Damaged Jeans

damaged jeans

Part of my family was gathered for Thanksgiving. We enjoyed a sumptuous meal. An organic turkey from Vermont. A luscious Vouvray that went perfectly with the meal. The proprietor of the wine shop had said to me that this was the one he was going to open. Four varieties of pies. Two kinds of potatoes. My greatly admired stuffing and gravy. Much all around to be thankful for. My son-in-law was in the middle of the second week of chemotherapy, but feeling well enough to eat heartily.

While sitting around after the meal, I noticed that one of the children’s jeans had frayed severely at the knees. Then, Ruth said to me that they come this way. People spend lots of bucks to get already damaged jeans. I checked the Internet and found that, indeed, a pair of damaged jeans can cost more than $150.00. I thought if only fashion had been like this when I was young when worn-out jeans were a sign of either carelessness or poverty. Not really, I am appalled at this.

I have thinking hard about what this fashion could possibly signify. An Internet search turned up a few articles. I do not understand fashion well in the first place. What I learned didn’t help much. Here’s one item:

Ripped, torn, and otherwise distressed denim is once again in style this spring. This season’s incarnation of the trend, however, is a bit different from how it looked in previous decades. Instead of giving off a rebellious or grungy vibe, spring 2010 ripped denim is all about looking sultry and seductive with a little bit of edge. If you’re dying for a trendy new pair of jeans, pick up some ripped ones, and follow our tips to rock them right.

I wear jeans and have forever, and, for me, that’s a long time. I once wore them with cuffs rolled up. That was the biggest fashion statement my peers could imagine. When a pair started to show wear, my mother would sew a patch on. But what really did get me about this incident was the nature of the inherent consumption in the purchase of damaged jeans. It’s an insidious form of conspicuous consumption, no different than flaunting one’s furs or wearing a designer dress to the Oscars. But these last two instances are usually associated with rich people. My grandkids are pretty well off, but not in the same class as the fur wearers or movie stars.

I have written a lot about consumption as an indication of the individualistic and materialistic values of our culture. Consumption is a key contributor to the unsustainable world we are moving or have moved into. I was about to write another screed continuing to rant about purposely damaged clothes, but another event stopped me. Ruth and I are going to our long-standing couples books club tonight. The choice of book we made earlier was The Grapes of Wrath. I have been hastily reading it as it is over 600 pages long, and found myself getting angrier and angrier as I got further into it. Also immensely sad. I cannot remember a book that has moved me so. Maybe it’s just Steinbeck’s fine hand, but, no, it’s the story itself. Everything the Joad’s had was damaged. Run out of their homestead by the tractors (Steinbeck’s metaphor for efficiency), they followed thousands of others to find work in California. Even the food they were able to scrounge was metaphorically damaged. Unlike many of their fellow travelers, they managed to retain some pride as they struggled to live another day. The homes they lost were not the houses they inhabited but the land on which they were built.

The tale is a outcry against capitalism and greed. Steinbeck was criticized for his blatant socialistic morality. Written in 1939, it won a Pulitzer and eventually contributed to a Nobel prize for Steinbeck. I could not stop thinking about damaged jeans as I read. Here is a family living from day to day by consuming as little as they could. Converting an old, broken down truck into a moveable home, they made it to California, only to find the same capitalistic forces at work. There are many negative messages here, but the positive one that strikes home for me is the power of care. The Joad’s best moments in terms of quality of life come from times when the misery is lightened by connections made with others along the way. The inhumanity of the “deputies” is contrasted to the humanity that emerges from the ways that care presents itself. The book ends as a Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon, having just lost a baby prematurely, offers her breast to a starving man.

The Joad’s story is being rewritten today. The factories in China that manufacture and then damage the jeans we buy are staffed by Chinese Okies. Their wages are held down because there are others in the wings willing to work for less because are starving. American Okies exist today in many places. They no longer are migrants because work opportunities exist in many places. Steinbeck’s tractor has completely won as few families own and work their land. Wages for the lower classes have been dropping for quite a few years. Those that can find work are getting less for it. Homelessness is widely evident. Many lost their homes by foreclosure during the recent financial collapse. I hear echoes everywhere. It’s banks again and again.

I recently wrote a chapter in The Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion. I agreed to write it only if I could point out the oxymoronic sound of the title. To my surprise, the editors agreed. I believe that almost everything in the book, like so much else under the name of sustainability, is only decreasing unsustainability. Issues like paying workers living wages are addressed. Recycling and the avoidance of toxics are included. The role of fashion in human culture is covered. I can see, albeit dimly, a place for fashion even in a flourishing world. But one thing is clear. Intentionally damaged jeans or other goods have no place there.

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