Dior Spring 2018. Photograph by Stephane Cardinale/Corbis for Getty Images.

Dior, Chanel, Calvin Klein: How Denim Pushes America's Soft Power

Denim is the fabric of American influence. How do designers use it to explore American values on the runway?

by Haley Mlotek
Oct 13 2017, 4:12pm

Dior Spring 2018. Photograph by Stephane Cardinale/Corbis for Getty Images.

How do you make an American quilt? For Spring/Summer 2018, fashion designers shared an easy answer to this presumed question: with denim—duh. At Calvin Klein, Raf Simons showed a collection inspired by purely American horror stories: cheerleaders and the girls they soak in blood, the morbid portraiture of Pop Art, cowboy shirts in silk and sheer nightgowns made for a haunted doll. One all-denim look was paneled with red patches, printed with a cultural cowboy: Dennis Hopper in his role from Easy Rider, per the Andy Warhol silkscreen.

Of course denim factored just as heavily as horror into Simons' conception of America, and of course his version of an American quilt meant layering icons on top of iconic materials. Denim is not an American invention, but American mythologies are not too concerned with origins. It's a better story to say that denim has become the most American of fabrics, and the most American of clothing items—the truest distillation of values best expressed through symbols rather than words.

Levi Strauss & Co employed Lynn Downey as an in-house historian for twenty-five years, and reading her work shows a fascinating attempt to find a legitimate claim—any claim—to the singular invention of denim. The term was once considered to be an English mistranslation of a serge fabric produced in Nimes, France around the 17 th century, but it's unclear if "serge de Nimes" is the true source of denim pants made for workers, particularly because it was made of silk and wool. Even more confusing is that there was another fabric known as "jean," a cotton/linen/wool blend from Genoa, Italy very popular in England in the 16 th century, and by the 18 th century, it was considered the most durable and useful kind of pant for men.

At the same time, in Massachusetts, a factory was making pants made of both denim and jean, in the tradition of using both materials for sturdy workwear. In 1850 Loeb Strauss changed his name to Levi, and as a 23-year-old man he followed the Gold Rush to San Francisco, where the only item of value he discovered was that the miners there needed better pants. He imported denim from Nimes, metal rivets from Nevada, and patented the technique in 1873. By the 1920s, Levi's overalls were the most common form of work pants, and in World War II, American soldiers took their jeans with them overseas. After the war ended, denim became a symbol of sporting leisure, the kind of casual, everyday luxury central to American identities: work hard, play hard, work really hard at playing hard, has everyone noticed that I'm working so hard at playing hard?

By the 1960s, denim was being exported back into the countries it had originated from as a quintessentially American item. The 1970s was a boom decade for different styles of leg—most notably, the flare—and the excess of the 1980s designer jean would give rise to the three-figure denim market of the early millennium, with a brief stopover in the mass-market mall brands of 1990s, like The Gap, selling affordable, sensible styles to the entire family. Rock and roll, punks, mods, grunge: every subculture and their resulting sub-sub-cultures had a style of jean to their name. The value of denim is no longer its own; denim has become a representation of something much, much more powerful than a material first adopted for its durability.

What I mean is that denim has soft power. "Soft power," wrote political scientist Joseph S. Nye, Jr., who developed the concept in his 1990 book Bound to Lead, is "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies." It is not about the literal application — blue jeans, he suggests, are an inadequate and incomplete symbol—but they function as soft power if people have been convinced that they represent much more attractive qualities: freedom, work as self-fulfillment, simplicity, ease, comfort, and democracy made material.

In fact, people do believe blue jeans symbolize those things. When Evan Osnos went to North Korea in August of this year, to report on the escalating threat of nuclear war for the New Yorker, he mentioned that there were "flashes of modernity, even style" in Pyongyang. "Some women can be seen wearing stilettos and short skirts, though these can be no higher than two inches above the knee, according to Workers' Party regulations," he says, adding as an aside that "Jeans are still practically taboo, because of their associations with America." These associations, we understand, are certain myths about American values: democracy, meritocracy, work for individual fulfillment rather than collective gain. It is not the blue jeans themselves as a literal artifact that seduces or repels. It is not even just the qualities they have come to represent. It is that they are the building blocks of a language—the very vocabulary of an idea—worn on the body to communicate same.

I noticed, too, the presence of blue jeans as an vocabulary in itself when reading Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, Svetlana Alexiovich's magnum opus of stories of Russians who lived through the rise and fall of Soviet Communism. As I read multiple people explaining their complex and conflicting emotions about renouncing communism and reckoning with capitalism, they mention, again and again, the day they first saw or touched or bought or sold a pair of blue jeans. Says one Russian early in the book: "Do you really think that this country fell apart because people learned the truth about the gulag? That's what people who write books think. People…don't care about history, they're concerned with simpler things: falling in love, getting married, having kids. Building a house. Our country fell apart from the deficit of women's boots and toilet paper, because of the fact that there were no oranges. It was those goddamn blue jeans!" One person dismisses the allure of American merchandise: "We were an Almighty Superpower that called the shots in many countries. Even America was afraid of us. There weren't enough pantyhose and blue jeans? To win a nuclear war, you need the latest in missiles and bomber aircraft, not pantyhose." "We're living in the most shameful era of our entire history," Alexievich records someone else saying. "Ours is the generation of cowards and traitors. That's how our children will remember us. 'Our parents sold out a great country for jeans, Marlboros, and chewing gum,' they'll say."

Whatever Levi Strauss managed to set in motion when he made blue jeans the worker's pant, it worked. Like apple pie and democracy, blue jeans are not American, but they communicate more about America than words ever could: that particular blend of compromise and betrayal, individuality and sameness, wants mistaken for needs. During the most recent Paris Fashion Week, I wondered about the way designers used denim to this effect, in a city with a distinct relationship to fashion and an even more singular one to America. No fashion week is entirely one thing or the other, but there are certain patterns to be expected—Milan is for materials, London is for artists, New York is for commerce, and Paris is the future. The way they incorporate denim, invented in Europe but exported today as an American product, is capable of presenting many contradictory or complicated political ideas as though they are, simply, to be pulled on and off

At Dior, the first look featured a t-shirt with feminist overtures, an accessory that is becoming her trademark (two accessories, really: the feminist politicking and the message t-shirt). This time, it was the title of Linda Nochlin's 1971 essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" printed on a striped Breton t-shirt. The essay was given to guests, and Nochlin apparently approved of this idea in advance of the show. The shirt was shown with a pair of blue jeans, as though to suggest taking the pants with you to your studio, where you, free from the bourgeois conventions of a patriarchal art scene, will finally become that great woman artist.

At Chanel, the denim was bleached until it was brighter than air and fresher than water: "Did you feel it?" Karl Lagerfeld asked Sarah Mower after the show, referring, ostensibly, to the waterfalls approximating the landscape of the South of France that were the background of his Spring/Summer 2018 show. "The molecules from the water, when you breathe them in, its very healthy for you! It's why you feel good in places like this." One look had iridescent purple fringe radiating out of the sleeves, while another was a full denim suit—jacket and skirt, with the skirt pointedly given an asymmetrical hem, as if to concede that this skirt might be worn by someone less inclined to the rigid rightness of a classic Chanel suit. Denim at a Chanel show, while still potent, is always a guest—it's Chanel's show, and Chanel gets the last word. Denim will work for Chanel's agenda and not the other way around. In Robin Givhan's review of the show for the Washington Post, she compared Chanel's diehard fans to Deadheads, following the brand from season to season: "It doesn't matter if the style doesn't really change from one season to the next, or if a season isn't particularly inspired. It's the back catalogue and the conviviality that they love and desire." In this way, Lagerfeld's denim holds the promise of an America full of material comforts, where freedom and relaxation is available for those who can afford it.

Back in New York, denim was mostly traditional, in the spirit of weekend wear best for a feeling of adolescent brattiness. The jeans at Public School were appropriately and classically collegiate—the kind of ripped knees parents can't believe you paid full price for. A denim jacket had rips up and down the sleeves that mimicked the effect of repeated wear, although improbably so. What kind of flexed bicep would cause a diagonal slash on the upper arm—but who cares, what am I, your mom?

At Faustine Steinmetz, in London, the denim was torn to shreds. Her denim did not look like it was "cropped" or "unfinished" so much as it looked like it had been clawed in half by a denim-hating beast. There were some parallels to precedents set by the Parisian designers: her denim jacket only barely covered the model's rib cage, much like a denim jacket in miniature shown by Galliano at Dior in 2000; one denim suit had tassels hanging at odd intervals (the breast, thigh, and knee) made of pale tinsel-floss, like Lagerfeld's at Chanel. Her interpretation was magical, with one patchwork pair of jeans working like a dream: patches that seemed to be floating on top of legs were held together by a sheer panel. Once there's a unified theory of what denim means, it becomes easier to try on new definitions; secure that since everyone already knows what denim means, they'll understand, too, what it means when those expectations are upended. We expect denim to be sturdy; seeing them made to look practically see-through is a thrill. It's just a fabric, after all.

Yves Saint Laurent once said he wished he had been the one to invent blue jeans: "the most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed and nonchalant. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity—all I hope for in my clothes." That's a lot of meaning to assign to a pair of cotton pants, and yet it still doesn't even begin to describe how much more meaning they can hold. What would people would do for the blue jeans they believe in; what have they done already? Mostly, I think it's telling that he wishes he had invented them himself. What's more American than trying to claim something beloved by all as your very own?