NEW YORK (CNS) – The filmmakers behind the insightful documentary “Riveted: The History of Jeans” want viewers to avoid taking this famous form of clothing for granted.
Thus, freelance journalist James Sullivan observes: “You don’t stop to wonder why half the population wears them on any given day.
Written, produced and directed by Anna Lee Strachan and Michael Bicks — a duo most closely associated with the “Nova” series — the film debuts Feb. 7, 9-10 p.m. on PBS as an “American Experience” presentation. Broadcast times may vary, however, and viewers should check their local listings.
Despite their status as, in the words of Melissa Leventon, former curator of San Francisco’s fine arts museums, “the quintessential American garment,” the origin of jeans is largely misunderstood. As fashion historian Emma McClendon says, “Denim has been around way, way longer than the Gold Rush and (Levi) Strauss.”
The costume’s true background encompasses a world geography, which is alluded to in the variety of names by which it is known. Thus, the Indian city of Dungri gives us the term overalls while the word denim goes back to Nîmes, France. As for the more general moniker of jeans, it originated in the practice of using sailcloth to make pants in Genoa, Italy.
The characteristic color was provided by indigo dye. South Carolina plantation owner Eliza Lucas is credited with introducing this cash crop to colonial America. His successful cultivation, however, depended on the expert familiarity that enslaved African Americans could deploy working with him, a skill they had acquired in their home country.
A more familiar aspect of the story began in Reno, Nevada in the 1870s when a tailor named Jacob W. Davis, noticing that traditional work pants tended to fall apart easily, came up with the idea reinforce them with strategically placed rivets.
As a one-man boutique owner, however, Davis lacked the means to mass-produce his new creation. So he formed a partnership with Strauss. Patented in 1873, their “waist overalls” were destined to transform American culture.
To take just one example, by the 1930s male ranches had become popular in the West. They offered wealthy women, dressed in jeans, “the opportunity to get dirty” by hunting, fishing and riding horses.
According to Leventon, what had previously been a mark of working-class status thus became a symbol of wealth and leisure. More importantly, says Cornell University historian Adrienne Rose Bitar, some of the ranch patrons began to “rethink their position in American society.”
The popularity of denim has also spread to other sectors of the population. Bikers wore overalls as a sign of rebellion, for example, while contemporary hip-hop artists sported baggy jeans as a sign of cultural pride.
As part of the discussion of slavery, artistic depictions of nude figures are shown. And a survey of the jeans ad includes images of partial nudity. But the film contains nothing really objectionable and can be approved for adults and mature teenagers.
Given its subject matter, some may assume upon entering that “Riveted” will be a light, frothy, offhand presentation. Yet the same use of evocative still photographs and compelling archival footage that has characterized other “American Experience” projects also elevates this one.
Documentary filmmakers, moreover, forcefully argue that, far from being an exercise in trivia, the study of their chosen subject can help, in McClendon’s words, “to change our understanding of American history.” After watching their well-crafted and captivating movie, viewers will probably agree with this assessment.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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