The wild civility of denim
On artists wearing the ubiquitous fabric
This newsletter will be now hopefully arriving twice a month, on Tuesdays (?). Future is unpredictable but weekly seems a little too much, and once a month too little. I am still in the testing mode regarding timing, length, recommendations section, etc. Thank you for sticking around and please consider forwarding to a friend if you think they might enjoy reading this.
The first time I put on the recently thrifted denim vest I felt the power. The power of becoming someone who I am not. It felt a little ridiculous, this garment that up until now, to me, had no practical function and barely any aesthetic value. All it took was seeing a photo of a woman wearing one. I gasped and from that point onwards, it was only a matter of time.
The vest I have is violently effortless. In my mind it goes with everything but the washed out denim carries a punk attitude. It seems a little outdated. Despite its effortlessness, I always ask myself: can I really put this on with a floral dress? Can I extend the versatility of this piece beyond the images of punks in the 1970s? But, the punk attitude simply means to be reactionary, to go against what is expected. Those are the words of New York’s Mudd Club owner Anita Sarko, for whom the most punk thing she could do in her punk club in the 1980s was to play slow romantic songs from the 1950s: enraging and absolutely unexpected by the crowd.
But denim is so commonly worn today that it is easy to forget its history and connotations. Like many fabrics, garments and trends, it was first worn by the working class. The designer jean arrived with the Italian brand Fiorucci, founded in 1967, which invented stretch denim. The brand is a subject of Mark Leckey's video Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999) which also plays with that idea that it is not the content that makes something or someone punk, but the attitude. Leckey sees jeans as a symbol of consumerism. By taking them, and investing them with a communal faith, the way he did as a teenager with his friends, the designer jeans became a symbol, a totem. It all comes back to clothes signifying an allegiance to a specific community.
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With the vest on I become someone who I am not: and who that would be? It offers immediate swag, and this one is not up for debate. Second, it feels protective, like home. I may be a little more brash while wearing it. I recently came across the idea of self-mesmerism in the unfortunately titled article by Ingrid Rojas Contreras for The New York Times Magazine (I strongly feel that the editor chose the title, not the author). She turned to wearing clothes in a specific shade of muted ultramarine as a last-ditch effort to gain the ability to concentrate. Growing up in and fleeing a violent political regime resulted in PTSD and inability to not only sit still and write, but simply feel safe. The muted ultramarine blue became her, a writer's uniform. It's a pursuit of practicality but also restoration. Just like a painter or a sculptor might put on a working uniform to protect themselves from the elements of their art, the writer puts on a set of designated clothes to protect themselves from the elements of the outside: intrusive thoughts, inability to continue, doubts. I am intrigued by this idea of using a uniform of colour or fabric to incite emotions, in a positive way (unlike army, police, etc).
Denim is a fabric of ubiquity. In denim artists can disappear, become commonplace and working. There are examples that defy the odds, on the surface. Andy Warhol wore jeans under his tuxedo to a White House reception, because the tuxedo was scratchy. I'd like to think it's also a lovely metaphor for who Warhol was: a purveyor of mass production. Canned soup and ordinary washing powder for everyone, even the biggest celebrities and politicians. Warhol, coming from a working-class background, and becoming one of the faces of art of the twentieth century, is a link between the two worlds, just like the newly invented designer stretch denim. Denim under tuxedo is almost a performance in itself.
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And then there is another quintessential New York artist who used denim very differently. As a protection, yes, and often as the only clothes he owned. While David Wojnarowicz was a homeless teen, doing sex work on the streets and piers of NYC, his jeans were so dirty and greased up at the front, they gained a mirror-like quality. His denim jacket became a reflection of how society treated him. At the ACT UP protest against the mistreatment of AIDS patients by the US government in 1988 in Washington, the back of Wojnarowicz's jacket reads: IF I DIE OF AIDS - FORGET BURIAL - JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE FDA. The protests wanted The Food and Drug Administration to act more openly and with greater urgency in what turned out to be one of the deadliest pandemics in history. They wanted more and fairer trials for developed drugs against HIV, shorter drug approval process and crucially, widespread access to the drugs. Unlike Warhol, who was obsessive with brands and celebrities, Wojnarowicz would spit on what he considered as one of the facets of ONE-TRIBE NATION, the culture of homogeneity and heteronormativity. Denim is taken off the designer racks, back to the streets, to work, and to protest.
It's nothing new under the sun: specific fabrics and colours and garments and the way we combine them on our bodies can make us feel safe, at home, more confident, and instantly protest wherever we go. I tend to forget. The denim vest was my reminder. It echoes Gordon Matta-Clark's wearable housing project from 1974, which was described as: THE KIND OF LIVING YOU CAN CARRY ALONG, ON THE HEAD / IN THE MOUTH / ON THE BACK / IN THE ARMS / AROUND THE WAIST / ON THE FEET.
Books and resources I used and recommend for further disparate reading:
Charlie Porter's What Artists Wear
David Wojnarowicz's Close to the Knives
Tim Lawrence's Life and Death on New York Dancefloor, 1980-1983
Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s article This Centuries-Old Trick Will Unlock Your Productivity, The New York Times Magazine
Mark Leckey's film Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, available on Youtube
Robert Herrick’s poem about clothes which inspired the title