By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Levi Strauss is probably writhing in his grave. Let’s set him at peace. The outrageous appropriation of his distinctive contribution to American national dress must end—and it must end soon. I’m calling for global closet searches and bon fires. Blue jeans belong in America on Americans.
Until recently I’ve been willing to classify the global dispersion of denim-wear as an extremely successful form of U.S. aid. It’s clear that no American contribution to world welfare has been more popular than blue jeans. They’re practical. They’re durable. They’re machine washable and don’t need ironing—and they don’t wrinkle, if you get the right fit. Above all, they’re cheap. Any one can afford them.
Correction: they should be cheap, which is why I propose to prosecute especially severely those who have not only appropriated our national dress but undermined our national identity, turning good old blue jeans into obscenely expensive designer wear of the sort affordable only by the 5%, thus discriminating against ordinary Americans, who have a right to display their heritage on their own bodies. At the very least these alien brands must named and shamed. Furthermore, patriotic Americans must boycott the entire fashion line any designer who presumes to exploit jeans without concern for American sensitivities.
Excuse me if I also propose that such shocking rip offs be ripped off any non-American daring to flaunt them within 24 hours after a publically announced cut off date. Those who end up in a mooning posture in the middle of a winter snow storm will have only themselves to blame for their exposure.
For the longest time I believed that it might be culturally sensitive, even generous, to overlook this egregious cultural theft, preferring to see it as a form of respect and admiration. But no more—and I’ll tell you why. I bought a great big fuzzy Uzbek sheepskin hat while I was in Central Asia a few months ago. It gets cold in Santa Fe, and an Uzbek hat would solve the annual frostbitten ears problem. If it’s stupid to reinvent the wheel, after all, it’s stupid to reinvent a superb cold weather hat.
No, I wasn’t going to wear my Uzbek prize to a Halloween party replete with ghouls and witches, Batmen and Wonder Women, wookies and vampires. I wasn’t going to turn it into the Central Asian version of “black face.” I was going to wear it as intended, thank you very much.
But just this week I was informed in no uncertain terms that wearing an Uzbek hat as a winter head covering in America would be a highly visible example of cultural appropriation, an affront to proud, respectable Uzbeks—as if it hadn’t been sold to me by proud respectable Uzbeks out to make an honest living. It would be particularly shocking, I was told, on the part of a person who sometimes thinks of herself as a global citizen.
But whoa! Isn’t global citizenship about coming together, getting to know one another and sharing? Sharing music. Sharing ideas. Sharing food. In sum: treasuring traditions and also mixing things up. The sort of thing that Yo Yo Ma does so well. Also the sort of thing that’s truly American. We are such a mish-mash of cultures and customs that we exist in a constant dizzy state of promiscuous cultural appropriation. It’s creative. It’s exciting. What sane person would wish (or try) to unmix the mix? (Except for Donald J. Trump, perhaps, who prefers to divide and conquer.)
I read not so long ago that an American university cafeteria had been excoriated for serving inauthentic Thai and Chinese food, a particularly insulting form of cultural appropriation evidently. Well, if Thai and Chinese has to be removed from the menu, shouldn’t pizza go, too? And French fries! And tamales? And sushi? And so on. Must I eat nothing but baked beans and succotash because of my New England heritage? Must I close the curtains and swear everyone to secrecy when I cook (highly inauthentic) Indian curries?
And so I’m hitting back. If I have to empty my closet because it’s full of Indian garb I’m now forbidden to wear (although no one in India thought it was offensive), it’s time to put a stop to the promiscuous and heinous appropriation of American jeans. What are young men everywhere in the world wearing? Jeans. What are their sisters wearing? Jeans. What are covered women in Saudi Arabia wearing under their abeyas? Jeans. What’s taking the place of sarongs in Tahiti? Jeans. What did smugglers smuggle into the Soviet Union? Jeans. What did our Uzbek guides in Tashkent wear? Jeans. It has to stop.
Jeans are an American cultural treasure. Given the current thinking on cultural appropriation, all jeans must be repatriated or destroyed. Those who resist must be shamed and shunned, if not shot. Let Levi Strauss rest in peace.