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Fall 2007 Book Reviews

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Books, music, art, theater, film, and dance

Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon , By James Sullivan '87

Meredith Hall '95G
Nancy Pagh '91G
Tom Wessels '73
Todd Balf '83
Dr. Yakov M. Zilberberg '81G
Christopher Walsh '90
Juliana Fern Patten '78G
Also of Note...
Ron Moore '71, '72G
Margo Fortier Corbett '68
Etta Madden '95G
Albert Pia '49, '53G
E. Ray Canterbery and Thomas D. Birch
Dicky Jensen '82G
Patricia Lynne Grace Cummings '73
Linda Benoit Bilodeau '91
Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon
See at amazon.com

As a 13-year-old reader of Rolling Stone, James Sullivan '87 didn't want to be the kind of musician that the magazine profiled—he wanted to be one of the writers who got to tell the musicians' stories. At UNH, his writing teachers, the late Don Murray '48 and Brock Dethier, taught him that his desire constituted a viable career, and three years out of college, he landed a job as the San Francisco Chronicle's popular music critic.

"Eventually, I started writing about anything and everything in the entertainment industry, and my job title changed to pop culture critic," Sullivan explains. Arts entertainment and pop culture are fascinating things to write about, he says, because they encompass politics, social behavior, generational issues and history. "You basically get paid for learning in public."

When his agent had an idea for a book about blue jeans, Sullivan jumped on it. Hence, Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon (Gotham Books, 2006), Sullivans multifaceted history of a quintessentially American garment that is singular in its staying power.

"I'm not a fashion writer, and it was clear to me from the beginning of the project that in writing about denim, I was writing a version of social history," Sullivan says. "As I researched, I was really surprised to see how jeans parallel the signicant cultural movements of the last 150 years." One of the many threads Sullivan follows in his book is the mythology surrounding dry-goods supplier Levi Strauss, who built an empire in the late 19th century producing denim work pants for the miners, loggers, cowboys and farmers who were busy building a nation. Sullivan describes the restless teenagers of the 1950s, who adopted denim because it had an aura of disrepute, and shows how hippies in the 1960s were the first to wear jeans as a political statement. He explores the disco and designer jeans culture of the 1970s and '80s, the thousands of jeans manufacturers that compete in today's global marketplace, and the evolution of couture denim.

Americans spent $14 billion on jeans in 2004. The virtues of a garment that began life as a lowly pair of work pants have been extolled even by fashion designersthe late Bill Blass once declared Levis jeans the best single item of apparel ever designed. Sullivan notes that although European in origin, denim is woven into the cultural fabric of our nation. "Blue jeans—not soft drinks, or cars, or computers—are the crowning product of American ingenuity," he writes. They are timeless—flawlessly designed, yet innitely versatile. They are mass-produced on an epic scale, yet each pair tells its own story. Most of all, blue jeans work on our behalf. They cover our asses."

Anne Downey '95G is a freelance writer who lives in Eliot, Maine.

Anne Downey '95G, a freelance writer who lives in Eliot, Maine, received her Ph.D. in English from UNH.