Culture Conversation: The Denim Jacket and Personal Style

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I’ve been working in Santa Monica in an office that is essentially an icebox. When the temperature in California cooled down this week, I decided that I’d bust out my denim jacket I purchased over the summer.

When I checked myself over before leaving for work in the morning, and even when I caught glimpses of myself in the bathroom mirror or reflective surfaces I walked by throughout the day, I felt waves of boosted self-esteem pass over me. I feel like this jacket was made for me. More importantly, I feel chic and like I actually have some semblance of my shit together when I wear it.

As I’ve worn the jacket throughout the week, I’ve thought about the genesis of the denim jacket and personal style.

1. Levi Strauss & Co. made the first denim jacket in the early 1900s. The cowboys and workmen who wore denim jeans and jackets weren’t particularly interested in fashion, but more about function and durability. Beginning in the 1950s, movie stars wore denim jackets as a symbol of rebellion and anti-establishment. In the 1960s, the members of the counterculture movement wore them as a symbol of youth, and throughout the 1980s and ’90s punk rockers and hip-hop artists made the denim jacket part of their own images. Many, many men have worn denim jackets on film, helping to establish it as a universal signifier of youth. I couldn’t find anything specific about when women began to wear the jacket, but I suspect it started somewhere in the counterculture era.  The Levi’s blog notes that “Trends come and go, but the jean jacket continues to reinvent itself, time and time again,” and I completely agree.

2. When I was in middle and high school, I was obsessed with fashion. I kept up with Fashion Month and watched all of the slideshows on Style.com. I pulled out my favorite ads from fashion magazines, in the hopes of using them to wallpaper my closet. I read biographies of all of the power players, and watched as many documentaries as I could. This was my first real foray into the general art world, and I realize now that I was learning about the transformative power of personal style. Changing your clothes was not necessarily just you trying to be trendy, but you expressing yourself in an artistic way that makes you feel good to be a part of the world. Haute couture is a good example of this. The designer has created something dreamy and one of a kind, and the wearer feels that magic while wearing it. It isn’t haute couture, but putting on a denim jacket — or a striped shirt, or a pretty necklace, or my favorite lipstick — makes me feel like my best self.

3. Personal style is still a social construction, and is tied strongly to things like body issues, capitalism and media. We’ve decided as a culture that being naked in a public setting is illegal, which is partially the point of wearing clothes (the other parts of the point being both about hygiene and protection from the environment). We’ve also decided that certain articles of clothing are more appropriate to wear than others in particular situations, and that pieces can be trendy or passé. Money is also strongly attached to personal style, and so is the media’s representation and coverage of fashion. When we walk around the world, the clothing we wear becomes advertisements for the brands. I found a great handout for a class offered by the Utah Educational Network (it’s the first link on the page) about how personal style is a form of nonverbal communication, and how it’s the way that we project our inner selves to the world. The people who create the clothing are trying to do the same thing. But the same time, the people around you use your clothing to make assumptions about you and your place in the world. Like what I mentioned in the first point about the denim jacket being a symbol of youth, we’ve attached meaning to what we wear. Personal style isn’t so personal anymore.

4. The artistic aspect of fashion might be a response to those notions, in that if we have to wear clothes and people will talk about them we should at least make them interesting to look at, let several people come up with variations and create a space for meaningful criticism.Man Repeller is a great publication that is always talking about this in some way, and that the discussion around style isn’t shallow or meaningless. Reinvention and the ability to try many different styles of clothing might also be a different response, in that if we have to live in this world we’ll wear whatever we want. While I’m not even quite sure what I’m trying to tell the world when I wear my denim jacket, I find the psychological and social power of clothing and how it makes me feel fascinating.

How do you feel about personal style, and what article of clothing makes you feel invincible? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

 

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