Wednesday, May 22, 2019
May 22, 2019: As American as Blue Jeans: James Dean
[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 how blue jeans help us understand the iconic American actor, and what’s missing from the image.
The opening lines of Lana Del Rey’s song “Blue Jeans” (from her 2012 album Born to Die) compare the speaker’s lost lover to a very famous American look: “Blue jeans, white shirt/Walked into the room you know you made my eyes burn/It was like James Dean, for sure.” Inspired by that evocative opening description and simile, there are (as of the mid-March moment in which I’m writing this post, anyway) at least a dozen James Dean tribute videos on YouTube that set images of the actor to Del Rey’s song. Which makes sense, not just because Dean was so well known for that particular ensemble, but also because the tragically early death of this beautiful young man makes Del Rey’s nostalgic lament for lost love especially pointed for such multimedia tributes. Nostalgia, after all, is as much (if not entirely) about an image in our mind in the present as about any actual past reality, and that can be said for both a lost love and a legendary pop culture figure in equal measure.
Even in his own era, of course, James Dean was one of those pop culture figures who came to be associated with—indeed I would argue largely defined by—images (in both the literal sense and the idea of constructed narratives). That’s a phenomenon that has become quite common, if not ubiquitous, in our 21st century moment of social media and reality TV and, yes, these here intertubes; but such prominent pop culture images were more unique and striking in the early 1950s period of Dean’s rapid ascendancy to film stardom. And with more of an emphasis on still images than in our fully multimedia internet age, particular articles of clothing or accessories became central to many of those pop culture iconic images: Brando’s t-shirt, Marilyn’s billowing dress, Elvis with his guitar strung across his hips, and James Dean in those blue jeans. The contexts for each of those images were distinct and specific, and would of course evolve and shift over time; but each also seemed to capture a particular element of the famous figure’s image and appeal. And in Dean’s case, that element could be described as a complex combination of fashionable beauty and rebellious roughness, of a pretty face that we could still believe as a rebel without a cause.
Such iconic images are always partial and/or over-simplified, though, and in Dean’s case his tragically brief life only amplifies those qualities. Dean’s larger-than-life persona can make this difficult to remember, but he really became famous for two films, both released in the same year (1955) as his auto accident and death: East of Eden (1955) and Rebel without a Cause (1955). (He also appeared posthumously in 1956’s Giant.) And while he did wear those famous jeans in both films, he did so in two quite distinct contexts: the rural setting for which they were initially invented in East (also largely the case with Giant); and as part of the new, suburban rock ‘n roll vibe for which jeans were being adapted in Rebel. So even in these two films from a single year, Dean’s iconic attire and image would have to be analyzed differently—and when we factor in his theatrical and television work from the prior few years, the picture gets even more multi-layered (to say nothing of where his career might have gone post-1955). He might well have continued to wear those blue jeans—once an image gets established it can be very difficult to shake, as aforementioned contemporary figures like Marilyn Monroe knew all too well—but if our narratives of them had remained static they would have become increasingly inaccurate. Dean’s tragic death shouldn’t keep us from complicating and extending the image.
Next blue jean studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?