Thursday, May 23, 2019
May 23, 2019: As American as Blue Jeans: Jean Jackets
[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 three famous denim jackets that embody three recent eras.
1) Bruce: What, you thought I’d start somewhere else?? Bruce Springsteen certainly didn’t originate the blue jean jacket (per this Glamour piece that history seems to go back about as far as blue jeans themselves, nearly a hundred years pre-Boss), and he was by no means the first celebrity of the media age to be spotted in one (yesterday’s subject James Dean might hold that honor), but I don’t think it’s just the Bruce-ophile in me talking when I say that Springsteen’s ubiquitous denim jacket (and blue jeans) during the Born in the U.S.A. era (when he graduated from rock star to rock god) helped launch the 1980s as the decade of the jean jacket. Like Dean, Bruce was only play-acting the part of a workin’ man (he notes at the outset of his recent Broadway show that this was the first time he’d ever worked a five-day-a-week job)—but so were nearly all of us who wore those ‘80s jean jackets, after all.
2) Thelma: Geena Davis’s Thelma in 1991’s Thelma and Louise was a fictional character as well, but one closely linked to her working-class identity and life. The jean jacket she sports for much of the film could be analyzed as part of that identity and status, but I would say that it also and perhaps especially reflects a rock ‘n roll rebel layer beneath the shy country girl exterior we meet at the start of the film. Thelma and Louise’s plot mostly depicts Thelma’s arc toward the full expression of that rebellious self, and could thus be read as a turning point towards a decade that would feature other prominent rebellious and angry female icons, including a few years later Alanis Morissette (who’s been known to sport a jean jacket of her own). As the 80s turned to the 90s, that is, jean jackets evolved but endured—and if any up-and-coming AmericanStudiers wanna write a thesis on the jean jacket and American culture from Bruce to Thelma, the idea is all yours!
3) Miley: As with most everything else in the 21st century, it’s difficult to determine whether more recent iterations of famous jean jackets have represented genuine self-expressions or nostalgic embraces of those prior pop culture eras and identities. It’s likely a bit both, as illustrated by one of our contemporary culture’s true chameleons, Miley Cyrus. But one of Miley’s first such jean jackets was the revealing one she sported in 2013 (see the story hyperlinked under her first name above), at the moment when she was just beginning to shift from the childish Hannah Montana character into the far more adult and rebellious Miley Cyrus one (which may or may not be her, y’know, authentic self). So however we read that particular jean jacket or any of Miley’s clothing and identity choices and stages, I’d have to say that once again, perhaps as always, the denim jacket has embodied an era and zeitgeist in American popular culture.
Last blue jean studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?