role was (at least to a degree) passing into history. Thanks to sources as varied but related as the traveling Wild West Shows, Western dime novels, and bestselling individual works like Owen Wister’s hugely popular novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902), by the early 20th century the figure of the cowboy was one of the most prominent and iconic American types. Yet by that period various factors, from the construction of fences and the creation of large-scale/corporate ranches to the increasing urbanization of the nation (and in particular the development and expansion of Western cities like Los Angeles, Denver, Cheyenne, and many more), had significantly lessened the role and presence of cowboys in the Western United States. Certainly this economic and historical role continued to be present in and after those changing times and settings, but various aspects of the iconic imagery (which of course were always partly cultural constructs) were by the early 20th century and would remain thereafter largely mythic.
There are lots of specific individual elements and details out of which such iconic images are constructed, but for cowboys one such element has long (at least since their late 19th century invention) been blue jeans. I’ll analyze recent and contemporary blue jean advertisements in depth later in the week’s series, but here I’ll note that for as long as I can remember (and it seems for much longer than this 41-year old AmericanStudier could remember), cowboys have been one of the most frequent (if not the single most prominent) focal types in such blue jean ads. That’s partly of course intended as a way to romanticize the jeans, to link them (for purposes of selling them to consumers who are very likely not cowboys in any practical or meaningful sense) to these iconic and popular cultural image. But it likewise reflects the way in which the iconic and popular image is assembled out of such specific elements, both in its initial or foundational forms and then in how those starting points are passed down and amplified through various media.
So if we try to get past those multiple layers of advertising and marketing, of imagery and myth-making, is there any there there? On the one hand, of course there is: blue jeans were and are a real article of clothing, and as I detailed in yesterday’s post were indeed invented to serve as work pants for particular kinds of Western labor (a category that certainly would include the economic role of the cowboy in a prominent way, even more so in the late 19th century before the most widespread versions of the shifts I described above). But on the other hand, I’m not sure that 21st century narratives of cowboys and blue jeans have any more to do with those historical facts than would Revolutionary-era legacies of tri-corner hats if that form of apparel were to make a comeback. The analogy doesn’t quite hold, since after all blue jeans have never gone away, and so the legacy is at least more of a persistent through-line. But at the very least, any association of blue jeans with cowboys in 2019 has to grapple with the layers of legend and simulacra that have accumulated over the last 150 years.
Next blue jean studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?