Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Bar Tacked At Points Of Strain

I haven't really worn jeans for some years – like most middle-aged people, I've come to prefer the comfort and ease of movement of looser styles, particularly "combats" and chinos – but as my daughter had put a pair of Levi's on her Christmas list this year [note to self: aren't my kids earning more than me now?] I had reason to look into buying some and I was amazed, frankly, to discover how much they cost now. I mean, eighty-five pounds for a pair of jeans? Really? When did that happen?

I remember my first pair of Levi's. It was 1969, and I'd had a pair of Wranglers for a year or two, but was always conscious that Levi's were the real thing. In the 1960s you could only buy jeans in outdoorsy and army-surplus type shops; the idea of going into a High Street chain-store for a pair, let alone a high-fashion outlet, was ridiculous. The thing about Levi's was not so much that they were more expensive, which they were (I don't know what the equivalent of £85 was in 1969, but they were certainly nowhere near that expensive), but that they were shrink-to-fit. This strange ritual of entry to jeans subculture was confusing and off-putting to most.

Basically, you had to buy a pair which were a size too large. A pair of new Levi's were practically rigid, the cloth was so thick, and so heavily dyed with indigo that they were a very dark, very even blue, almost black. You pulled on these stiff, oversized trousers, ran a hot bath, and sat in it for as long as you could, while the cloth shrank around you. At the end of the process the bath water would be blue, and so were your legs. But, most important of all, the jeans would be tight; I mean really tight. The whole thing had the sort of louche, sleazy sexiness associated with bikers and fairground workers, with their leather jackets, T-shirts, and tattoos (all of which are now, of course, mainstream fashion choices). It's no wonder the wearing of jeans was frowned upon: they were banned on non-uniform school trips, in nightclubs, and anywhere that valued its respectability. In those days, jeans spelled trouble.

The trouble with tight jeans is...
they wear out in odd places

I suspect Levi's were probably the first clothing brand to capture the awareness of the British youth market. Other brands already had a cult following in certain subcultures – I think of Lewis Leathers, for example, or Clark's desert boots – but Levi's had already made a thing of their brand identity by the time they became generally available in Britain. There was the seagull rear-pocket stitching, the red tab, the distinctive leather label patch, and, crucially, the lack of any visible stitching down the outside leg seam, which marked out every other brand of jeans as greasy kid's stuff. There was even a decorative cardboard label-cum-certificate telling you what an authentic thing the Levi's identity was. Quite soon there would be other brands associated with other subcultures – Ben Sherman shirts, Crombie coats, and Doctor Marten's boots were de rigeur in skinhead circles, for example – but anyone who wanted a piece of the youth-culture action could wear Levi's. Unless, of course, you were sufficiently contrarian and counter-cultural to regard Levi's themselves as a bit, you know, mainstream. "No Logo", as far as I'm concerned, began in 1972.

Throughout, let it be understood, by "Levi's" I am referring to straight-leg 501s. Don't even get me started on the abominations that were flared jeans or split-knee loon jeans, or those short-cuts to unearned street-cred, pre-shrunk and stone-washed jeans. These aberrations all marked the shift from a utility brand, taken up by certain subcultures precisely because of its utility, to a fashion brand. And we all know where that has led us: people walking around in expensive clothes with the labels on the outside, like human advertising hoardings, rather than discreetly tucked away inside where they belong. And it would seem that we might even have Levi's to blame for that, both as originator and perpetuator. I mean, honestly, eighty-five pounds for a pair of jeans!

Why is that peculiar chap at middle left NOT wearing jeans?
Aren't those army-surplus trousers??


amolitor said...

Good god, is that handsome sneering lout with his hands on that nice young woman YOU?

Mike C. said...

I think *was* is the word here, compared to the humbled, broken figure I present today... Deeply unfairly, that nice young woman hasn't aged a bit. (Hmm, coincidence?).


Martyn Cornell said...

£85 today would be £5/12s/6d in 1969. You could buy Levi's jeans ("normal or flare bottoms") in 1970 starting at £3/10s – that's around £49.70 today. A Ben Sherman shirt, button-down collar, box pleat, in 1970 would cost much the same as the pair of Levi's.

My grandfather, a carpenter, couldn't understand his grandchildren wearing jeans all the time: to him, they were working clothes, to be got out of as soon as you arrived home. It IS curious that denim jeans have kept their fashionableness for a solid 70 years or so: other items go in and out. I was hugely amused to be able to buy a slim-jim knitted tie in John Lewis recently that was exactly like the ones I wore 50 years ago. (I don't normally wear ties, but I was going to a formal dinner that would be attended by the Crown Prince of Denmark – you know how it is …)

Mike C. said...


Really? Still sounds more expensive than I'd have thought.

Hope the Crown Prince appreciated the gesture!