Tuesday, April 25, 2017

tone-deaf jeans

By now, you've likely heard of the $425 "pre-dirtied" jeans that Nordstrom is selling.

I don't know guys, I just....don't know.

Part of me wants to shrug and go "Fools and their money are soon parted" and "If some trust-fund kid wants to look like he actually works as a landscaper, then WHATEVER."

But part of me is annoyed by this (screencap grabbed from Consumerist, which is where the story I linked is):

Those frankly look pretty authentic compared to what happens to me when I work in the yard, or when I have to slither up and down embankments to get to the sampling site.

I think my frustration with it is this: "You didn't earn this." or maybe, "You didn't make that." (Heh.).

I've mentioned before my mom comes from a more-or-less working-class background. Her dad did basic accounting in lumber camps (he was not college-educated but he had a decent head for numbers and he got along well with a lot of people, including the fairly-crusty lumber camp guys). Her mom was a lunch-lady at the public schools to help make ends meet. And I remember hearing more times than I can remember from my mom how she worked for "thirty-seven and a half cents per hour, plus tips" as a waitress to help pay her way through college (This would have been the mid to late 50s, no idea what that would equate to in 2017 dollars*).

(*Looked it up: $3.41 an hour. Not sure what waiters make in the "tip is part of your basic wage" states these days but I bet it's not that far off. Then again - she worked a cafe on a bus route and so often people didn't leave tips)

And growing up - we lived in a wealthy town but were really not, ourselves.. At least not outwardly so. (I think we were better off than I believed; it was just that my parents were frugal and didn't spend conspicuously - which was probably part of a virtuous cycle, because it was probably BY being frugal that they remained fairly comfortably well-off). Anyway. Unlike some of my friends we didn't have a cleaning person or a lawn service (part of it was my mom objected to all the chemicals they wanted to use). So we did our own work around the house.

There was a strong sense of "your mess is YOUR mess" when I was growing up, as in, "It's not right to make someone else clean it up." And yes, I realize it's not quite that simple, given that if you hire a cleaning person you are providing wages to someone who might not have as good a job (or a job at all) otherwise - I know some people clean houses while their children are at school, and they can work their work-schedule around stuff like that more easily than with a more-formal desk job.

And we did our own yardwork. I mowed my parents' lawn (nearly an acre) with a gas-powered mower (not a lawn tractor, not even a "walk behind" - those hadn't been invented yet, this was one you had to push to propel it). I got paid $2.50. For mowing a near-acre. (My regular allowance was $2. So mowing the lawn was the ONLY way to have decent spending money in the summers).

So anyway, I kind of grew up with the idea of "you don't make someone else do your dirty work."

I still mow my own lawn, and do most of the yardwork, even with my bad allergies and admittedly no time. And I frequently get grubby. (I have two pairs of khakis that are now ONLY good for fieldwork or lawn mowing, because of stains I can't get out).

And I do fieldwork. And yes, granted, fieldwork is different from working in the fields. But you get hot and grubby and the amount of energy expended is similar, even if the pay is probably better for being a professor teaching field techniques (or doing research) than it is for an actual farmer.

(Then again: I have no paycheck for this summer but will still be doing fieldwork)

And, I don't know. I just....it seems really bizarre to me, when I feel bad that I "spoiled" a pair of khakis for everything but "grubby chores" wear that people are paying what I would pay for 10 pairs of khakis to get pre-muddied jeans - jeans that look like they'd be in a state where I wouldn't wear them for anything other than yardwork.

Somewhere I remember reading - maybe it was in Alison Lurie's book on the semiotics of clothing - that the higher your social standing (at least at one time), the less difference there was between your "work" clothes and your "best" clothes - as in, the banker would probably wear the same suit to church as he did to his office on Monday, but the dirt-farmer might have a carefully-preserved "good" shirt and suitjacket and maybe a cleaner pair of jeans or even, if he was lucky, a pair of pants for Sundays only.

And perhaps on some level I still think that....I dress "well" to teach and often wear the same outfits I'd wear to church or out for a nice dinner.

But like so much else in our culture, that maybe has been changed and that old rule I internalized from my parents (that you've "made it" in life if you can wear "for nice" the same clothes you would go to work in) has gone topsy turvy.

I do wonder: who spends $425 on pre-muddied jeans, but then again, I remember teasing some of my dorm-mates in college about buying jeans with holes in them already - or in one case, a young woman who took a new pair of jeans, carefully slashed them with a razor blade, and then washed them so they'd fray. To me, that seemed strange - having grown up being warned to keep my clothes "nice" and my mom sighing and saying, "Well, this is play clothes now" if I stained or badly tore something.

But there's something about....co-opting, if that's not too strong a word, the image of people who actually DO work outdoors when you don't? It's.....I don't know, it's like the trust-fund kids who live in a van because it seems "cool" vs. the homeless family who does because they HAVE to. There's something that feels very odd to me about spending a lot of money to intentionally look "downmarket." Maybe it's that I'm still just a striver, like when I was in seventh grade and somehow wound up with a pair of Lee jeans (not Jordaches, but still: on the fringes of acceptability) and by some miracle, an Izod shirt, and how I tried to wear those as frequently as I could, because it felt to me like maybe I looked a little more like I fit in.....I don't know. (I'm really no better than the people buying the pre-muddied jeans in that respect; just in the opposite direction - trying to dress "above my station" rather than below it. And I know the kids saw right through it, because some other days I wore Wranglers or some weird store-brand, and they teased me for that)

There's something though that I can't quite pin down....something about the pre-muddied jeans that bothers me. It's like the person wearing them is claiming to have done hard work, or perhaps worse, is mimicking or even mocking people who work hard for a living without actually doing that work.

Maybe it's because I come from a background where people had to work hard, I don't know.

One last story: I don't remember all the details but one of the jobs my dad had in the summers as a college student was working in a foundry. (He also spent one summer working for the USPS and talks about how he got disillusioned by the attitudes of some of the "lifers" there). He worked overnight or the graveyard shift - I think the foundry only did the heavy work at night because of the heat. He talked about having to carry a (glass, plastic was less common in those days) gallon jug of water to drink with him and he'd go through every bit of it, and how he had to take salt tablets to avoid screwing up his electrolytes - that's how hard you sweated there.

At this time, his parents ran a "resort." I don't want to make that grander than it was - it was a few summer cottages on Lake Michigan, and they pretty much ran the place with the help of one or two locals (a woman who helped my grandma clean the cottages; a man who did some of the gardening work). Anyway, my dad talks about coming home one morning around 10 am, just dead-beat from pouring molten metal all night, and as he's walking up to his parents' house so he can bathe and grab some sleep, he overheard one of the insufferable preppy guys that tended to stay there comment "OH, I'm so exHAUSted; I've been playing tennis since 9 this morning!"

My dad said he wanted to punch the guy in his foppish* nose but of course didn't, knowing the guy was a Paying Guest.

(*My dad may have used a less-polite word there, I don't remember)

That may be part of my frustration with the pre-muddied jeans. I don't know. I don't have to work physically hard most days of my life (but I do some somewhat-taxing fieldwork - I've had students complain at me "How do you move so fast?" or "But we have to walk SO FAR" and I do my own yardwork). I'm grateful I don't have to do the hard physical work and that most days of teaching I can show up in a dress, hose, and lipstick and that's not going to be "too much" for what I'm doing. But I also would never pretend to be more hard-working than I am....

Mostly, I don't quite get spending $425 for a pair of jeans, let alone a pair that looks like I've already spent a season digging the blackberry out of my garden in them....


Edited to add: on further reflection, I think I figured out the two things about this that bothers me the most about the whole "jeans thing":

1. I can't help but think that the sort of people now who think this is clever and cool are the same sort of people who would have teased and excluded me for wearing store-brand jeans back in 1981, Simulated poverty/frugality/whatever is cool; the real thing is not.

Also, I remember feeling a similar discomfort or annoyance during the Madonna Era (well, the late 80s one) where crosses-as-jewelry were everywhere, and often worn by people not giving any consideration to the fact that they were a religious symbol to something like 2 and a quarter billion people.

And while co-opting a religious symbol that is deeply important to at least some of the practitioners is not QUITE the same thing as co-opting the symbology of hard work, there is something similar there.

2. Related: it does feel like they're almost making a "mascot" of people who work in careers where their clothes get dirty: it's some kind of a cartoonish thing, almost. That they're seeing the person as an image ("Oh, those people are so hard working and I respect them so much") rather than as a person.

And yeah, maybe I'm stereotyping in my own way, but having grown up around people who had "help" and who treated that "help" very much as "help" - I'm a little prejudiced there.

(And honestly, part of me is secretly irritated I didn't come up with the expensive-pre-muddied-jeans idea; I could have handily funded my retirement...)


Lynn said...

I just don't know... In the first place I don't get spending over $400 for a pair of jeans, or even over $50 for that matter, but pre-muddied or pre-torn? It's just so ridiculous I can't even begin to understand the deeper motivation. I think most people who buy them are not doing any deep thinking. It's just "Oh, cool! The latest thing; I must have it."

Now days it's more common to see people getting that dirty playing than by working, for example "muddin'" - riding jeeps and four-wheelers in a muddy area for fun - and, as I said on Twitter maybe it's part of the "all things redneck are cool" trend and real rednecks laugh at this sort of thing and declare that they got their muddy jeans honestly.

Jay said...

I wonder if this was a real attempt to sell $400+ pre-muddied jeans, or a publicity 'stunt' to get people into Nordstrom's to see a $400+ pair jeans (and perhaps pick up a 'bargain' pair of $200 jeans).