(Unofficially) Peter S. Beagle

American Denim

American Denim - A New Folk Art
Presented by Richard M. Owens and Tony Lane
Text by Peter Beagle
Photographs by Baron Wolman and the Denim Artists
Published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Copyright 1975 by Owens & Co., San Francisco

American Denim

American Denim: illustration

"For years, plain blue jeans were the accepted uniform for teenagers, but when their elders adopted denim for themselves, youngsters began distinguishing their own garb. In line with the handicraft revival, they began to paint, embroider, bead, and stud their denims. In 1973, Levi Strauss and Company, world leader in the manufacture of denims, sponsored a contest for the best decorated denims organized by Richard M. Owens, who conceived the idea for this book. From almost 10,000 entries, 75 winning garments were shown at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York - in an exhibition that broke attendance records...In American Denim many of the most exciting garments are presented in 145 dazzling colorplates, highlighting texture and design."

Now, a book about Denim as Folk Art from the 1970's would not normally be my preferred reading material. The 157 page coffee-table book is perhaps an hour's reading, with barely twenty pages of text, and even that speckled with photos of celebraties in their casual or not-so-casual jeans: Dustin Hoffman, Marlene Dietrich, Bridgitte Bardot, Frank Sinatra. But somehow, Beagle managed to entrance me from the very first paragraph:

"For myself, I have always wanted fur, ever since I saw and touched my first cat. (I have also wanted to be a cat since that day, but that is definitely another matter.) I can remember arguing in junior high school science classes against the theory that hair, per se, implies a higher level of evolution for its possessor than fur or feathers do, and that dreary naked skin is obviously the covering of the most advanced species. "The students will please take note that it is not a giant sea otter who wrote the textbooks or is teaching this class. Sit down, Beagle."

Whether this anecdote is real or a bit of poetic license to help start the story, it doesn't really matter. The purpose is accomplished; I am flipping pages like the freshest mystery reader, totally drawn in. Beagle takes the reader through not only a history of Levi's jeans but also the feel and mindset of the mid-seventies in America, the fear of the future, the erosion of the past. The grey suits of the fifties, comforting while at the same time stifling the American creativeness, gave way to the beaded excesses of the Hippies in the sixties. But this is an era when the hippies are fading, when unsurety is the order of the day. While I was not around to experience what he writes of, I can still feel the national anxiousness of a nation torn apart by wars and internal hatred, trying to discover its roots again, wondering if its roots should even be dug up again, or left behind. As Beagle writes: "Perhaps we are looking for our strength now - our real strength, not the enameled flag lapel buttons, not the singing at baseball games about bombs bursting in air, not the mouthing of voodo syllables about liberty and justice for all - perhaps we are only desperate to take refuge in the ruins of what we believed ourselves to be...As for going forward - as we must, whether or not there is any forward to go to - having reached a point of terror and revulsion at the sight of anyone's flag, at the music of any nation's anthem, I would far prefer to march under the ensign of a pair of blue jeans embroidered with bright-eyed dinosaurs grazing on sequin flowers. It would attract nice followers, for one thing, and make a friendlier signal to the universe. I think that even the captains of hovering UFOs, hesitant to land on this planet of legendary menace, would know that we meant them no harm."

Not the kind of writing you find in your average celebration of folk art coffee-table book. And unfortunately, writing that is still eerily perceptive more than two decades later.


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