Working Fashion

A recent NYTimes article on the latest Levi jeans ad campaign featuring not dead-eyed models in awkward sexualized positions, but real-life residents of Braddock, PA caught my eye. A continuation of last year’s “Go Forth” ad campaign, this one uses actual inhabitants of Braddock to show real workers in their natural habitat: a town that has been particularly hard-hit by the recession. Here’s the accompanying commercial:

Though not all the ads are quite so literal in their depiction of rural workers as the one that heads this post (namely men with heavy tools with expanses of sky and/or land), the campaign appears to be trying to tap into the history of Levi’s as the jeans of 1870s Western frontiersmen and merge it with the tough lives of contemporary men and women who are struggling with their own era’s economic hardships. “People don’t think there are frontiers anymore,” says the young narrator wistfully, “they can’t see how frontiers are all around us.”

While it is true that Levi’s jeans have been a staple of the blue collar working man for more than a century, the idea of capitalizing on the somewhat romanticized images of poverty still strikes me as manipulative in a distinctly American way. Americans in particular, I think, are obsessed with making the casual and ordinary glamorous. Ever since the American Revolution, Americans have reveled in our self-perceived scrappiness, adventurousness, tough sportiness and casualness. Though Hollywood has always proved we can glam it up when we want to, much of the history of American fashion has been just a little more simple, a little more pared down, a little more casual. Consider quintessential American Ben Franklin (1706-1790) who eschewed the powdered wigs far earlier than popular fashion, allowing his own thinning, greyish locks to hang limply:


Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, 1778

Compare to a French contemporary of Ben’s, whose jacket fabric has a sheen suggesting it’s silk, in addition to the meticulously coiffed and powdered wig (he was only 42 at the time of this portrait):

Abbe Charles Bossut by Pierre Pasquier, 1772

John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) turned the art world on its head when he painted a formal portrait of Paul Revere, not in a heroic equestrian pose indicative of his famous midnight ride which was just a year earlier, but in the distinctly informal attire of his trade as a silversmith (no jacket!), and complete with his tools and a project. You can see how this is even more dressed-down than Franklin:

Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley, 1776

This very much reminds me of Irving Penn’s series “Working Trades” from the 1950s, where he photographed working class men and women dressed in their work clothes and usually with a prop to indicate their particular trades. He executed these photos just as he did with so many fashion models and celebrities, in front of his standard mottled backdrop that curiously removed them from realistic settings. Suffice it to say, I adore this series. Penn portrays each subject so respectfully, with such dignity — in some cases, downright majestically. Here are a couple in denim overalls:


Lineman by Irving Penn, 1951

Bricklayer by Irving Penn, 1950


Contrast those photos now, to the recent collections of Ralph Lauren and Jean Paul Gaultier. It was obvious that fashion designers were incorporating the “worst recession since the Great Depression” that peppered the news into their Spring 2010 collections. Though I didn’t love the clothes themselves, I thought the ideas presented were interesting. Ralph Lauren often taps into Americana and exploits America’s fascination with juxtaposing markers of the working class mixed into upper-end, designer fashion motifs. Below is an ensemble of silk satin that mimics denim in its cut and color; next to it is an interesting metallic satin gown that, from the waist up, resembles overalls, and from the waist down, standard 1930s drapey eveningwear:

During the national tragedy of the Great Depression, there was, of course, the blatant disconnect in Hollywood’s representations of Americans as well. The 1930s were known for their escapist screwball comedies, often featuring impeccably dressed society folks who seemed blissfully untouched by any economical discomfort. Satins and metallics were used liberally in women’s gowns as they displayed wealth and glittered brilliantly on the black and white celluloid; stars like Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow were almost exclusively seen in rich, impractical fabrics and impossibly slinky styles like these below, though almost no one outside Hollywood could afford such luxuries:

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in Saratoga, 1937

And below you can see how the light reflects off satin in movement — divine!:


All this to say, working class attire has been fetishized for centuries. Sometimes for philosophical beliefs, sometimes for political reasons, and sometimes for pure aesthetics. I don’t think Levi’s latest ad campaign is nearly as risky as they thought, but however profitable it turns out to be for them, I hope some money from the ads is circulating in and around Braddock.

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  • EmilyKennedy July 21, 2010 09.24 am

    Ginger Rogers’ dress is positively gorgeous, but it strikes me as a shame that it covers her legs so completely. No wonder Fred Astaire got all the notoriety for doing the hard work of dancing. Ms. Rogers’ working gams are completely obscured!

  • Elizabeth August 17, 2010 01.22 pm

    Great article. I just found your blog today. I am reading back posts now, but had to comment on this post. I especially loved the discussion of the Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere portraits.


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