by John Dicker & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & o one who's reconnoitered a bookstore these last few years can be ignorant of a trend in nonfiction that might as well be called "microhistory." Now firmly established, the trope finds authors pushing in on seemingly ubiquitous matter (Salt, Cod, etc.) for a close-up. Embedded in a seemingly small story is a much larger one that speaks to something profound about our past and future.
At least that's how it's supposed to work.
Enter culture critic James Sullivan, whose basic contention in Jeans is largely unassailable: "Blue jeans -- not soft drinks, or cars, or computers -- are the crowning product of American ingenuity."
Sullivan quite thoroughly chronicles the history of denim, from Gold Rush days to the long rise and quick fall of Levi Strauss, a manufacturer whose 501 jeans were the most successful clothing item in the world and whose annual sales tanked by nearly half in recent years.
The history of jeans in America hardly wants for fascinating tidbits -- who knew that regional denim companies once occupied positions of civic pride now enjoyed almost exclusively by microbrews? Unfortunately, these tidbits are more interesting than the larger narrative.
Sullivan does a nice job historicizing the shifts in denim's ascendance -- from a workingman's trouser to something gender-nonexclusive to high-end fashion, with designer jeans blasting past the $400 mark. However, the story lacks anything resembling urgency. Yes, jeans are iconically American, but however many ways this is restated, it does nothing to quell the question of... so what?
What truly tries one's patience, however, is the author's tendency toward hyperbole fit for a denim trade association. Claims that jeans have "defined" every youth movement for the last half-century and "embody American creativity and rebellion" are hard to take seriously.
However, just when you're convinced there's nothing more to learn about jeans, Sullivan puts his finger on a telling trend. Levi's shuttered its last U.S. manufacturing plant two years ago, and most of the high-end jeans on the boutique market are little more than a marketing team with a relationship to foreign suppliers. Jeans created for, and worn by, generations of working Americans are now as redundant as so many of their livelihoods. Even if they're still happily covering the great American backside.