For the exhibition Gallabuxur og bolir / Jeans and Tshirts January 2014
Blue Jeans and T-Shirts: From the Workforce to the Catwalk and Beyond
Deborah Kraak and David Rickman
When the young and beautiful Marlon Brando gave a sizzling performance in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire while wearing a tight white T-shirt and low-slung blue jeans, these working men’s garments went from being rugged, practical, and ordinary to sexy, dangerous, and special. But the path from work clothes for men to the daily dress of men and women around the world was a long one.
The history of jeans and T-shirts goes back to the early-1800s. Knitted shirts became popular the 1820s; first with the sailor’s striped, long-sleeved jerseys that were soon worn by sports players. Red or white knitted undershirts were in use by the 1840s and by the 1880s there were white, short-sleeved or sleeveless cotton T-shirts. American working men wore pants made of strong, twilled cotton that was often dyed indigo blue. San Francisco the dry goods merchant Levi Strauss made his fortune selling them. By the 1920s, cowboys and blue jeans became synonymous through Western movies, traveling rodeos and at resorts called “dude ranches,” where tourists got to dress as cowboys. But it took World War II to bring T-shirts and jeans together. Millions of American men served in the Army and the Navy and came to like the comfort and convenience of the T-shirts and the blue or olive drab fatigue uniforms they were issued. After the war, many veterans continued to wear T-shirts and jeans, including those who joined the newly-popular motorcycle clubs.
“Bikers”—often seen as being outside the law and convention—paired their rolled-cuff jeans and t-shirts with leather jackets, as Brando did in The Wild One (1953), with the classic response “Whaddaya got?” to the question “What are you rebelling against?” With the wardrobe of James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955), jeans (also known as dungarees or Levi’s) and t-shirts came to have a special significance for teenagers—their clothing, their sign of rebellion. James Dean “wannabees” copied his cool by folding a packet of cigarettes into a T-shirt sleeve. T-shirts and jeans were adopted by early rock ‘n’ rollers, like Elvis Presley, worn with pompadour hairstyles and a swagger. In the 1960s jeans were part of the American or European protestor’s wardrobe, later embellished with hand-embroidered peace signs. Tie-dyed t-shirts were associated with psychedelics and carried the whiff of forbidden substances.
During much of the 1960s and early 1970s, blue jeans and T-shirts became the basic outfit of teens—overlaid with whatever was currently in vogue: leather vests, fringes, ponchos, beads, and scarves. They were still considered casual wear, not quite shaking the association with manual labor, in the case of jeans, or underwear, in the case of T-shirts.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that jeans came out of the closet as a fashion garment, accepted almost everywhere, with the craze for “designer jeans”, which were emblazoned across the waistband or back pocket with the name of the designer or manufacturer. These could be worn to the disco or bars. No longer the bell-bottoms of the preceding era, these jeans were skin tight. Their high prices reflected their new status and acceptability, which they still enjoy. While today’s consumer can buy relatively inexpensive jeans at department stores, there is a huge market for specialty brands and styles. Later fashions for jeans have included tears (which is now done by design, not by chance), stone or acid washing, and “jeggings”—jeans-styled stretch pants.
Conversely, jeans—slashed and distressed—were worn by punk rockers of the late 70s, paired with equally slashed or ripped T-shirts, often held together by safety pins. The punk style influenced many fashion designers, as documented by curator Andrew Bolton in the 2013 exhibition “Punk: Chaos to Couture” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Beginning in the 1980s British designer Katharine Hamnett made t-shirts the vehicle for political statements, including nuclear disarmament and the Iraq war.
From American working men’s clothes to everyone’s clothes, the T-shirt and jeans have spread world-wide, still trailing their mid-20th century associations of counter-culture cool and protest.
Deborah Kraak is an independent museum consultant, specializing in textiles and costumes. David Rickman writes and illustrates works about the clothing of the American West. They live in Wilmington, Delaware USA
For the exhibition Cotton Rags 2012 About Cotton Deborah Kraak
Cotton is a natural, cellulosic fiber with an ancient and international history of cultivation, production, and trade. Native to many tropical and subtropical regions, including Peru, the Caribbean, and parts of Africa, it is most closely associated with India. Archaeological finds date Indian cotton spinning, weaving and dyeing to around 3000 BCE. The Greek historian, Herodotus (5th century BCE), writing about the cotton plant, described the Indian shrub’s fluffy cotton bolls as tree wool, 'surpassing in beauty and in quality the wool of sheep; and the Indians wear clothing from these trees.’ The Romans were enthusiastic importers of Indian cottons, especially prizing the lightweight muslins the Indians called woven wind. For centuries, Indian artisans knew best how to convert the short cotton fibers (known as staples) into yarns strong enough to be used for warps. They also knew how to pattern the cotton cloth with colorfast colors, a process unknown to Europeans until the late 17th century. The West later dominated world cotton production, with machines to separate the cotton fibers from their numerous seeds and to mechanize warp spinning. These inventions and the huge demand for printed cotton drove the Industrial Revolution and changed history. Today, cotton remains an international product, and cotton fabrics are still prized for being comfortable to wear.
Modern technologies have been developed to meet the perennial challenges of growing and producing cotton. Some of these have high environmental costs, particularly pesticides and dyes. Cotton accounts for approximately 10-16% of the world-wide use of pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants) and between 16-25% of insecticides. (The figures are disputed by the cotton industry.) The dyeing process pollutes water. Alternatives are being sought by concerned scientists and environmentalist. Pesticides can be reduced through selective breeding for a more insect-resistant cotton and the use of organic methods of cultivation and pest control. New dye technology is being explored, as well as the hybridizing of naturally-colored cotton fibers. Consumer awareness also helps drive the search for a more organic, responsible cotton product. Recycling and restyling cotton clothing and fabrics are creative ways to reduce the demand for new cotton goods.
Cotton is grown all over the world today. Sometimes cottons from certain areas are known for their particular beauty. Sea Island cotton, grown on the coastal islands of South Carolina and Georgia in the United States, have a staple approximately 1 3/8“ or longer. Because their yarns don‘t need to be as tightly twisted, they produce a more lustrous and supple fabric. Long-staple cottons supply the luxury end of the trade.
After spinning, cotton yarns are woven or knitted into fabrics which are then dyed or printed. Production is now global, often from the industrially developing parts of the world. Even a simple T-shirt may be the work of several countries‘ labors: to grow the cotton, spin it, weave it, cut it into pattern pieces, and fashion it into a garment.
Bean, Susan, „Gandhi and Khadi: the Fabric of Indian Independence,“ in Weiner, Annette B. AndJane Schneider. Cloth and Human Experience. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989. Chapter 11, pp. 356-376.
Gittinger, Mattiebelle. Master Dyers to the World, technique and trade in early Indian dyed textiles. Washington, D.C.: Textile Museum, 1982.
Lemire, Beverly. Cotton. Oxford, New YorkL Berg, 2011. Part of the series, Textiles that changed the world.
Myers, Dorothy and Sue Stolton, editors. Organic cotton: from field to final product. London: Intermediate Technology, 1999.
Smith, C. Wayne, J. Tom Colthre, editors. Cotton: origin, history, technology, and production (Wiley series in crop science). New York: J. Wiley, 1999.
Deborah Kraak CV
1991, Attingham Summer School for the History of the English County House
1981, MA in Art History, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and Museum Training Certificate, IFA and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
1977, BA in Art History, Michigan State University, E. Lansing, Michigan
1997-to the present, Independent Museum Professional; clients include, American Museum of Textile History, Lowell, Massachusetts; Baltimore Museum of Art; Fogg Museum, Harvard University; Iolani Palace, Honolulu, Hawaii; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art
2007 Director of Interpretation and Adult Programming, Curator of Exhibitions at the Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, Pennsylvania
1992-1997 Associate Curator and In Charge of Textiles, Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware
1985-1991 Associate Curator, Department of Textiles and Costume, Museum of Fine Art, Boston
1992 to the present, includes Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, Cooper-Hewitt Masters Program in the Decorative Arts, Maryland Institute/College of Art, University of Delaware, and Williams College