Everybodys-work-is-equally-important-2010-Levis-ad-by-Wieden-Kennedy header

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 “Small Trades” from the 1950s, where he photographed blue collar men and women dress 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 was particularly striking in that it removed the people from their natural working environments. Suffice it to say, I adore this series. Penn portrays each subject so respectfully, with such dignity — in some cases, downright majestically, as a monarch’s portrait might be taken, and thus elevating their perceived importance. Here are a couple in denim overallls, staple of the laborer:

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 regularly taps into Americana tropes and exploits America’s fascination with juxtaposing markers of the working class with 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, mashing up the highly functional Great Depression farmers’ “uniform” with the distinctly impractical gowns from the silver screen:

I’ll admit there was some legitimate discomfort at the collection — Robin Givhan wrote “The sight of a freshly scrubbed model sashaying in distressed overalls and glittering evening sandals was akin to watching some indulged young party girl go slumming for the day. It was the kind of ensemble Naomi Campbell might have worn when she was forced to mop floors in jail after an altercation with her housekeeper.”  But there was, of course, the blatant disconnect in Hollywood’s representations of Americans during the original Depression, and while I certainly wouldn’t buy designer jeans and cotton shirts meant to look like they’d been sun-bleached and worn threadbare, I appreciated the commentary on the economic/social gap that still exists in America in supposedly straightened circumstances.  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, conveying wealth and glittering brilliantly on the black and white celluloid; stars like Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow were almost exclusively seen in highly wrinkleable, 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! Ginger Rogers’ dress even has a bit of an overall-esque racer back, hinting at a sportiness/athleticism as the Ralph Lauren dress hinted at manual labor:

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.

Further Reading: