The astounding commercial success of a simple, mundane item of apparel is revelatory of two separate phenomena: (i) That Darwinian evolution applies even in the garment center, and (ii) that the neurotic need for conformity and perceived social acceptance, can exceed all foreseeable bounds.
Our American saga begins in its mid-nineteenth century with the celebrated gold rush, a non-martial replication of the lustful and lethal preoccupations of medieval Spain and Portugal.
Here, the inspiration, largely based on exaggerated reports of gold’s discovery, on myth and perhaps, an unhappy private life, hordes of American hopefuls set out to California in an historic search for riches. Sad to say, the extent to which this “American gold rush” was successful, seems to have been by far exceeded by the profits obtained by merchants, selling to the prospectors needed tools and equipment, including personal items for the venture. There was a universal need for all manner of goods, from shovels to pots and pans; suitable clothing and good boots were especially needed for the groundbreaking (and backbreaking) labor.
It was a Bavarian immigrant to the United States, one, Levi Strauss, a practical thinking entrepreneur, who pioneered the production of durable fabric for trousers for these men who worked in forbidding topography. He was inspired to create and manufacture reliably durable work pants, initially employing tent cloth, and thereafter, following the French development of a strong, dark blue fabric, “serge de mine” (“denim”), switching to the new fabric and added metal buttons for reinforcement at strategic places. His newly developed work trousers were a big success.
Before too long, others began to emulate the manufacture of this practical and durable innovation which was widely utilitarian, in agriculture, factories, and work settings everywhere. To describe the future development of the item in pure Darwinian parlance, it successfully survived because it was the fittest solution to a naturally presenting problem.
As is eternally true in all Darwinian evolution, the subject species of apparel mutated into commercially viable variants of its original progenitor. Originally called “dungarees” later, “blue jeans” then (and now) “jeans,” in step with the development of design changes which effected a remarkable transition from the practical and mundane to the highly fashionable.
This development, or evolution, of the product was in large part the successful result of the well-known American aptitude for advertising and marketing. As an illustration, slick and glossy magazine photos of top models sporting jeans together with accessories consisting of high priced and dazzling jewelry were disseminated to the public. Thereafter, with increasing demand, prices soared for this new and fashionable item of “haute couture,” which bore faint comparison to the Levi Strauss predecessor.
We are impressed with the development and great success of the product, still regularly undergoing significant and creative variations in cut and tailoring, fabric, color, and stitching. American ingenuity, creativity and marketing acumen are, certainly to be lauded.
We do, however, have a critical comment concerning a relatively new trend, apparently in vogue, consisting of the preferred wearing of torn and distressed jeans. It is difficult to believe that such stylishly damaged goods can command such high prices based upon this aberrant style.
In all fairness, we can comprehend (up to a certain point) the desire to “fit in” and to conform to the latest societal fashions; it is certainly pragmatic to desire acceptance and to do so by means of reasonable social conformity. There are times however, where such desire becomes neurotic and no less than “lemming-like” behavior; slavishly keeping up, indiscriminately with the latest nuances in fashion can exceed any measure of reason and become action comparable to that in the childhood tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” (See Blog#32)
If Mr. Levi Strauss were to return to Earth, only to discover the shameful travesty committed against his unique creative accomplishments (dungarees that resist damage) he would be shocked and chagrined. He would as a predictable reaction, in his next life, probably go into the bagel business where holes are, in fact, acceptable.