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Friday, May 24, 2019

May 24, 2019: As American as Blue Jeans: Advertisements, Then and Now

[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 what two sets of histories and two contemporary spots reveal about advertising blue jeans.
1)      Cowboy ads: As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, the association of blue jeans with cowboys has been kept alive and ever-present over the last century largely through pop culture, and most especially through advertising. A Pinterest search for “Vintage Western wear,” for example, brings up countless ads for Levi’s and other denim brands featuring cowboy imagery and iconography. The question about such ads, I suppose, is whether they’ve been targeted entirely toward outsiders, or whether insiders to those geographies or communities might genuinely have been influenced by them as well. The (1958) second hyperlinked ad above, for example, notes that Levi’s is “in tune with Western tastes” (a groan-worthy pun, as the pictured cowboy is strumming his six-string), which feels to me as if it’s targeting Easterners or others seeking to understand and replicate such tastes. But of course, ranchers and other Westerners needed to buy clothing too, so perhaps Levi’s was trying to genuinely align its marketing campaigns (and its product) with those Western tastes.
2)      Women’s jeans over time: As that LiveAbout article traces nicely, ads for women’s jeans have since at least the 1930s likewise linked their product to Western imagery through such phrases as “Original Western Blue Jeans” and “Jeans for Country Living.” But while of course there have long been cowgirls and female ranchers and other such roles, the iconography of women and the West has more frequently portrayed them as the helpmates to male figures, as in the 1950s Levi’s ad featuring the picnicking woman whose jeans are “right … for leisure.” And beginning around the 1960s, those highlighted ads evolved to focus far more on fashion, both through “regular” women models and (increasingly over time) through supermodels such as Brooke Shields, Anna Nicole Smith, and Claudia Schiffer. To some degree, the gradual but unmistakable shift of blue jeans from (ostensibly) working apparel to part of a fashionable ensemble can be traced through that last half-century of evolving ads and images.
3)      21st century ads: The associations of jeans with cowboys and the West certainly haven’t gone away, as illustrated with particular clarity by the 2010 Wrangler ad entitled “A Cowboy’s Life.” Yes, that 21st century cowboy has a family and various leisure activities, but he’s still entirely intertwined with iconic images, all the way through the final shot of him literally riding off into the sunset. But then there’s 2017’s wonderful Levi’s ad “Circles,” which portrays Americans (or humans, as there’s no reason its images have to be limited to the US) of just about every ethnic and cultural type, all unified through their joyous participation in dancing circles and, yes, their blue jeans. I know full well that ads are always carefully and to a degree cynically constructed, but they can at the same time reveal genuine and important cultural and historical shifts—and “Circles” suggests that, like every part of Americana, blue jeans can and must evolve to better reflect our deeply diverse society and world.
Special Memorial Day post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

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