Expensive jeans

by Rob Horning

10 November 2005


According to Louisa Thomas, writing in Slate, “the secret language of jeans” consitutes “consumption conspicuous only to those whom conspicuous consumption doesn’t offend.” This immediately seemed wrong to me, because it attempts to elevate the discourse of trendy and needlessly expensive status goods into a kind of covnversation those the uninterested can just tune out, as though the designer jeans wars playing out on Prince Street were some recondite discussion about Booker Prize candidates being conducted on the letters page of the New York Review of Books. It’s not. It’s more like an ostentatious cell phone conversation taking place in public that you wish you could ignore only the person talking is trying their hardest to make sure you can’t. Because you are forced to listen, forced to bear witness to the fashion parade, you are forced to involve yourself in the status symbology of jeans while being deprived of yet one more thing in your life that was once free of implications, that was outside of the whole competitive consumerist game that is devouring all of life’s experiences.

The whole point of expensive jeans is to take something that once symbolized egalitarianism, that once neutralized the arbitrary distinctions of fashion, that once communicated the dignity of the working class, and destroy it, make it into an exclusionary symbol of frivolity. It’s class warfare conducted by mindless drones too insoucient and ill-informed to even realize they are soldiers in the war. People who wear these stupid jeans probably think their choice has nothing to do with any one else, that is merely an expression of a personal preference, that it is an exercise of freedom (if they push their thinking far enough to encorporate that moronic piece of free-market dogma). They likely think that it has no social import whatever, that they live their lives in a transcendent bubble far above other people. But any attempt to be cool has a political dimension, and because those invested in the concept don’t recognize or acknowledge its politics, because the biases are so deeply internalized and personalized, it may be one of the most powerful sites for politics to play out. What is “cool” drives investment, it shifts power, it creates winners and losers, it erodes all pretenses to meritocracy and replaces them with new tools to preserve existing orders. Coolness may seem dynamic and cutting edge, but it is deeply, deeply conservative.

Thomas concludes, “Regardless of the particular designer, though, the message of the back pocket is clear: The wearer is someone with disposable capital, who cares about her image, and who knows that other women will be surreptitiously checking out her butt.” I draw a slightly different conclusion. The only thing any sensible person need read out of the hieroglyphics on designer jeans is that the wearer is an impressionable idiot.

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