Nov 8, 2017 in Book Report

Urban Anthropology Book Review

Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary is a book written by a University College London’s anthropologist Daniel Miller and a University of Manchester’s sociologist Sophie Woodward. More interested in blue jeans as a concept rather than as an actual material object, the authors acknowledge the graciousness of average people aiming to advance contemporary material culture studies (Miller and Woodward 1).

The study presented in Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary was initiated by a 2007 publication entitled A Manifesto for the Study of Denim, which considers the challenge to anthropology represented by a topic such as global denim (ibid.) The study is based on a collection and analysis of empirical observations of how people select and wear blue jeans and what connotations they imply. The authors attempt to develop what they call ‘a theory of the ordinary’ and allocate its place in urban society. Assuming that clues to the profound may be found in things and occurrences that are seemingly mundane and routine, the authors declare that the ‘theory of the ordinary’ has major consequences for a wide range of topics, including questions of identity, equality, and immigration.

The investigation is performed in a manner of ethnographic reporting aimed at describing people from three neighboring streets in North London. The empirical evidence is provided by interviewing people of different social, gender, age, religious, and ethnic groups, and asking them to describe their life stories through jeans and their current jeans wearing practices.

Although contemporary global spread of jeans is recognized as a phenomenon that has a deep historical trajectory, the degree to which historical research can account for it is rather limited (Woodward). Furthermore, the authors argue that such obvious reasons for wearing jeans as their history or their commercial value are insufficient when accounting for today’s global domination of denim. They recognize that it is more than a form of global conformity or homogenization.

Miller and Woodward point out the existence of particular local configurations capable of explaining why people do or do not wear jeans in separate urban regions. They consider specific issues of styling, production, retailing, marketing, recycling, etc., and transcend them through the consideration of more general issues. Understanding of the material’s properties occurs in conjunction with the understanding of its social implications. For example, considering the properties of the blue color of jeans and their gradual softening or fading can contribute to the understanding of how denim becomes personalized to the shape of the wearer. Moreover, the investigation reveals that people interpret wearing blue jeans as the best means to present themselves as citizens of the world.

The authors describe that people whom they interviewed on the three North London streets ‘range from the resolutely local (born on the street itself) to those who see this as a long-term residence suited to their immigrant status. In addition, there are some passing migrants, such as young Australians, stopping here on their travels around Europe’ (Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary 12). The resolutely local families seem to retain nostalgia for earlier times of a greater friendliness of the area. Sometimes, they associate the decline of familiarity in the neighborhood with the increase in immigrant families. However, other residents reveal reasonably sanguine attitudes towards the growing cosmopolitanism and respond positively to immigrants. Miller and Woodward note that most immigrant families in the urban area under investigation are mainly engaged in working-class occupations and focus on their children achieving a university education. There are also more transient immigrants, such as individuals from Eastern Europe looking for summer work. However, regardless of social and cultural differences, wealth, gender, and other circumstances, it is common for all people to wear blue jeans (Miller 105). Thus, the authors conclude that jeans allow individuals to inhabit ‘the ordinary’ and emphasize that becoming ordinary is important both for immigrants and the population of North London in general. ‘The art of the ordinary’ is hereby associated with the concept of becoming ‘a citizen of the world’ and social adaptation, which is especially vital for the immigrant population.

Similarly, the authors observe that every time people say they feel ‘comfortable’ wearing jeans, they primarily refer to social comfort, taking into account the anonymity and acceptance offered by jeans. The investigation reveals a certain ‘elision between the idea that the jeans go with anything and the idea that the person goes with anyone’ (Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary 100).  Jeans are regarded as a ‘post-semiotic garment’ in ‘post-identity’ London—a city largely composed of immigrants and transplants, who are widely dispersed rather than clustered in tight-knit communities (Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary 92). In this context, they emphasize the liberating power of ‘the ordinary’. Thus, despite the existing abundance of various styles, colors of jeans, and commercial brands, Miller and Woodward argue that ‘post-semiotic’ jeans have escaped all other associations to indicate, and retain the single quality of being ordinary. Poole (2012) points out that the term ‘post-semiotic’ is highly controversial and incorrect and that the very concept is rather dubious. His chief argument is that every pair of jeans is marked by certain labels, such as Levi’s, M&S, Next, Primark, Wrangler, and Lee. Considering that those are all individual brands with special advertising emphases that include the corresponding connotations, it is hardly possible to find a pair of completely unbranded jeans to be regarded as ‘post-semiotic’.

Another book aimed at advancing contemporary material culture studies is Carol Delaney’s manual for anthropology students. The work is appreciated for the contemporary topical discussions among which are those on space, body, or clothing. Similar to Miller and Woodward, Delaney explores how the diverse body coverings ‘express cultural meaning and identities and serve as markers of status, age, and gender as well as occupation, activity, degree of formality, and a host of other things’ (Delaney 323). Thus, she provides a basis for further investigation of how people’s clothing choices can be tied to social and cultural identity and political economy.

Delaney also elaborates on the topic of blue jeans. She considers the historical context in which blue jeans emerged and on the basis of which they evolved to be recognized as a natural choice for all kinds of leisure activities nowadays. She emphasizes the historical circumstances in which jeans ‘became available only in 1960s during the Vietnam War and the conflict between youth and authority. In this conflict, which was also seen in terms of class conflict, the youth identified with unionized workers (who did wear blue jeans) and appropriated their clothing’ (Delaney 354). Delaney suggests that such knowledge ‘demands [to] challenge taken-for-granted ideas and structures […] and imagine that things might be otherwise’ (Delaney 406).

To sum up, such books as Delaney’s Investigating Culture and Blue Jeans by Miller and Woodward go a long way toward narrowing the gap between conventional and more relevant approaches to anthropology. These works deserve wide acclaim for the ways in which they reinvigorate ethnography and breathe new life into culture theory.

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