Jeans are difficult. Difficult to get right; culturally fraught; increasingly expensive; terribly high-maintenance and, perhaps worst of all, ubiquitous. For starters, what people wear are jeans and yet shops that sell the good stuff refer to their collections as denim. Denim, of course, is synecdoche but we don’t go around requesting to see the whangee when what we're after is an umbrella. In fact, the lore surrounding the naming of the cloth and resulting pants makes the history of “tweed” seem straightforward. Whatever; there was durable cloth and workwear made from that cloth at a time and a place and most of it was blue with indigo. Whether Genoa or Nimes is more responsible for our modern relationship with the garment is less important than this: jeans/denim are/is here for the duration.
Now for most this isn’t problematic. In fact jeans represent a great equalizing opportunity; on the surface, at least, jeans really are egalitarian workwear. Whether that work is hammering nails or hammering six-figure contracts is unimportant—what matters is one can do both in jeans, and do so unencumbered by the metaphysical implications of, say, a canvass jumpsuit or pinstriped DB. We have invited jeans into our collective wardrobes, and in doing so, they have transcended their station.
However, jeans do seem to raise the hackles of a few. The rare etiquette expert, (and their common manifestations the event planner and the concierge) consider jeans more as a concept than a garment. For these self-anointed arbiters the presence or absence of jeans represents a clear division between “normal” and “dress,” where anything north of jean-wearing is considered the latter. This sort of binary thinking leads to very strange happenings. I once attended a wedding where the single attire request was “No Jeans.” I was tempted to arrive in a vintage sarong and a pair of huaraches to test if that mercurial instruction was what the wedding planner truly meant. I wore my trusty navy hopsack instead, and, with the exception of the minister, was marooned in a sea of khakis, polo shirts and orphaned suit jackets. This is because, as I’ve previously stated, informality is often a perilous place.
As for restaurants, bars and, increasingly, country clubs, the once prevalent “Coat and Tie Required” has largely been supplanted by the far less helpful “No Jeans.” Here the code depends not upon the presence of certain articles of decorum but upon the banning of one, seemingly random garment. A sign outside a hotel bar might just as well read; “No Agatine Eyelets, Please”. Baffling; then again, revealing of a deeper layer in this complex story. We live with a latent fear of appearing elitist. Rather than risk telling people what they should wear we instead discern a scapegoat—jeans—and hope all participants understand the real or imagined implications of such a garment. In my estimation, this sort of mystical propriety is far more elitist than asking someone to tie some silk around the neck.
Of course this makes it sound as if I am advocating the general use of jeans for any social or business occasion—an especially curious position as I have in the past made clear my preference for real trousers. But that’s not it at all. I am merely confounded by the infamy of pants made from denim, versus, say, pants made from chino—another cheap cotton twill. One type of pant is laden with baggage whilst the other glides anonymously beneath the noses of the persnickety. I’ll offer a shaky theory as to why this may be. The former is the clothing of laborers, while the latter a descendant of a military uniform. Are the romantic colonial connotations of khaki what gains its acceptance? And are grizzled, denim-swathed gold-rushers the reason jeans are shunned at the golf course?
There aren’t neat answers to cultural phenomena, and so I will finish part one of this exploration the way we started: jeans are difficult. Somewhat more satisfyingly, Part II broaches the reality of wearing jeans rather than the philosophical act of doing so. I am convinced jeans should be rectified, even within the context of a classical wardrobe.