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Does Denim Still Have a Role to Play in Protest Culture Today?

As the U.S. finds itself swept up in one of the most turbulent cultural atmospheres in recent history, consumers have been thinking about their clothes less than ever before. In 2020, the panic and anxiety of a global pandemic have been underscored by pain, angst and social unrest. Amid the tension, getting dressed has landed somewhere near last on many people’s priority lists.

In May, the 8 minute and 46 second snuffing out of George Floyd by Minnesota cops prompted backlash not just against police brutality, but also the deeply ingrained social constructs that have allowed systemic racism to prevail for centuries. The event forced a reckoning for institutions of all kinds, from state and local governments to corporations and even consumer brands. Feelings of desperation proved strong enough to pull tens of thousands of people fearful of pandemic infection from their homes and onto the streets. Protesters wore black as an homage to the Black Lives Matter movement. And many of them, perhaps subconsciously, made the decision to pull on a pair of jeans.

Denim’s role in protest culture is well documented. But its role in grassroots movements was planted more than 10 decades ago. It’s hard to envision the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s and early ’70s without seeing hordes of bellbottom or denim jacket-clad young people calling for change. But denim’s unshakeable role in American culture began to solidify nearly a century earlier, according to Levi Strauss & Co. historian Tracey Panek.

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“Denim, especially blue jeans, has been a long-time symbol of rebellion and youth, but that ethos is a relatively modern concept,” she said. The brand released its first pairs of denim jeans in 1873, and they were crafted for hard labor, not as statement making. “They were worn by ordinary people at the bottom of the economic ladder,” Panek said.

“Denim, especially blue jeans, has been a long-time symbol of rebellion and youth, but that ethos is a relatively modern concept.” —Levi Strauss & Co. historian Tracey Panek

These origins solidified denim jeans’ role as the “ultimate grassroots garment,” Panek added. Movements throughout history have been led by ordinary people—and ordinary people have always worn denim.

Levi’s well-known cowboy iconography began to show up in its advertisements in the 1930s, underscoring denim as an all-American fabric made for the toughest and most rugged. But toward the end of the decade, everything about the culture began to shift as World War II saw young American men drafted in droves.

“I think if we go back and look at World War II, conscription really changed the way America viewed America,” said Mark-Evan Blackman, men’s wear professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “When people from all different backgrounds were drafted and had to work together for the greater good of the country, they were exposed to one another, and they realized they all wanted the same thing.”

According to Blackman, denim became the army’s fabric of choice, and consequently, a great equalizer among the troops. The sturdy fabric was both durable and comfortable, adding to its appeal. “We had a ton of denim in the U.S. and it was cheap, and it was issued to everyone,” he said. “For many people who did not grow up on farms, it was the first time they were introduced to it.”

The war stoked awareness of denim across the culture at large, he said, though the fabric retained a utilitarian sensibility throughout the remainder of the 1940s. That all changed over the course of the next decade, when television and movies became nearly inescapable pop-culture influences.

When Marlon Brando depicted a dock worker with dreams of becoming a prize fighter in his Oscar-winning role in 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” his blue jeans lit up the screen—even in black and white. Men who had returned from war a decade before saw in Brando an everyman and an ally, Blackman said.

“Marlon Brando wore a T-shirt and jeans, and all his co-stars had on T-shirts and jeans, and they were the downtrodden good guys,” he said. “A fire was lit, and everyone was watching.”

Just as those moviegoers—many of them former service members—received the message that they could put down their chinos and slip back into their well-worn denim, a younger generation also began to take note. By the time “Rebel Without a Cause” was released in 1955, its magnetic young breakout star had already been killed in a tragic car crash. But James Dean, who at 24 had embodied an angsty teen searching for meaning within the confines of his humdrum suburban life, would live on as a legend forever, canonized in a pair of blue jeans, white T-shirt, red Mattson’s Sportswear jacket—and that smoldering stare.

The film’s influence and Dean’s posthumous celebrity cannot be overstated, Blackman said. Rebel “reinforced what ‘On the Waterfront’ presented,” he added, “but instead of a longshoreman, we’re seeing a troubled high school kid.”

According to Tonya Blazio-Licorish, assistant archivist for Women’s Wear Daily, Dean’s big-screen sartorial choices represented “a moment that changed youth culture, and youth ambivalence.” For young adults, seeing Dean clad in denim reinforced their own rejections of “the stuffiness and buttoned-up nature” of their parents’ generation.

The ensuing years solidified denim’s place not just in the mainstream, but also as a part of the upending of social norms that seized the 1960s. Then Vogue editor Diana Vreeland coined the term “youthquake” to describe the tectonic force of the era’s young voices, who redefined music, culture and fashion throughout the decade.

“By the 1960s, denim and blue jeans had become a symbol of rebellion and youth with meaning that still seems to resonate today,” Levi’s Panek said, characterizing denim as “a canvas to express one’s point of view, from style to politics.”

Levi’s archives are home to a number of relics from the 1960s and ’70s, Panek said, including blue jeans sewn and stylized with American flags and peace signs, which became a popular anti-war symbol. Young people adopted denim as their clothing of choice, she said, because blue jeans were cheap and transformable.

Many photos of the 1960s protests are black and white, obscuring the living color of their subjects and their wardrobe choices. According to Blazio-Licorish, the reality would have been more vibrant—and often, more blue.

“It was not unusual that many young adults were often clad in their blue jeans at rallies and protests as a sign of the social movement of the times,” she said. Denim was simultaneously becoming the symbol of a new working class and acting as a visual memory of America’s heritage. “People dream in their denim,” she added.

Denim’s role in rebellion grew, not just in the U.S., but across the globe. Decades after the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement, hundreds of youth dressed in blue jeans sat on top of the Berlin Wall as it fell in 1989. The moment demonstrated “the continuous symbolism of denim,” Panek said. “For those young Germans, denim represented youth, rebellion and freedom—a fitting way to mark the end of the Cold War era.”

This year, young Americans flooded streets across the nation. Some wore masks. Many wore denim. As summer arrived in June, downtowns and main streets across the country’s biggest cities and small-town communities brimmed with bodies of all colors, chanting calls for change. And while the crowds have contracted, the movement remains.

“Denim is there at these protests,” Blackman said. “You can take a cross-section of any crowd, with people from age 15-35, and 80 percent of them have on some form of denim.”

But this time around, young people aren’t slipping into jeans to stick it to their parents or the proverbial Man. Instead, denim has become a second skin for those growing up in the 21st century. “There’s still a cachet to denim, but it’s not in your face,” Blackman said. “It’s not making a dramatic political, countercultural statement the way it once did—it’s evolved beyond that.”

While the fabric has shed its inherent rebelliousness, it’s still often a part of today’s rebel uniform. “People aren’t getting communiques about what to wear,” Blackman said. “Those choices are fundamentally unique, but there’s a lot of overlap.” Americans are still choosing denim in 2020, as they did when they took to the streets in decades past.

Movements throughout history have been led by ordinary people—and ordinary people have always worn denim.
Artist Serge Gay Jr.’s customized ‘Black Movement’ jacket LS& Co. Archive

And while jeans are an indispensable part of wardrobes across the country and the world, Blackman believes they can’t be totally divorced from their working-class, grassroots history.

In 2017, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville brought white nationalists out of the woodwork to terrorize a college town under the guise of defending a historical monument of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The activists wore chinos and white polo shirts—a polished aesthetic reminiscent of a schoolboy’s uniform, or that of a dad on the job. GQ characterized the look as “The New Uniform of White Supremacy.”

The preppy getup stands in sharp contrast with the garb worn by other protesters marching for human rights, the environment, or virtually any other cause. It’s a conscious rejection of the everyman, and an attempt to elevate themselves above him. “It’s different than what we’re seeing erupting spontaneously around the country now,” Blackman said. Today, protesters “happen to all be choosing garments within a certain vocabulary.”

According to Barbara Bundy, vice president of education at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), denim’s ubiquity could be key to its continued influence. “You can look at other types of clothing, and they’re synonymous with certain subcultures or income levels,” she said. “But you see denim in every country in the world, at every price range.”

That accessibility has allowed the fabric to “permeate every part of our culture,” whether it’s bought at a swap meet, or from an upscale designer. Denim is no longer rooted in a rejection of social norms, she added—it’s about democratizing fashion and making its wearers feel as if they belong.

“Denim is a great leveler,” Bundy said. “It transcends class and status, and puts everyone on the same playing field.”

Young wearers may not fully understand denim’s history, but they know the fabric’s heritage gives it some clout, said Amanda Starling, chairperson for FIDM’s International Manufacturing and Product Development program and instructor for the school’s Business of Denim program.

“The generations today want clothes that tell a story,” she said. They’ve become interested in shopping for thrifted and vintage clothing, and raiding their parents’ and even grandparents’ closets for relics of bygone eras. They’ve also become more interested than ever in preserving the planet, she said. The school’s sustainability-focused denim classes are as much about curbing the fabric’s hefty ecological impact as creating the perfect wash.

“The clothes that people choose today make an important statement,” Starling said. While denim has been fingered over the past decade as a major contributor to fashion’s environmental ills, the industry has moved mountains to revolutionize its processes and revitalize its image.

“Denim actually represents the forefront of change in the fashion industry,” she added. It’s one reason she believes young shoppers are still so enamored of the material, and why she believes its influence continues, through changing trends and tribulations, more than a century after it was birthed into cultural consciousness.

“There have been so many other fashion statements that we as a culture have picked up, tried on and discarded,” Blackman said. “Denim has never been discarded—it has traveled with us, and it continues to evolve accordingly.”

Read more from the latest issue of Rivet magazine here.