Monday, January 29, 2007

Let an anthropologist in your jeans The Politics of Pants: It was consumers, not marketers, that made jeans a symbol of youthful revolt.
It’s neither makers nor marketers who successfully attach meaning to the products they want to sell. It’s the consumers who impute meaning to those products they choose to buy.

The anthropologist Grant McCracken has done a lot of scholarly work to elucidate this distinction, and The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell has been a pioneer in reporting it. His famous 1997 piece “The Coolhunt” focused on consultants who attempt to monitor “coolness” as it is attached to—and detached from—consumer goods by a hierarchy of influential buyers. Gladwell offered case studies of brands, such as Hush Puppies shoes, that had become cool (for a while, anyway) without the manufacturer or its ad people ever having a clue. Jeans conquered the world—Levi’s 501s are the single most successful garment ever designed—not because of the denim industry’s efforts to give them meaning but in spite of them.

I highlight only because it's fairly interesting, but it also throws in a lot of ideas archaeologists have talked about off and on for years. This used to be the explanation for the battleship-shaped curves (otherwise known as monotonic) in frequency seriations -- particular styles rise in popularity and then gradually lose popularity over time. It also goes to a lot of post-processualist arguments about how meaning is imputed to objects and symbols. One seriously wonders how archaeologists a thousand years hence will make sense of the Denim Culture and why it floresced when and where it did. Will they call any of it an Elvis Phase? A James Dean Focus? Will they be arguing style vs. function, ala Binford and Bordes? And what about button vs. zipper?