Tim Gunn’s making it work

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In this fascinating and meticulously researched history of Western fashion Tim Gunn takes a look at everything from suits to sportswear, wrap dresses to Crocs. In each of its fifteen chapters Tim takes one item of clothing from its earliest incarnation to the present day, covering both the cultural history of the garment to current fads. Here’s a small extract from the book.

 

JEANS

Few items of apparel are as ubiquitous as jeans. I assume that we all own a pair. (I have only had one person tell me, proudly, that she doesn’t own a single pair of jeans, which I found startling because she wears other kinds of pants all the time!) For all their ubiquity, that pair of jeans in your closet is, historically speaking, a relative infant amng the other items assembled there.

When I was a kid in the 1950s and early-to-mid ’60s, no one – but no one – wore denim. Jeans were even on my elementary schools list of forbidden apparel and accessories. Other no-no’s: collarless shirts (aka T-shirts), leather jackets, sneakers, and boots. What do you call someone who wears those items? A hood – a word that is no longer in use, meaning bad boy or girl. The denim-clad characters played by James Dean and Marlon Brando in the iconic ’50s films Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One, respectively, were what we called “hoods’ in those days, and God forbid that you be labeled as one. (I’ll add, parenthetically, that at my elementary school, one could still behave like a hood, even in oxford-cloth button-downs and gray flannel pants.)

But I recall owning a pair of jeans in those dark days. I can’t imagine why. Did my parents think that jeans would toughen up their nerdy, reculsive, sports-shy son? Well, had I worn them more than once, toughen me up they would have – physically, if not spiritually. Jeans in those days were made of a much heavier denim and were unimaginable stiff; they could literally stand up on their own. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed and sliding into them. It was like walking with two leg braces; I couldn’t bend my knees. Getting up or down a flight of stairs was a considerable workout. My legs were rubbed raw in the course of that single wearing. Surely, frequent wearing would have led to callused thighs. So, trhth be told, I was fine with the school ban, although I did think it would have been nice if they’d also banned bullying.

My school’s antijeans hysteria was not unique to my conservative Washington, DC, neighborhood. Communities everywhere devoutly believed that if your child were to wear jeans, a ticket to reform school was surly tucked away in the back pocket. In the 1950s, the Denim Council, a consortium of American textile mills, was formed to address the significant decline in sales due to this nathionwide phenomenon. As we know, their fondest hopes were soon realised, as now jeans are the ultimate American wardrobe item.

But let’s back up. The history of denim may be the most fascinating of any category of clothing. I always maintain that fashion – clothing – happens in a context, a context that is societal, cultural, historic, economic, and even political. The turning point for jeans’ popularity in America was the California Gold Rush of 1849. Thousands of people traveled west to seek their fortunes. Levi Strauss, a recent immigrant from Germany, was right behind them. In 1853, he opened a dry goods business in San Francisco to cater to this workforce. Strauss’s American denim garments would hold up to the rigors of mining – mud, dirt, and very rough work. The seams in Strauss’s clothing would be riveted for added strength. This riveting would become the iconic characteristic of the Levi Strauss brand. The brand name Levi’s today is a stand-in for the word “jeans,” much as Coke is shorthand for “cola.”

Strauss invented the rugged-wearing pants that became known as jeans, but he didn’t invent the textile. It is irrefutable that denim is centuries old and not American but Italian in origin, but the exact date of its appearance is unknown. We do know that in Genoa, Italy, in the sixteenth century, the textile – a sturdy twill made of cotton, linen, or wool – was called jene fustyan from genes, the French work for Genoa, and fustyan for fustian, the name of the twill.

In the late 1620s, the Massachusetts Bay Company logged an invoice for “11 yards of wt. English jeans.” In 1650, “19 pieces Jeines Fustian” were imported into Boston. However, by 1760, a full 110 years later, denim was the primary output of the United Company of Philadelphia, the colonists’ first mill. And by the eighteenth century, jene fustyan was made entirely of cotton.

When I was chair of the Department of Fashion Design at Parsons, I invited Lynn Downey, the historian for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco, to present to my four hundred students a history of denim – from the company’s perspective, of course. Lynn oversees a vast archive of clothing, photographs, recordings of oral histories, and letters from customers. The catalyst for my invitation was the ten-recent discovers, in an absndoned mine, of the oldest extant pair of Levis. They date to 1879, seven years after Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis patented the first pair of jeans in 1872. Lynn brought to Parsons the 1879 jeans wrapped in acid-free archival cotton. They were the most shapeless pair of pants you ever saw. The wearer must have rolled them up and belted them, and the effect must have been that of a paper-bag waistband.

One thing I find interesting is that the only reason blue jeans are blue today is that they fabric was easy to dye indigo. Lynn has said that there were other colour choices available, including black, gold, and gray. In the year 1812, records show that Lord Byron ordered numerous pairs of “white jean trowsers” from his British tailor. Blue has wored out, especially because it conceals dirt so well. But isn’t it fun to imagine what would have happened if they’d gone with another colour instead, and everyone around us was wearing, say, gold jeans?

 

Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible published by Simon & Schuster Australia is available at most good book stores throughout New Zealand, rrp $37.