New Emissary

A ‘Global Denim Project’

A new project looks at denim’s popularity around the world and highlights the link between what we wear and identity.

In the small industrial town of Kojima on the west coast of Japan, denim tourism apparently flourishes. A city bus called the ‘Kojima jeans bus’ will take you on a loop around town, passing by all the local denim related hotspots while you flip through some of the promotional material including pamphlets that proudly hail Kojima the ‘Mecca,’ or the ‘origin of jeans.’

Who might take a trip like this? And more importantly, who will be shelling out the average $350 for a pair of good quality, locally-produced jeans? According to Philomena Keet at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, they’re ‘denim maniacs’— a group of people in Japan who are increasingly concerned about things like 'which machine the denim is stitched together with, which machine the fabric is made on, whether the jeans have certain internal rivets (invisible on the outside) or not.’ These are also the kind of people who, writes Keet, subscribe to special magazines in Japan that exclusively specialize in the topic of (what else?) – denim.

Contrast this with the jean situation in the town of Kannur, located in the northern area of the state of Kerala, in south-west India. Here, according to anthropologist Daniel Miller, those who wear the jeans made by American labels like Wrangler and Lee, have no idea that there exists ‘either a US origin or contemporary association for blue jeans.’ In fact, in Kannur, there’s simply no ‘concept of Americanisation associated with jeans,’ according to Miller. Denim pants are worn only by about 10 percent of the population of 30 million or so people and range from $5 to $35 in price—at most a tenth of the prices in Kojima. And the wearers are limited almost entirely to young men under the age of 40 but who are no longer in school. Another reason why many men don’t choose to wear in Kannur, Miller suggests, might be because of the negative reactions they face at home, from ‘wives and mothers who constantly complain of back ache when having to pound heavy wet jeans against stones during washing.’

These are the sorts of fascinating reflections on denim around the globe that are being collected by the Global Denim Project, an initiative started by Daniel Miller of University College London and Sophie Woodward of Manchester University. Full reports on the denim situation in Kojima and Kannur, along with other countries around the world can be found on the project’s website, which is loosely based on the idea of being 'open source.' Global Denim Project is also not an institution, as it has no funds, and all the projects on the site are independent.

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I recently spoke to Woodward, who is also the author of What Women Wear What They Wear, and co-editor of Global Denim, a book on the global denim phenomen, which includes ethnographic examples from all over the world.

When I asked her how the project began, she told me that previously, she and Miller found that ‘all that was really written about denim and jeans was very much about the kind of iconography,’ including things like the history of movie stars such as James Dean or about the history of denim in the US, and that it didn’t really relate to a ‘much more ordinary experience people were having’ with it. She told me, therefore, that this was the impetus for the Global Denim Project—to produce a new and different source of information on the internationally popular fashion item.

Woodward also told me that it’s important to understand these things sociologically because looking at ‘what people wear and don’t wear’ is actually very revealing in terms of identity and the identities people attempt to construct through their chosen clothing choices.

I'll have more from Woodward in an upcoming series on ‘Asianness’ in fashion. In the meantime, I hope there's much more to come from the very eye-opening and unique Global Denim Project.