Blue Jeans and Culture

An earlier post touched on the concept of “cultural appropriation.” This label is often applied inappropriately, because the world is more interconnected than most people realise. It has been that way for longer than most people realise (for example, some 4,000 years ago, tin from England was being traded across the Mediterranean sea for use in making bronze). And ideas go back further than most people realise.

As Michael Crichton says in his excellent novel Timeline, “Yet the truth was that the modern world was invented in the Middle Ages. Everything from the legal system, to nation-states, to reliance on technology, to the concept of romantic love had first been established in medieval times. These stockbrokers owed the very notion of the market economy to the Middle Ages. And if they didn’t know that, then they didn’t know the basic facts of who they were. Why they did what they did. Where they had come from.

Consider blue jeans, for example.

Blue jeans are dyed with indigotin, a chemical derived from the indigo plant, which has long been grown in India. But before someone says “cultural appropriation from India,” indigotin was traditionally derived in Europe from the woad plant (northern Britons painted their skins blue with woad). In China, a different plant was used. Essentially, the use of indigotin was a cultural universal. In Germany, where a culture of excellence in organic chemistry grew up during the 19th century, a practical method for making synthetic indigotin was developed at the BASF company in 1897, and the choice of plant became moot.

A cake of indigo dye (photo: David Stroe)

Blue jeans are made from denim, a fabric named after Nîmes in France. During the California gold rush, Levi Strauss, a Jewish-American businessman of German origin, teamed up with Jacob Davis, a Jewish-American tailor of Latvian origin, to make denim work clothing for miners. These blue jeans were strengthened by metal rivets – an idea due to Davis, patented in 1873.

So which culture produced blue jeans – Indian? French? German? Latvian? Jewish? American? One can only say that blue jeans were produced by human culture.

Illustration from the patent application


Girl, flaunt those hoops!

American private liberal arts colleges constantly seem to be in the news (not, unfortunately, for their educational successes). Pitzer College, located in Claremont, California (and ranked 44th among liberal arts colleges in the United States by Times Higher Education), recently made the news when a college Resident Assistant announced that “white girls” should not wear hoop earrings.

Left: Greek hoop earring with lion head, 4th century BC; Right: Italian (Lombard) hoop earring with basket, 7th century AD

The strange thing is that hoop earrings are almost a cultural universal. They have been worn across the world, including in Europe and the Middle East. And not just by “girls” with skin of various colours – men have worn them too.

I must also say I’m grateful that the Greeks haven’t stopped the rest of the world from “cultural appropriation” of their philosophy, mathematics, and democratic ideals.

Left: Croatian hoop earring, 14th century AD; Right: Egyptian hoop earring, Roman Period or later


Folk culture (left), popular culture (centre), and “high” culture (right). The photo of the blue handmade pottery cup at top left is by “Wildfeuer,” and the photo at bottom right is by Jessica Spengler.

I recently read a book discussing the now-traditional distinction between folk culture, popular culture, and “high” culture (see pictures above). Folk culture includes traditional arts and crafts, hand-made objects, and fairy tales or recipes passed down from generation to generation. Popular culture is characterised by mass-produced objects made from cheap materials or ingredients, aimed at immediate gratification and at the lowest common denominator of taste. “High” culture consists of things that only the well-educated cognoscenti can appreciate. “High” culture should be distinguished from what is simply the more expensive end of folk culture – craftspeople have always been able to produce more sophisticated items, made with more expensive materials and more elaborate decoration, if they were paid for the extra time and cost (“for you, my lord, I can fletch the arrows with eagle’s feathers instead of hen’s feathers”).

Bristol Cathedral

Now, I think this classification is missing a few things. For a start, there’s the important category of religious culture, which includes things like the great cathedrals (or, elsewhere in the world, temples and mosques) and the religious music of, for example, J. S. Bach. Such cultural artefacts were aimed at ordinary people (not the cognoscenti), but they were dedicated to God. They were meant to inspire devotion, and quite literally to point to heaven.

The Agnus Dei from Bach’s Mass in B minor, sung by Kathleen Ferrier

In Bach’s case, this intent was genuine – he was a deeply religious man, who ended his musical manuscripts with the phrase Soli Deo gloria (Glory to God alone), or with the initials S.D.G. In religious culture, it is neither the artist nor the listener/viewer to whom honour is intended to accrue. In a weaker form, this attitude can be found in, for example, movie soundtracks, whose primary purpose is not to be appreciated on their own, but to help the audience enter into the story.

In many cases, what we call “high” culture is actually folk culture or religious culture that has lost its original context. Folk-culture artefacts from the past (like the Greek vase at top) first enter the antique store and then, as they become even older, move to the museum, where they become objects of “high” culture. Folk-culture artefacts from other countries appear to become objects of “high” culture as soon as they are transported from their place of origin. Religious music becomes “high” culture when it shifts from the cathedral to the concert hall. When a degree of context is restored, some objects of “high” culture can actually become extremely popular, as in movie adaptations of Shakespeare or of classic novels. Other objects of modern “high” culture bemuse even well-educated individuals outside the cognoscenti.

Traditional slit drums from Vanuatu in the Australian Museum, Sydney (my photo)

Movies are a key part of popular culture. The chart below relates the “percentage of professional critic reviews that are positive for a given film” from to total revenues (as at a few years ago – data is from here). It is not clear, however, exactly what the “professional critic reviews” are measuring. The relationship between revenues and quality is hazy as well, although some really terrible movies do seem to make a great deal of money.

For several decades now, a growing rebellion against popular culture has been emerging. There was the Arts and Crafts movement around 1900, and since then a steadily increasing interest in traditional forms of music, hand-crafted objects, and home cooking. There have also been a number of other interesting movements. The slow food movement attempts to resurrect a comprehensive folk culture of food, and offers a superior alternative to “fast food.” The maker movement (as defined by e.g. Make magazine) merges modern technology with traditional crafts. It seeks to ally modern technology with folk culture, rather than with mass-produced popular culture. At the simple end, maker culture includes minor customisations of high-tech devices, like this Macbook sticker:

Macbook sticker (photo by Denis Dervisevic, slightly modified)

At the more sophisticated end, there is this classic steampunk computer monitor and keyboard by Jake von Slatt:

Steampunk computer monitor and keyboard (photographer & maker: Jake von Slatt)

Steampunk culture also rebels against the cheap plastics used in so many popular-culture artefacts (although Robert M. Pirsig notes that “Mass-produced plastics and synthetics aren’t in themselves bad. They’ve just acquired bad associations. A person who’s lived inside stone walls of a prison most of his life is likely to see stone as an inherently ugly material, even though it’s also the prime material of sculpture, and a person who’s lived in a prison of ugly plastic technology that started with his childhood toys and continues through a lifetime of junky consumer products is likely to see this material as inherently ugly”). Steampunk culture prefers older materials like brass and copper, as in this 1994 Jules-Verne-inspired steampunk makeover of the Arts et Métiers Métro station in Paris:

The Arts et Métiers Métro station (photo: Stephen Butterworth)

Aspects of the emerging maker movement can also be seen in the solar cars developed for the World Solar Challenge, where high-tech electronics and solar panels are combined with carefully engineered and hand-crafted car bodies made of quality materials like carbon-fibre composites, resulting in vehicles of aesthetic beauty as well as practicality and speed.

Solar Team Twente’s solar car Red One (photo: Jérôme Wassenaar)