by Alexander Freeling


There’s a longing at the moment—sometimes joking, sometimes deeply serious—for normality. But was there ever really normality, or do we only invent it by imagining away the latest catastrophe?

I think it’s a bit of both. What’s normal is always measured against some sense of historical or personal change, for better and worse. And yet an ordinary day isn’t just an absence of events; it’s everything that seems normal to individuals and communities. This comes through in a surprising way in Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward’s study of the inhabitants of three streets in London, and the jeans they wear.

Over and over, Miller and Woodward’s subjects report that blue denim jeans are their ordinary clothes: a default choice that has no particular meaning. Some (such as teachers and bank clerks) mention that they can’t wear them to work; others that they prefer not to at church, temple or the mosque. But all agree that they are versatile, comfortable, and practical.

When asked about the particular jeans they own, people open up. They mention four main categories: British “high street” brands; imported Levis and Wranglers; Italian fashion labels; and Japanese craft denim. Some wear their jeans 90s baggy, others so tight they can only dress horizontally, but most are somewhere in between. Both men and women speak of searching at length for the right fit. They talk about their bodies and how they’ve changed (having kids is a common pivot.) They talk, of course, about their rears. An awkward, tall teen called George explains that he doesn’t wear skinny jeans like his friends because they exaggerate his slender frame. A girl his age laughs that her mother wears tighter, more daring cuts than she does. Jeans are clearly gendered (tighter cuts being considered more feminine but also sexier, looser cuts more masculine but conservative, even dowdy). But where you place yourself is an intensely personal question. Some men love sophisticated Italian cuts, others feel secure in blokey pairs that celebrate nothing of their exquisite forms. A trim 61-year-old man proudly wears his extremely tight.

Immigrants to London and their children speak about their relations to the city and its culture. Some British South Asians mention that their more conservative relatives criticize their tight jeans. A Barbadian woman associates jeans with her increased standard of living in Britain after a tough childhood. A Somali whose father worked in Italy and brought her back a few pairs muses that British fashion is bland, a sentiment echoed by those who visit relatives in Karachi and Lagos. An elderly man, who received his first pair from a US soldier in the ’40s, thinks of them as American clothing, but everyone else regards jeans as a universal form with regional and cultural variations to explore.

Some have different jeans for every occasion, others live in the same pair for years. Some feel fabulous in navy blue elastane, others are most comfortable in 15oz raw denim. What unites them is that, in a modest way, they all create a bit of themselves when they put them on. The first answer is correct: jeans are ordinary. But by wearing one pair or another, day after day, we shape what ordinary means.