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Friday, April 17: Demon Denim | The Bleat.

Making the rounds today was this piece by George F. Will, a smart fellow whose work I have read and enjoyed for decades. It pains me to write this, because it reminds me of the times we woke Grandpa because he fell asleep smoking, and his column of Winston ash was in danger of toppling into his lap. But Mr. Will should be gently guided away from the keyboard when he decides to winch himself down from Olympus and write about popular culture.

In this installment he decides to go after “denim,” a newfangled fabric that has been scaring the horses and causing scandal on the Boardwalk. Adults shouldn’t wear “demon denim,” as the title calls it. Gentle advice: when you have a pointy head, donning a dunce cap just doubles the problem.

Writer Daniel Akst has noticed and has had a constructive conniption. He should be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has earned it by identifying an obnoxious misuse of freedom. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he has denounced denim, summoning Americans to soul-searching and repentance about the plague of that ubiquitous fabric, which is symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche.

I think his tongue is lodged partway cheek-wise because calling the choice of a comfortable fabric “an obnoxious misuse of freedom” is akin to demanding people rip out their iPod earbuds and partake in the glorious impromptu symphony of modern life. You can certainly use the words repentance, plague, and deep disorders in a column about modern ills, but insufficiently stiff trousers doesn’t seem to merit the big guns.
Perhaps it’s a humor column, then.

It is, he says, a manifestation of “the modern trend toward undifferentiated dressing, in which we all strive to look equally shabby.”

Perhaps not.

There are two points in the quote. For one thing, undifferentiated dressing was the hallmark of the past: take a look at the old photos of baseball games, and behold the sea of straw boaters. You could express your individuality with a tie, but otherwise men wore a uniform. I agree that the old days of mandatory suits tended to push the fashion standard up, not down – the old suits may have been thin and shiny around the elbows, but they were still part of a code, and belonged to a style that encouraged sophistication. If you could afford it. There’s something to be said for the suit, the way it seems to infuse the occupant with a sense of duty and adulthood, however dim and tinny they may be nowadays.

It’s the difference between the Ought and the Want cultures, as David Gelernter put it, and it’s something I’ve argued with myself about for some time. I yearn for elements of the Ought culture, but I don’t want to wear a suit in an era without air conditioning. I’m soft as a grape, it seems. I love the era of fine hats, but I know I would have looked like someone in a Munchkin production of “The Maltese Falcon.” Like most, I want a little more of the old cohesion, but want it loosened up here and there to accommodate the things I like. Buffet conservatism, I suppose. I think we’d have been better off if the Great Thinkers of the 60s hadn’t been so eager to upend the Etch-A-Sketch, and we had evolved towards certain positions instead of having the norms dynamited. Ought has power; if the boomers were vampires, Ought was their cross, dewy with holy water.

As for contemporary undifferentiated dressing: We all may wear jeans now, but judging from my recent trip to Disneyworld, we all wear different shirts with an astonishing array of logos, corporate identities, slogans, pictures and other examples of personal expression. No one strives to look equally shabby. Shabbiness may be the end result, but people are keenly interested in carving out a particular niche identity on the front of their shirts.

Denim reflects “our most nostalgic and destructive agrarian longings — the ones that prompted all those exurban McMansions now sliding off their manicured lawns and into foreclosure.”

God, what nonsense that is. No one wears jeans because they want to emulate the Humble Yeoman, or they’d be tromping around in Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls. The last time we had nostalgic agrarian longings was the early 70s, and that resulted in sack dresses and Earth shoes. Nostalgia for the farm was long ago replaced with forward-looking reverence for the Earth, a deified and idealized organism in constant peril from our viral existence. No one wears jeans because they want to harken back to the agrarian past, but they wear jeans made from organic fibers because they want to point the way to a sustainable future in which the planet is not imperiled by chemicals designed to neuter the boll weevil.

As for the “McMansions” – a lazy term that means “houses I don’t like” – I’d guess that the stats show foreclosures are highest in those new developments that packed expensive houses close together, not the exurb developments built for people who had the credit and the income to qualify for a good loan. Around here, the majority of the foreclosure are in the old inner-city neighborhoods, but that’s another story. Although I’m sure they wear denim there too. For that matter, I’ve seen pictures of George Bush in jeans; the Crawford ranch ought to be on the auction block soon.

Jeans come prewashed and acid-treated to make them look like what they are not — authentic work clothes for horny-handed sons of toil and the soil.

Acid-washed! It’s the latest style! Now, here’s a tune from Poison that’s heading up the charts.

In this century, if you go to the “Gap” or other dry-goods merchants, you will find mostly ordinary jeans, with a few that have been treated to look as if they’ve been broken in. Not because the wearer wants people to think he just got off the farm – a sure path to popularity and respect, that – but because they don’t look like stiff serge-pipes Mom bought for the first day of school.

Akst’s summa contra denim is grand as far as it goes, but it only scratches the surface of this blight on Americans’ surfaces.

At this point I’m thinking this might not be humor. If you’re bringing down Latin to excoriate the evils of jeans, you must be kidding.

Denim is the infantile uniform of a nation in which entertainment frequently features childlike adults (“Seinfeld,” “Two and a Half Men”) and cartoons for adults (“King of the Hill”). Seventy-five percent of American “gamers” — people who play video games — are older than 18 and nevertheless are allowed to vote.

We can gather much from this, aside from the fact that the tea was tepid when served that morning, which always puts one in a querulous humour. We can assume he hasn’t seen more than two seconds of “King of the Hill,” a very clever show that’s firmly on the side of the folk who share his instincts and understands their culture far better than Mr. Will does. (Hank Hill is a man haunted by Oughts of all sorts, constantly parsing the demands of modern life with the Oughts that arise from being a middle-aged Texan father who deals with propane. And propane accessories.) The self-contented sneer against animation suggests no disrespect for the thing itself, but rather the moving drawings aimed at adults. They should content themselves with the amusing engravings in Punch, which stay in one place and do not excite the blood.

As for allowing gamers to vote – well, tart, puckish disapproval noted, and keenly felt. I admit that I have used my computer to construct large theme parks, defeat Jedi masters, secure nuclear material in rogue states, and slog through Hell itself. Imaginary pursuits all, and hardly befitting an adult. I should sit myself in a large stadium and watch men in striped suits stand around and spit while waiting for another man to hit a ball with a stick, and I should do this 100 times a year, and I should also issue rhapsodic encomiums to the timeless American nature of watching men stand around and sit an wait for another man to hit the ball with the aforementioned stick. This is what adults do. Unless they are doing it in a simulation on a computer, in case the franchise should be withdrawn. (The vote, not the major-league endorsement of the game.)

I should go the game in a suit, of course.

In their undifferentiated dress, children and their childish parents become undifferentiated audiences for juvenilized movies (the six — so far — “Batman” adventures and “Indiana Jones and the Credit-Default Swaps,” coming soon to a cineplex near you).

The Indiana Jones reference is as incoherent as it is dated, and if a writer is lumping the sixth Batman with the fourth, he’s not exactly demonstrating a nuanced grasp of the culture he purports to critique.

Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy’s catechism of leveling — thou shalt not dress better than society’s most slovenly.

No one believes this. Find me the most bleeding-hearted social worker who deals with the sullen flotsam all day long, and she’s wearing a nice outfit with sensible, but smart, shoes. But let’s walk that sentence backwards – forget the final commandment, which is nonsense. Is there not an element of leveling in democracy, inasmuch as we share a common set of values that scales up and down from AMERICA F*CK YEAH at the bottom to a qualified but deeply-felt patriotism at the top? Sure. Is this a catechism? No. Does it have priests? Well, depending on the situation, yes; conservatives and liberals alike will celebrate the breadth of the UNUM when it suits their mood. It’s part of that grand vague unmodified civic religion that defines America. But if Denim was its clerical vestment, the President address the nation in Levis, and the First Lady would stand at his side wearing Daisy Dukes.

As for the “thou shalt not dress better” strawman:

To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism — of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste.

Mind you, we’re talking about pants. Blue pants. Blue pants I wear often, along with their brethren, black jeans. I iron the jeans; I choose a good clean shirt; I put on sneakers – yes, I admit it of my own free will, sneakers – with clean laces and clean sides, because I like them. If “casual” = slovenly, then I am slovenly. But it just seems absurd to put on a suit when I’m working at home.

I agree that some people may say that all standards of sartorial comportment are social constructs, but they still put on a clean shirt when they go on CNN. And Will is smart enough to know the argument isn’t about an elitist desire to demolish the distinction between good taste and bad; it’s between old taste and new, with the latter accorded more moral importance than the former. Every new movement gains its authority by inhabiting and supplanting the authority of the previous movement. It only pretends to deny the legitimacy of the previous idea’s authority. Modern art is all about insisting that THIS IS NOT A PIPE right up to the point where it owns the pipe, at which point it is most certainly a pipe, and the most important pipe ever.

This is not complicated. For men, sartorial good taste can be reduced to one rule: If Fred Astaire would not have worn it, don’t wear it. For women, substitute Grace Kelly.

I love Fred Astaire, but I’m not going to wear a tuxedo to the grocery store. Fred was a paragon of style, yes; Fred never had a job that required a camera, a cell, a video camera, extra batteries, and other items that need many pockets. I hate to say it, but Fred’s job consisted of dancing, a profession for which “roominess in the seat and leg” is important. Does this mean I can blame him for the moral decline that lead directly to the Zoot Suit Riots? As for Grace Kelly, yes: loveliness, great style. It helps to be Grace Kelly, of course. My wife wears suits to the office. Minnie Pearl wore a dress. Guess who looks more elegant?

Gird up your slackly-clad loins for this next one:

Edmund Burke — what he would have thought of the denimization of America can be inferred from his lament that the French Revolution assaulted “the decent drapery of life”; it is a straight line from the fall of the Bastille to the rise of denim — said: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

Okay, it is humor. The remark about the straight line from the fall of the Bastille to the rise of denim cannot be intended as anything but gentle, winking hyperbole, and no doubt intended to cause a wry smile among those who know the French origins of the very word Denim. One could make the point that the radical egalitarianism of the French Revolution was a poisonous worm that drilled through Western Civilization, eventually poking up its head in the rich loam of the boomer psyche, so eager to perfect the world it would dismiss without question everything that had been built up and handed to them.

But I think they would have been content to do it all while wearing khakis, too.

He ends:

A confession: The author owns one pair of jeans. Wore them once. Had to. Such was the dress code for former senator Jack Danforth’s 70th birthday party, where Jerry Jeff Walker sang his classic “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” Music for a jeans-wearing crowd.

Once a year, Manfred the servant removes them from the glass case, takes them outside with tongs, and airs them out. After which they go back in the case with the label that says “break glass in case of Jacobins.”


236 Responses to Friday, April 17: Demon Denim

  1. hpoulter says:

    Just to help push this to 200 comments – check out the picture of Will on Malkin’s blog: he’s wearing an awesomely ugly “casual wear” outfit that would be vastly improved by blue jeans and maybe a western shirt.


  2. MinnItMan says:

    There was a Curb Your Enthusisiam episode where a character played by crotchety Ed Asner is visisting LA and needs to change his will. The lawyer recommended to him is wearing causual Friday dress, and Ansner’s character flips out and refused to let the guy work for him. He later dies before having made the change.

    It’s funny because CYE is often called “the real Seinfeld.” And it’s also funny because Ansner’s character died thwarted as a business dress bigot. Mostly funny because he died, though.

  3. Nancy says:

    Pretty good HunkyBob! I say this because I played around a bit with Xtranormal and it is time consuming (I guess it gets easier) and takes a lot of editing.

  4. Nancy says:

    Just wanted to turn 200 comments^^

  5. MinnItMan says:

    Also, what about Kevin Bacon? Doesn’t he demonstrate the dancibility of dungarees?

  6. GardenStater says:

    @Greg Ransom: Didja notice that Fred’s jeans have a crease pressed into them? I guess that’s where Lileks got his inspiration! ;)

  7. Douglas says:

    Of course, George Will had a point. We certainly should have more self-respect and at least wear khakis, an oxford shirt, and a sport jacket when flying (as opposed to jeans or a warmup suit).

    But as my trial lawyer dad (defense, not plaintiff) used to say, George Will went so far out on this particular limb that he made it easy for James to saw it off.

  8. [...] hardly knows where to begin. Sometimes the best place to begin is with a world-class fisker like James Lileks, who looks at a few of Will’s assertions thus:   We can gather much from this, aside from [...]

  9. Wramblin' Wreck says:

    Amazing!! 200+ comments on denim? LOL!

    George Will really needs to get out of the beltway and see how the real country lives. If he lived for a year in someplace like Festus, MO or Baggs, WY (both nice places) then he would see real multifaceted America. We are big enough to wear suits, jeans, and even trousers. Whatever is appropriate.

    Me? I work at home and wear just my underwear. It helps aerate the brain and helps me think. But I dress appropriately when out and about, working in the garden or woodworking.

  10. David says:

    The man wears a bowtie!
    ‘nuth said

  11. MaryMargaret says:

    Jeans are not the worst offense but they certainly started the ball rolling. People do not realize that as soon as they enter an environment they are part of the scenery for everyone else. Besides, isn’t it boring to dress the same way for every thing you do?

    My DD is 11 yrs. old. I have taught her from an early age never to marry a man who won’t dance with her and/or doesn’t own a suit. Not dancing with the person one loves no matter how much they want it is a form selfishness. Not owning a suit is social rebellion. The man is saying that doesn’t think he will ever be invited to a wedding, christening, bar mitzvah, graduation, celebration, or funeral. When he is, he says “I’m not going to buy a suit just for one occaision.” But there never is just one occaision. The suitless man ends up dressing inappropriately which shows distain for the event. I’m all for social rebellion, but I don’t think someone else’s christening or graduation is the place for it.

    2 yrs. ago, DH threw me a ball for our 20 anniversary. It was at home so we had to remove every stick of furniture from the livingroom(stored in a neighbors garage) to make it a dance floor. The diningroom was also emptied and was the bar with horduerves (sic). It was so nice to see the men in white tie and the women in ballgowns. The jazz band was perfect and everyone stayed late dancing with everyone else. My point: I don’t thing my guests would have been in the same mood if the dress were casual.

  12. Joe Toschik says:

    Poor blighter’s been channeling Lucius Beebe!

  13. PhiskPhan says:

    The reason people wear jeans is that they can wear them over and over without washing them because they don’t look any different dirty than they do clean. Perfect for college students. But adults who don’t mind living in their own gravy? Ugh.

  14. Marjorie J. Birch says:

    No one’s going to praise the line “In case of Jacobins, break glass”??? Still howling at that one.

  15. Lileks says:

    Lucius Beebe! +10 for the ancient New York newspaper reference, Joe.

  16. AD&A says:

    Does he know there are jeans( denim ) that cost upwards of $400US ?
    The absolute disconnect this very intelligent man has towards the world he lives in makes me question the other things he says.

  17. margaret says:

    My absolute favorite line:

    They should content themselves with the amusing engravings in Punch, which stay in one place and do not excite the blood.


  18. Shawn says:

    Great post!

    As for George Will, we’re talking about a guy who wears a bow-tie.
    Not with a tux, mind you, with a suit. Like that’s normal.

    You know who else wears a bow tie?
    Tucker Carlson (dweeb)
    Orville Redenbocher (popcorn, also dec’d)
    Boo Boo (fat bear–and, like Will, a cartoon)

    And…well, that’s it.

  19. Nancy says:

    After spending an entire day in KHAKI slacks, I opened my “junk” email account only to find this appeal from the “Ann Taylor” clothing store about their latest sale:”Denim Done Right: Only 4 Days to Save In Stores & Online”…An apropos end to a bizarrely long but funny dissertation on denim.

  20. Moishe3rd says:

    Now Everybody reads Lileks!
    They Read you, they really, really Read you!

    Wear overalls everyday. I love them. It’s my work uniform. Nobody else (at least no independent contractors that I know) would be caught dead in overalls.
    A late, plainspoken, older friend of mine used to wax prolific calling me “Farmer George” and telling me how everyone looked like me back during the Depression.
    It’s almost as good as wearing tie dyed day glo clothes and freaking everybody out.
    Then, I change into black pants; white shirt; black jacket; and often a black hat at least twice a day for prayer and going anywhere where I am not actually working because I, again, love wearing that uniform.
    It formalizes me and again sets me “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”
    (“Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
    Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
    They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”
    – Thomas Gray)

    I get to be a strange duck wearing Will’s vile denim and, I get be be an even stranger duck wearing “formal” clothes everywhere else, including taking my grandchildren to the Park or the Mall of America.

    What a wonderful world we live in!

  21. Pam-EL says:

    The perfect rejoinder for everything, culled from two Bleats years apart: “Jiminy bitchwhistle, winch yourself down from Olympus!”

  22. Strunk N. White says:

    Does this mean I can blame him for the moral decline that lead directly to the Zoot Suit Riots?

    Good column, but you wrote “lead” when you meant “led.” A common
    error today, unfortunately.

  23. blognerd says:

    you are becoming one of my bloggy heroes. This line is pure gold:

    “Nostalgia for the farm was long ago replaced with forward-looking reverence for the Earth, a deified and idealized organism in constant peril from our viral existence.”

    This really nails it down, but good–irony and paradox shadow your major points of contention with Will. Which is to say totalizing world views like Conservative and Progressive are splintering apart into increasingly pluralized and nuanced positions. The old Big Movements are being tweeted, blogged, facebooked, and myspaced to death. I mean how does Will even know how to DEAL with a Lileks, a blogging, technophile, nostalgia nerd with a conservative-ish point of view. Ish? Will knows not -ish. Which is the point.

    The staid old conservative, cranky with the present and morbid about the future can’t survive such tactics, really, can they? I mean even if a Buckley tweeted long enough, he’d eventually have to have some thoughts that wouldn’t pass as conservative, wouldn’t he?

  24. Tosh says:

    James, I always love your take on things but refuting “…we all strive to look equally shabby…” by pointing out that jeans made to look “used” are for comfort is a bit disingenuous. Many of those jeans are made to look “abused” rather than used and often come with rips and holes having nothing to do with comfort. They are made to look shabby. Period. Also, shirts (mainly T-shirts) with writing, pictures, cartoons or logos cannot be passed off as “individual expression” when they all come from the same racks with the same expressions put out by the same corporations. They are more like “corporate expressions” (especially the over-sized, obnoxious logos), attire for sheep following the denim shepherd. George Will certainly waded far too deep into Lake Ridiculous to tell us that we dress like bums, but he has a point. Sometimes dressing up a little is an expression of respect which, in my book, beats individual expression quite often.

  25. Steve Biddle says:

    Wonderful, James. Just freakin’ wonderful. And I have to agree with one of the early comment-posters, and stand in awe: You fisked George Will! My hat is off to you. Of course, that’s because I never wear a hat. But even if I did, it would now be off.

  26. Chad says:

    I wear Khakis because they are more comfortable than jeans. When I was a teenager and into my 20s I only wore jeans, because that’s all everyone wore. No that I have grown up (almost 40), I never wear jeans. I don’t even own a pair. Jeans are uncomfortable, heavy and hot, and dont look good on anyone. By all means, please continue to be conformists, but all that is conveyed is that you have no sense of fashion. Will is 100% correct.

  27. Lizducow says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I thought Will was making fun of Akst – the source of the quotes about “McMansions” and “undifferentiated dressing.”
    Still, very funny bleat!

  28. Ha! Number 226 is my comment, and it is mine, and I have it.

    And another thing: Will always writes the same predictably snooty nyah-nyah-nyah column about 60s counter-cultural figures as soon as they die, so I for one am going to be sure to avoid reading him when Dylan or Keef goes belly up.

  29. Amanda Albright Flynn says:

    Great fisking, great comments.

    Fred Astaire stated on a TV special from the 60s that he “loathed” putting on that formal wear with which he was associated. On the otherhand, I spoke to Ray Wylie Hubbard about a month ago after he performed his song “Up Against the Wall for Redneck Mothers” for about the eleventy-billionth time and marveled at how enthusiastic he could be when he’d done it so many times. A gracious and pleasant man, he said he always enjoys it. That the audience reaction always makes it unique for him.

    Some fussy formal things get old fast, some casul things don’t. Mr. Will just doesn’t get it,and we can tell which he is.

  30. emd says:

    Only Will could complain about a German immigrant partnering with a Latvian immigrant to invent denim jeans here in America — not for slovenly dress but for miners whose cotton pants didn’t cut the mustard.

    I hate that we’re all slobs, too, but denim is not the problem.

    I also hope that someone may inform Will that Hank Hill is on his side.

  31. sskinner says:

    It must have been a bad week for elitist-type commentary – sadly I read Peggy Noonan’s last column!

  32. Alex says:

    This is one of the best Lileks in weeks and I couldn’t wait to share it with my wife–but I think though Will deserved the blog-lashing that James gave him, too many of these posts were too dismissive of a columnist who has held the conservative torch high–particularly in pro-life areas (he’s the proud father of a Down Syndrome child)–against the liberal tide in D.C. He’s entitled to write a foolish and silly column every ten years or so so I won’t hold it against him, especially when it brought out the best in Lileks and made my morning. So thanks, George, and James.

  33. Four Generations Too Late says:

    It’s strange to think that we could take clothing as symbols in such disparate ways. Being of the very young Generation Y, a suit just doesn’t have role as a symbol for me as it does for others. It’s certainly formal attire, but it’s not really something to strive to dress as. It’s just a particular set of clothing that you’d wear to work (depending on your field) or formal occasions. I certainly don’t think it’s too comfortable, and doesn’t compare with jeans in the winter or jean shorts in the summer. Speaking personally, I prefer jeans to a suit simply because the pants are far baggier, which I just find more comfortable, versus suit pants that have to be quite tight. It’s very weird to hear that jeans aren’t comfortable, because I think they’re very comfortable, compared to any other kind of pace. I can’t stand tight fitting pants, so perhaps it’s just the fact that it’s unreasonable to wear baggy khakis and not look like a loon.

    It’s strange to see denim framed as this strong cultural movement toward shabbiness, because it doesn’t seem to be the case. No one’s abandoned the idea of attractiveness or appearance – it’s just that standards changed. Formal attire just doesn’t carry the same weight it did in the past with younger generations. Speaking for most young barely 20somethings that I know, jeans are just comfortable clothes and easy to wear. There’s nothing special about them, and khakis aren’t really seen as any more formal or different from jeans (at least, not with the age groups that I hang with).

    Jeans may well have been middle class dress at some point in the past, but I don’t think divisions among classes really exist as a matter of clothing anymore, as much as general lifestyle.

  34. George says:

    This is quite possibly the most thorough, eye-watering spanking I’ve ever seen in a blog post. Bravo, sir, bravo.

    And remember — it’s not about the jeans. It’s about TERRORISM.

  35. [...] by Compositor B on April 25, 2009 This item from Lileks last week, in which he fisks George Will, merits further consideration. Recap for those to lazy to click-n-read: Will writes a column [...]

  36. sjm says:

    Pee Wee Herman dresses like George Will, bow tie and all, but it’s a JOKE!

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