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How denim evolved to become an American wardrobe staple

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, OK, you can tell me - how many pairs of jeans do you have in your closet? And what kind - straight leg, bootcut, high rise, low rise, slim cut? And don't even get me started on what kind of wash or finish. Americans, we do like our jeans, and we like our origin stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EMMA MCLENDON: After the cowboys, jeans got picked up by rockers and bikers and hippies, and now everybody wears them. But denim has been around much, much longer. It has a long and deep history with so many other fascinating stories that are not always told.

MARTIN: That long and fascinating history is the story told by "Riveted: The History Of Jeans." It's a new documentary from PBS's American Experience. We called Emma McLendon to talk about it. She is a fashion historian who appears in the documentary, and she's the author of "Denim: Fashion's Frontier." She says the history of jeans is far more complex than many realize.

MCLENDON: When you think of jeans, you think of the sort of prototypical white male cowboy kind of riding off into the sunset that's so synonymous with denim advertising from the late 19th century to today. But the reality is that this was workwear that was worn for hard labor. Denim had been worn by enslaved African and African American descendants for generations. It was worn by Chinese immigrants who were building the Transcontinental Railroad. It was worn by women. It was worn by men. And it came in tandem with really grueling hard labor, which is often left out of a sort of romanticized view.

MARTIN: How did denim make it to America to begin with? I mean, the documentary makes a really interesting case of, like, different parts of the world where that fabric was, you know, developed and perfected.

MCLENDON: Well, what's really interesting about the history of denim as a textile is that the origin is actually very murky. What we can point to and what's outlined in the documentary is that there are a variety of different places around the world, including India, including in parts of West Africa, including in Italy and in the south of France, where different precursors to what we now know as denim were being developed. And this had to do with the cultivation of cotton, the weaving of the fabric and also the cultivation of the blue dye from indigo. And this is a technology and a knowledge that was brought to America through various different channels. But a key locus of that development was in the South and knowledge that was brought by enslaved Africans, who were brought over as captives and who were instrumental in the development of this technology and this knowledge in the American South.

MARTIN: The film is filled with so many fascinating details, like the fact that denim was marketed at one point as Negro cloth, which I find, like, wow, OK. And then I love this story about the Denim Council. Would you tell us about that? Why did they need a denim council?

MCLENDON: So what's really fascinating is that denim, for so long, had been used as a workwear fabric. It had been used to make garments for hard work. Over the course of the 20th century, it starts to get sort of rebranded through various ways. It gets kind of reinvented with Hollywood and gets all this nostalgia attached to it during the 1930s and the rise of the Western. And then after World War II, we get the rise of biker gangs. And again, Hollywood is kind of instrumental in this shifting of the cultural meaning of jeans towards this more rebellious, you know, outlaw biker figure. But as a result, denim manufacturers are kind of looking around at this trend jeans are taking, that they're being associated with, you know, "Rebel Without A Cause" and Marlon Brando in "The Wild One." And they're a bit worried. They're worried about their sales. And so they establish the Denim Council to rebrand jeans again and make it family friendly, make it completely wholesome and show in a sense, like, the, quote, unquote, "good way" to wear jeans. It's not all those rebels. It's not all those biker gangs. It's actually for going out on a hike or going to a barbecue on your lawn.

MARTIN: Boating. There was this one thing where they've got this couple - of course, white - wearing these very pressed jeans. And they're going out on their little sailboat, you know, and I'm like, jeans are not that comfortable in the hot weather. I'm just saying. I'm just sharing that thought. So, you know, the movie points out that jeans have been - I don't know what's the right word, even. Like, is it a Rorschach test for people? - or a sort of like a marker of all these different movements, which was fascinating to consider. Why do you think it is that genes are so - are such a - have such a prominent place in the American wardrobe?

MCLENDON: I think that jeans are a unique garment because they mean so many different things to so many different people. There's been a way that they have had a staying power through all of these different movements, and each generation, each kind of pocket of culture has found a way to relate denim, to relate jeans to their circumstances in a unique way, in a way that carries particular meaning. And so this endows them with an incredibly personal and an incredibly individual character and meaning and significance for people, even while they are a universalizing and even homogenizing garment to a certain extent. You know, this paradox that's inherent in jeans, the sort of individuality and universalism, I think, is what gives jeans this staying power.

MARTIN: So, Emma, I'm going to put you on the spot. Speaking of personal wardrobe, tell the truth. How many jeans do you have? And what's your fave?

MCLENDON: Oh my gosh.

MARTIN: Come on now.

MCLENDON: So this is jeans and not items of denim clothing. I think...

MARTIN: Oh, yes, I'm sorry. I'm speaking to a scholar here. Yes, jeans and not items of denim clothing. And what's your fave?

MCLENDON: It's embarrassing. I think I probably have five or six pairs of jeans, and many of them are duplicates of the same jean because I found a pair of jeans that I really like, and I want to wear it to work and to other occasions over and over again.

MARTIN: Well, that's everybody, isn't it? Isn't it that's really the way it is, is that people have, like, five or six pairs of jeans, but they have, like, actually one pair that they wear all the time? Isn't that really the way it is? OK. And finally, now, and I don't know if this goes beyond your purview as a scholar, your wheelhouse as a scholar, but what are the denim trends for 2022?

MCLENDON: Oh my gosh. Well, I think one trend that I'm sort of sad to report is that it keeps being, you know, suggested that low rise is coming back. I also think that, speaking of the 2000s, we all need to be prepared for flares.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

MCLENDON: Flares are coming back. The bootcut is coming back. And I think these are going to be, you know, really significant trends looking forward.

MARTIN: Oh, no. OK. Well...

MCLENDON: I know.

MARTIN: That is tragic. That is tragic. That was Emma McLendon. She's an author, curator and fashion historian. You can see her in the new documentary "Riveted: The History Of Jeans," which airs Monday on PBS's American Experience, although you'll want to check your local listings for exact times. Emma McLendon, thank you so much for joining us.

MARTIN: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It was a real pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.