OLEAN -- Thanksgiving week has always been one of my favorites, and for the usual reasons of fine food, warm fires, fast friends, nostalgia, relatives, relaxation, gentle snow, convivial conversation and the like. But in recent years another attraction arrived that raised anticipation of the whole week, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. It snuck up on me.
It seemed to have something to do with my current occupation, teaching, but the enhanced mood was never specific enough that I could nail the cause, or the vague feeling of a better-than-usual outlook as I trudged into the lecture hall, coffee cup in hand, for the early morning class. Now, I have, and it has solved a childhood mystery for me. According to the lecture schedule, this is the week, at least for two days, that I get to teach the public relations chapter in the freshman journalism book.
No, public relations is not my forte. That's not the reason. My first job out of college was in public relations in New York City. I was so mediocre at it, the mighty New York Telephone Co. transferred me to commercial management, where I was even more inept, then fired my sorry behind. I moved to Niagara Falls immediately. And in a lifetime of covering politicians all over the country, I have come to regard public relations and its attending spin with a somewhat jaundiced eye. But that's another column, or maybe a whole book.
This seductive lecture subject is clearly defined in our superbly written text for the introductory media class. It is denim.
That's right, denim -- the rugged, coarse, blue cotton material that work pants, overalls, jackets and in recent years high fashion clothing is made of. I'll explain in a few sentences. The course text is "Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication" written by three Miami University of Ohio journalism professors -- Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin and Bettina Fabos.
The three authors are hip to young people, and the first photo in the PR chapter is an arresting, full-page shot of "Johnny" from the 1953 chopper movie "The Wild One," a young, handsome and trim Marlon Brando leaning against the handlebars of his motorcycle and wearing a rakish brimmed hat, a black leather jacket with several zippered pockets, black leather gloves, a chrome bracelet, black stomp boots -- and blue denim pants.
Only a few students knew who the late Brando was, but they knew he looked mean and tough in the picture, and that he meant business. From the photo, it's easy to figure out "The Wild One" is about outlaw bikers, but the Stanley Kramer film would appear corny and stupid to more sophisticated modern viewers. Brando plays a surly, brooding, nomadic motorcycle gang leader who leads his crew in terrorizing a small California town. I didn't see the movie until I was fully adult, but even in the late 1960s, it made me laugh instead of tremble. The tough Brando gets off one memorable line while guzzling beer and dancing with a pretty girl in a bar.
Girl: Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Brando: What've you got?
This casual insouciance was not present in the general American populace in the mid-'50s. Just the opposite. The omnipresent parental emotion in those years was fear.
My mother wouldn't let me wear denim. She was like several other mothers in our small town in the North Country of New York state, up near Watertown and the St. Lawrence River.
Oh, I'd had a few denim pants as a toddler and maybe in third and fourth grades, but when I reached my teen years, and parents worried in the wake of movies such as "The Wild One" and "Blackboard Jungle" (another film in which disturbed young toughs wearing blue jeans terrorized adult authority figures), the national theory among concerned mothers and fathers was that denim pants and motorcycles were a deadly mix. Just denim alone, they thought -- and national commentators spouted on TV and in print -- was representative of an entire antisocial subculture (young persons) festering in rebellion.
Buy your son denim pants? Incite delinquency and downfall.
Buy your daughter tight blue jeans? Turn her into a promiscuous little slut.
That was the big social theory of the time. The Buffalo public school system banned the wearing of denim jeans for high school students for a full year, 1957.
The near-panic grew so widespread that even the Cold War entered into it.
Pandering politicians and crackpots of all stripes accused makers of the durable denim products of foisting a "Communist plot" on the innocent youth of America with the end of instigating widespread rebellion and the destabilization of society. Black leather jackets, denim products and motorcyclists were stereotyped as evil vectors of revolution. Meanwhile, the sales of all three were rocketing off the charts.
I knew I had no shot whatsoever at even a lowly motorbike (probably not even at a new bicycle) but I fiercely desired denim jeans and one of those tight denim jackets so I could turn the collar up in back and hang out with the bigger kids in front of Tunstall's Drugstore at the center of our small village of Brownville -- Main Street and Brown Boulevard, the town's only intersection with a stop light.
Once there, we could chew huge wads of gum, tell stupid jokes, talk about sports, watch cars go by and try to identify the make and year, watch girls go by and try to pretend they even took notice of us, holler at friends, make fun of kids we didn't like, warm up by pretending to wrestle and fight if it was cold, and generally act like asses.
If things got slow there, we could move across the street to the grocery store, Genter and Brennon's, and perch on the produce racks out front until one of the owners shooed us away. Sometimes a waaay older kid would light up a cigarette and we'd pretend we might, too, if we had some. (I did, once, and thankfully it gave me such a sore throat I never fell into the deadly habit.)
If things got slow in front of the grocery store, we could always go back across the street to Tunstall's and noisily try to play free pool until the proprietor got mad and ran us all off.
When you walked across the street in these denim outfits, you slipped your hands into your tight front pockets and tried to hunch your shoulders forward. Not because it was cold, which it usually was. Because it made you look tough. Or so we thought. Oh, and the cuffs on the blue jeans were always rolled up and neatly squared off at about three inches deep -- just like Brando's in the movie. This was the better to show off your boots, which none of us had. We couldn't afford them. We wore sneakers instead.
My mother was like Gibraltar on all this. No jeans, no jacket, no boots, no denim, no hanging out in front of stores. She'd ask: What will people think of us? What will Father McGowan say? "You're an altar boy, for pity sakes."
I didn't see the connection and would feebly counter with the everybody's-doing-it ploy, which you who were children once will recognize as useless. What about Terry Bordell? What about Lenny Tucker and his brother Tom? What about Dick Pound? What about Hammy Gowing and his brother Flip? Why, I could even take my dog Buck along and look really cool. Why, denim was almost a national tradition. Farmers and factory workers had been wearing the fabric for more than a century.
No Buck, no boots, no Tom, Dick and Hammy. No history. No tradition. No farmers. No factories.
"And quit pestering me. I'll tell your father, and he'll convince you without saying a word."
This went on for several months, more than a year, in fact, and then -- and this is where the childhood mystery comes in -- the arguing and parental stonewalling simply disappeared like a small rain cloud in a fresh summer wind. Without any fanfare, I was allowed, finally, to buy denim jeans and a denim jacket. My mother even subsidized the purchase. I could even wear them to school, if I wished. I could go down to "The Corner" and stand around with my buddies. (Except, of course, by that time most of them had matured into other pursuits like girls at sock hops and drive-in movies.)
I never could figure out why the sudden change. Why the long, resolute resistance to denim as if it were a fashion invasion and this was some sort of material Maginot line -- then, without explanation, a complete evaporation of disapproval? Black into white. Darkness to dawn. I didn't dare bring the question up to my parents. I was afraid the high court would reverse due to impertinence.
In "Media & Culture," authors Campbell, Martin and Fabos at last explain:
"In response to the crisis, the denim industry waged a public relations campaign to eradicate the delinquency label and rejuvenate denim's image."
In 1956, it turns out, the top blue jean manufacturers formed a national "Denim Council" to, as the PR people phrased it, "put schoolchildren back in blue jeans." A concerted national advertising, PR and promotional effort at first targeted teens, with little result. The Denim Council, according to the textbook, soon realized:
"The problem was not with the teens, but with the parents, administrators, teachers, and school boards. It was the adults who felt threatened by a fashion trend that seemed to promote disrespect through casualness. ... The public relations team determined that mothers were refusing to outfit their children in jeans because of the product's association with delinquency."
Wasn't that the truth? The public relations firms got busy. Fashion designer were urged to produce new women's sportwear styles made from denim. Fashion editors and business reporters at newspapers and magazines were "inundated with news releases about the 'new look' of durable denim."
Men's and women's work clothes, long a staple in denim, were redesigned to look more modern -- more casual so you wouldn't associate them with drudgery or work. Nationwide retail promotions appeared constantly at clothing stores. "Jean Queen" beauty contests were ubiquitous. Men's magazines like "True" and "Esquire" began covering studly clothing ideas instead of detective exploits, hunting and near-nudity.
The piece de resistance, however, was the Denim Council's success in convincing the newly formed Peace Corps that young people working in sweat-and-grit jobs in developing nations would look good in denim. The idealistic project was, as the textbook notes, "the flip side of delinquency." Americans of either political conviction loved the Peace Corps. Soon one saw pictures all over of smiling young Americans under palm trees digging a well or helping children read.
Sales of blue jeans and jackets zoomed. "The delinquency tag disappeared," explain my textbook's authors, "and jeans gradually became associated with a more casual, though not antisocial, dress ethic."
I went through my early adulthood mostly unaware of any of this (except for the fact there were fewer nudie pictures in "True" and "Esquire"), and only vaguely conscious that denim was back. It wasn't until I had to do a drive-by explanation of PR for my freshmen that I learned the story-behind-the-story. Thanks, Campbell and Martin and Fabos. I shall describe all this to my freshmen this week and give them something to converse about over the turkey when aunts and uncles ask what they're learning in college.
If I had understood public relations this well, I might still be working for New York Telephone (or Verizon, as it has morphed and remorphed into).
How to explain the craziness of the 1950s? McCarthyism? Mass political hysteria over a rival system that was such a dopey idea it fell mostly of its own accord (after a little prompting by a strong president)? Nuclear proliferation so rampant that kids were taught to crouch under their school desks as a palliative? As if that would prevent radiation or incineration or charring? Government sponsorship of backyard atomic bomb shelters? Holes in the ground big enough to contain sufficient food to avoid the immediate effects of a nuclear blast, only to emerge to lasting desolation and ruin? What was that all about?
And demonization of clothing? Perhaps I'm rationalizing, but I think maybe my parents -- intelligent, loving, logical people -- like many mothers and fathers, subliminally may have found the times so innocent and promising they instinctively wanted to preserve that feeling for their children, even if they felt threatened by something foolish, like wearing apparel.
As for my own childhood denim clothing, I soon grew bored with the whole idea and started wearing chinos and plaid shirts, then solids and preppy sweaters. Then sweatpants and sports jackets. By the time I reached college, I was a complete fashion mess, which hasn't changed. Now I wear what I damn well please and -- like most professors -- don't give a flying hoot about how I look.
A few years back, however, I did buy a solid denim work jacket, with useful chest pockets and cut off at the waist. I soon put on too many pounds for it, some of which I recently lost. (Treadmill ... another story.) It fits again. I am going to put it on as soon as I finish this column, and go out to stack firewood in the snow.
Perhaps I'll feel 14 again.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Nov. 20 2007|