The Blue Jean – Cultural metaphor & masculine icon

It may seem odd to consider items of clothing critical components of ‘popular culture’. Contemporary clothing is a key element in the construction of personal identity; it is used to denote an individual ‘style’ and a personality unique to its wearer. Yet from the corset to miniskirt, such items serve not only as practical coverings, but also as indicators for the current values and belief systems of a society.

Thus I wish to examine what has become a most popular article of clothing – the ‘blue jean’ [1] – in an attempt to unearth some of the socio-cultural phenomenon that is ‘popular culture’. According to Raymond Williams’ definition, the ‘blue jean’ qualifies as an object of popular culture due to its (a) wide-spread accessibility, (b) popularity, and (c) construction as an object intended to be popular.[2] But perhaps the ‘blue jean’ is not only a product, a piece of commercialism. I assert, rather, that this cultural icon has become a gauge of changing interpretations of masculinity in mainstream American culture. The ‘blue jean’, symbolically, is the white, middle-class, ‘All-American’ man. I would like to examine what, specifically, makes the ‘blue jean’ stereotypically ‘masculine’.

Historically, fashion has upheld socially constructed notions of gender: the corset, for example, helped contain a woman’s ‘uncontrollable’ body, while the suspender maintained coverage of a man’s ‘unmentionables’. Similarly, from its design as a durable work pant for working men and laborers (farmers, railroad men, gold and coal miners, etc.), [3] the blue jean is closely associated with a muscular, super-virile ‘He-Man’. [4] First made wildly popular by the Western films of the 1930s, jeans became identified as a standard item of apparel worn by the ‘cowboy’. [5] Even mainstream advertising for these durable denim pants featured ‘manly’ rangers, taming their horses and lassoing the competition (image 1a).

The concept of a heroic, blue-jeaned ‘Lone-Ranger’-esque cowboy seems to have remained in popular American psyche, as it is nostalgically associated with a notion of ‘old-fashioned’, well-mannered, moral man (image 1b). Authentic cowboys wearing Levi’s at this time were elevated to mythic status, and the pant was now associated more with a rugged American, symbolized by John Wayne. [6] (Wayne, for example, always seemed ‘ready for action’ with a holster comfortably around his jeans [image 1c]). The blue jeans worn by these sensationalized figures, then, seem to be inherently connected to the supreme virility they projected. While the market of jean consumers no doubt shifted over the following decades, an association with masculinity persisted. In 1950s post-war America, TV programs and films helped construct the denim jean (as well as the leather jacket) as a sign of male teenage rebellion.[7] In A Streetcar Named Desire (image 2a), for example, Marlon Brano’s jeans can be seen as his protest again conformity, as if he were amending society at large by altering his pantleg.

While the scuffed knees of Brando’s leg symbolize a working-class social position, the rest of his ensemble (such as his cap and leather jacket) makes it clear that the jeans are an intentional fashion statement; Brando does not wear these pants due to his social positioning, but rather due to his political sensibilities. Similarly, the rumpled fit of James Dean’s jeans in Rebel Without a Cause (image 2b) sent a rebellious message to businessmen in suits: ‘blue jeans’ were not a uniform for the bureaucratic world, and neither were the men that donned them. Denim pants, therefore, became less associated with workwear and more associated with the activities of a young, potent America. [8] Thus male leads like Brando and Dean shot to fame through portrayals of hard-edged, disenfranchised youth; and jeans, too, became iconic symbols of male rebellion/deviance.

This anti-authoritarian reputation of jeans and their wearers was echoed in 1980s fashion. Adorned with tears and patches, intentionally abused by stone- and acid-washes, jeans had become riské, deviant. George Michael (image 3a), in particular, became well-known for dressing in tight jeans. Paired with a suggestive pose (and brazen chest hair), Michael’s jeans cemented his status as a “male sex symbol‿; that is, as an ideal vision of Western masculinity. Likewise, the denim jeans worn by Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (image 3b) are coded a symbol of decadent (note the golf shoes and leopard print) Caucasian-American masculinity. In the film, Broderick plays the “cool kid at school‿: he is popular, confident, relaxed and (most importantly) in control. (For though he knows that “leisure rules‿, Broderick can only enjoy such leisure while remaining in control.) Thus while Broderick’s jeans don’t conjure an image of sexuality as do Michael’s, they inspire another vision of stereotypically-masculine potency: that of power/control/domination.

Thus one may ask: what links cowboys of the 1930s, rebellious teens of the 1950s and cultural icons of the 1980s, all wearing jeans, to an idealized notion of masculinity? It seems the answer lies in an innate relationship between the blue jean and the virility of its wearer. Whether manifested physically (the ‘cowboys’ [images 1a, 1b, 1c]), socially (the angsty ‘bad boys’ [images 2a, 2b]), sexually (‘sex symbol’ Michael, [image 3a]) or politically (‘cool, calm and in control’ Broderick), a certain potency is found amonst all these jean-donning males. Perhaps, then, the true attraction the ‘blue jean’ is not its durability or ‘stylish’ appeal, but rather the way it performs masculinity. In constructing and reiterating stereotypical notions of the white, middle-class and heterosexual man, then, the ‘blue jean’ maintains a vision of normative masculinity embraced by Western popular culture in its advocacy of ‘heterosexual monogamy’.[9]


  1. In this paper, ‘blue jean’ refers to pants made of denim material called jeans, not made of jean material.
  2. Raymond Williams as quoted by Bielby, Denise D., and C. Lee Harrington. Popular Culture: Production and Consumption. Malden: Blackwell, 2001. p. 2
  3. “jeans.‿ Encyclopedia Brittanica. 2004. Encyclopaedia Brittanica Premium Service. 9 Oct. 2004. Web”>”>Web site.
  4. Danae Clark also writes about the supposed “naturalness‿ of gender roles as constructed by fashion by referring to how some lesbian consumers revolt with their “flannel-and-denim anti-style‿ (Clark, Danae. Popular Culture: Production and Consumption. Bielby, Denise D., and C. Lee Harrington, eds. Malden: Blackwell, 2001. p. 83
  5. “jeans.‿ Encyclopedia Brittanica. 2004. Encyclopaedia Brittanica Premium Service. 9 Oct. 2004. Web”>”>Web site.
  6. Downey, Lynn. History of Denim. 2000. Levi Strauss & Co. 6 Oct. 2004. Web”>”>Web site.
  7. Jeans: blue denim. History and evolution of blue jeans. 2004. DesignBoom. 7 Oct. 2004. Web”>”>Web site.
  8. Downey, Lynn.
  9. Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. America on Film:
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    Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies
    . Malden: Blackwell, 2004. p. 293.


Series 1

(a) ‘all over the west they wear…’. Advertisement for Levi Strauss & Co overalls. 7 Oct. 2004. Web site.
(b) Cowboy on Fremont. Las Vegas. 7 Oct. 2004. Web site.
(c) Advertisement for Rio Lobo. Dir. Howard Hawks. Perf. John Wayne. John Wayne Poster, 1970. 7 Oct. 2004. Web site.

Series 2

(a) Still from A Streetcar Named Desire. Dir. Elia Kazan. Perf. Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh. 1951. Casual Denim Jeans – Fahion History. 7 Oct. 2004. Web site.
(b) Advertisement for Rebel Without A Cause. Dir. Nicholas Ray. Perf. James Dean, Natalie Wood. 1955. The Movie Pal Movie Poster Gallery. 7 Oct. 2004. Web site.

Series 3

(a) Promotional still of George Michael from 1987’s “Faith‿. George Michael Gallery. Web site.
(b) Advertisement for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Dir. John Hughes. Perf. Matthew Broderick. 1986. Web site.

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