America's love affair with indigo-dyed denim started with hard-working men soon after the first pair of Levi's hit the streets of San Francisco in 1873. In his new book, Jeans, Amesbury, Mass. author James Sullivan traces the history of everybody's favorite garment, from those early rugged jeans to the designer styles we wear today, and goes inside one of Boston's hottest jeans boutiques.
By James Sullivan
for The Boston Globe Magazine
'Did they flatten your butt out?" The moment the customer pulls back the dressing room curtain, the quick-talking shopkeeper peppers her with questions: "How do the jeans fit? Are they tight in the thighs? How do they feel on the hips?"
She's not just trying to make another sale, although at an average of $180 a pair for the high-end denims Leah Eckelberger retails at Jean Therapy, her Kenmore Square boutique, every sale is a considerable victory. Eckelberger, 31 and compact as a gymnast, is no master of the hard sell. She'll cheerfully send first-timers who blanch at her prices down to Newbury Street, to the Lucky Brand store, to buy less-expensive fashion jeans. She just wants her customers to go home feeling flattered, feeling cared for, as if they'd been to a spa. To Eckelberger, jeans are, in fact, a kind of therapy. They are comforting and familiar, yet they can make you feel sexy and adventurous. Her enthusiasm for her merchandise - enthusiasm, hell; it borders on pathology - is contagious.
Eckelberger likes to say that shopping for jeans brings out the best and worst in us. Customers don't hesitate to announce what they perceive to be their physical deficiencies. "They'll say 'I'm short,' or 'I have big legs,' " she says. "They're overaware of their bodies, actually. It's crazy." For many women, she says, the act of buying a new pair of jeans has become as intimate, and as anxiety-riddled, as picking out a bathing suit or an evening gown.
That's one reason the store owner believes the boom in couture denim is no passing fad. People will continue to pay higher prices, says Eckelberger, as long as the industry does not neglect the needs of ordinary buyers.
For years, the basement space that Jean Therapy now shares with a bookstore was home to the Rathskeller, the dank punk-rock hovel affectionately known as the Rat. Now stark-white and brightly lit, the space has a concrete floor patterned with Jean Therapy's graffiti-style logo, spray painted with a cardboard stencil. The transformation is telling, a microcosm of urban renewal in America. The yowling nihilism of the dive bar has given way to the hip Zen of boutique shopping. At Jean Therapy, Leah Eckelberger sells blue jeans with names that imply devotion, names such as Earnest Sewn and Sacred Blue.
In the crook of the store's L-shaped layout sits an old Singer sewing machine on a child-size table. It's a little shrine to Eckelberger's youthful infatuation with clothing. The mall jeans and Salvation Army castoff s she has altered over the years - Diesel, Gap, Liz Claiborne, "things that I've ripped apart, hemmed, studied" - are folded into stacks on the small shelves above.
Eckelberger used her parents' retirement fund as collateral for a loan to open the store. She went through three banks before finding a match, she says, fielding the same question at every one: "Who's going to spend that much on jeans?"
But this young entrepreneur knows what the loan officers may not have understood. Jeans, whatever their momentary position on the fashion ladder, are not like other clothes. We are as loyal to a good pair as we are to an old friend.
INDIGO-DYED DENIM, ORIGINALLY worn by men who dug mines, cut timber, herded cattle, drove railroad ties - working men, in other words, who built a civilization from a wilderness and had no use whatsoever for the cycles of fashion - has been part of the foundation of the fickle clothing industry for more than half a century now. Side-zip jeans for women were popular in the 1950s, when $5 was considered a preposterous price to pay for denim pants. Twenty years later, skeptics were dumbfounded when people flocked to department stores to pay $30 or $45 for dressy jeans with designer labels stitched to the rear pockets. In the early 1990s, "lifestyle" brands such as Diesel and Lucky tugged the industry to the brink of the $100 barrier. Today, for many compulsive shoppers, there is no apparent ceiling. "I don't balk at $500 for a pair of shoes," one woman told The New York Times at the height of the latest denim craze. "Why should I balk at that price for jeans that are special?"
For decades, genteel designers have been effusive in their praise of the lowly blue jean, which has its origins in European sailors' trousers and peasant overalls. "I wish I had invented blue jeans," said Yves Saint Laurent, sometimes credited as the first designer to bring denim to the runway. "They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity - all I hope for in my clothes." Bill Blass declared Levi's "the best single item of apparel ever designed." Even Charles James, the brilliant couturier whose intricate silk and satin creations epitomized the wholly impractical fine art of fashion, recognized his country's hardy contribution to cross-cultural modes of dress. "Blue denim is America's gift to the world," he said.
Levi Strauss & Co. patented the modern mass-produced prototype in 1873, reinforcing the pockets - two in front, one in back - with copper rivets. In 1890, the year the patent expired, the company added a fourth pocket, the little watch pocket, to the original design. By 1905, there were two back pockets on the 501XX, the archetypal Levi's button-fl y trouser, and this basic, riveted five-pocket jean has been the industry standard ever since. Thousands of manufacturers around the world have copied it.
It's a perfect pattern. Blue jeans are for men and women alike, for all body types. They stand up to hard work and rough play. They can imply either democratic parity or the aristocratic hierarchies of status. Around the world, blue jeans have obliterated every demographic distinction - age, ethnicity, income, education - in becoming the common casual uniform. And in our own headlong, irreverent culture, jeans have a deep and venerable past that is loaded with meaning. For vintage collectors and fashion-forward designers alike, jeans are steeped not just in the multiple dips of indigo dye but in a rich sense of history. Whether we called them overall pants or "blue drillin's" or dungarees, blue jeans have been an indispensable part of our culture for almost as long as we've had an American culture. First they built the country's infrastructure, then they populated it with a collective identity.
BOBBY GARNETT HAS HAD A STOREFRONT in Boston's South End since a homeless shelter was the most conspicuous landmark on the block. Now there are new condominiums, artists' galleries, and loft-style office spaces.
In this mixed-use enclave a stone's throw from the Southeast Expressway, the shabby chic of Bobby's shop gives it the feel of an old gentlemen's club. Piled high with vintage American and English clothing - from classic denim work wear to reindeer sweaters and straw hats - it's the kind of place where Ralph Lauren might find some inspiration.
In fact, Lauren is one of many fashion designers, collectors, and dealers who consider Bobby Garnett - better known as Bobby from Boston - to be a founding father of the contemporary resale business and an invaluable resource in the perennial recycling of classic styles. Garnett has been in the business for more than three decades, first selling his "experienced" clothing, as he likes to call it, to hippie students with a fl air for creative dress. In the 1980s, when denim collectibles became big business in Japan, certain savvy dealers beat a well-worn path from Tokyo to Bobby's lair. These days, Bobby from Boston does a lot of his business with Hollywood costume designers. He recently sold thousands of dollars of period clothing to the costumer for the Sean Penn remake of All the King's Men.
Set on a refurbished but largely untrafficked courtyard, the Bobby from Boston shop is usually as calm and contemplative as its heavy wood furnishings and comfortable chairs suggest. A magnificent old pool table in the center of the room is piled high with incoming merchandise. The only concession to the present day is the sound system, tuned to a high-energy R & B station. In the back, several big brown boxes are being packed for shipping. They are stuff ed with Levi's cutoff s, which Lauren's company buys in bulk to stock in its summer-resort stores on Long Island and Martha's Vineyard.
At 55, Garnett still dresses like a college student, wearing faded Levi's, white sneakers, and a gray hooded sweat shirt with a Ralph Lauren Rugby cap pulled down over his brow. He was one of the first of his generation, coming of age in the 1960s, to realize the revenue potential in recycled denim. From the beginning, he had a collector's nose for it. Acting on a tip from a friend in the south of France, he once bought a hundred pairs of red-line Levi's - the highly collectible "selvage" denim, made on old, narrow looms - for a dollar a pair. On another occasion, he dug through 70 100-pound bales of jeans jackets in a rag yard in Worcester, uncovering many prewar gems. When a regional discount chain accepted a huge shipment of "dead-stock" work clothes, unsold goods from old stores going out of business, he drove 900 miles in two days, snatching up almost all of it. "I was freakin'!" he says in his heavy local accent, laughing.
Though the vintage market has waned considerably since its heyday in the late 1980s and early '90s, Garnett still buys "big E" Levi's, those dating before 1971, when the company changed the lettering on its red tab from upper to lower case. He still travels extensively in search of old overalls, barn- and cowboy jackets and other pieces made by the Big Three of blue jeans - Levi's, Lee, and Wrangler - as well as onetime staple brands such as Big Smith and Sears' Hercules label. His pride and joy, however, is his collection of DubbleWare, denim work clothes made in Boston between World War I and World War II. The DubbleWare brand was produced by M. Hoffman, the longtime Massachusetts apparel maker.
"The best part is buying the stuff," says Garnett, carefully laying out a pair of hickory-stripe railroad overalls and patting it down. "You can't keep it all, so you have to sell some of it."
Excerpted from Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon, by James Sullivan. Published by arrangement with Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2006 by James Sullivan.