Migrant workers return from their native places after COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were eased, in Ahmedabad, July 1, 2020. Photo: Reuters
The new Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat recently waded into a controversy. According to news reports, Rawat said that women wearing ripped jeans set a “bad example” for children which leads to “societal breakdown”. The expected criticism on social media was swift. Women from all walks of life defiantly shared pictures of themselves wearing ripped jeans. While Rawat’s patriarchal jibe is no exception in today’s India, the fault line of gender has frayed our social fabric throughout history.
Control of the lives of women (and men, to a lesser extent) through institutionalised norms of behaviour is a civilisational truth of our society. Women have always been told how to dress, behave and carry themselves. And, to varying degrees, this is true for all societies. In the context of this complex and layered relationship between the exercise of power and control, and the assertion of individual choice, self-expression and identity, the iconic blue jeans have a fascinating story to tell.
The narrative of denim is not only one of youth, rebellion, and freedom, the conservative and the fashionable, or men and women. The politics of denim also runs deep between the global ‘north’ and ‘south’, consumers and the working class, and affluence and poverty. With manufacturing having shifted out of the West, India now claims a big slice of the contemporary denim economy, as one of its largest producers and consumers. However, poor and exploited Indian workers are the dark underbelly of this narrative of success.
The origins of denim
It all goes back to the first European cotton textile industry which was established in northern Italy in the high medieval period. According to The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200-1850, by the fifteenth century, cotton cloth production was well established in the region of Liguria. This region was known for its heavy, coarse fabrics and ‘denims’ that interwove different fibres with inferior grades of cotton. A diagonally-patterned textile woven from linen and cotton was called ‘jean’, as it was exported through the port of Genoa.
This might have been very different from modern denim, which is made entirely from cotton but still woven in a diagonal pattern. Perhaps confusingly, while the word jeans comes from Genoa, the term denim comes from ‘serge de Nimes’ – another diagonally-patterned textile that was produced in Nimes, France.
By the late eighteenth century, jean was increasingly made exclusively from cotton. During the Industrial Revolution, the mills of Lancashire churned out reams of jean cloth as well as another variety, most of them dyed indigo blue. The Industrial Revolution had a profound linkage with India – knowledge of cotton textiles including dyeing was appropriated from Indian artisans who have been celebrated as “master dyers to the world”.
Working class to high fashion
But the real story of jeans is an American one. This much-loved garment as we know it today originated there as rough-and-tough workwear. In 1873, Latvian tailor Jacob Davis and Bavarian businessman Levi Strauss partnered to add rivets to waist overalls worn by working class men to prevent them from ripping at stress points like pocket corners. While Davis was the inventor, Strauss paid and obtained a joint patent, and denim jeans were born. Together, the duo set up shop in San Francisco to manufacture and sell the pants of brown duck canvas cloth or blue denim.
Over the decades, jeans transformed from workwear to everyday casuals to high fashion. In the middle of the twentieth century, denim embarked on a defiant journey, bringing to American youth a hint of glamour, winds of rebellion, counterculture and revolution. Denim culture soon took the world by storm, and India was not left untouched. Indian youth too donned denim for comfort, style and a whiff of America.
With the working-class origins of blue jeans now largely forgotten, the ubiquitous garment is seen as casual wear or a fashion statement. But the garment that started out as workers’ clothing in America, has in recent times become a part of the lives of their counterparts in our country as well. When migrant workers made an arduous trek back home on foot during the Covid lockdown a year ago, many of the men wore denim.
The Indian experience
While denim has become a global phenomenon, its manufacture has also been globalised. India plays a big role in the modern world of denim. Before the pandemic, India was one of the largest consumers and producers of denim. Such large volumes of consumption and production extract a terrible price from farmers, textile workers, and those living in the vicinity of manufacturing hubs. Underpaid and overworked textile workers in India are keeping the turnstile of fast fashion in the West perpetually revolving. Though fashion on the Western high street has also arrived on main roads in metropolitan India, both western and Indian consumers are equally unaware or unconcerned about those labouring in exploitative conditions to produce their pair of jeans.
Also, in its journey from field to fabric, denim is nothing short of an environmental disaster. Water in large volumes is depleted and polluted 1 to make our jeans, and hazardous chemicals are used. Not to mention the energy and carbon footprint of production and use, and the toxic waste left behind.
The first step in the laborious process of denim manufacture is the chemical and water intensive farming of cotton. India has set two dubious records in this respect. Its cotton farms together cover the largest area compared to those in other countries. And our cotton guzzles more water per kilogram of fibre produced than anywhere else.
The dyeing of yarn used to weave denim, another environmental hazard, depletes and pollutes 2 freshwater as well. Synthetic indigo and sulphur dyes are used in the dyeing process and the toxic effluents are discharged into water bodies. The manufacture of denim is also behind greater environmental damage than other cotton textiles thanks to a long and harmful finishing process.
When manufactured, denim is uniform in hue, stiff and utterly unusable as a fabric. Before jeans hit the showrooms and then our wardrobes, they undergo a major transformation. They are repeatedly washed as well as heavily treated chemically and abraded mechanically so that they come preshrunk, softened, faded and distressed – ready to wear right out of the store. These processes bleach, texturise, fray and rip jeans by using large volumes of water and hazardous chemicals.
Other than various harmful mechanical methods, the compounds used, like sodium hypochlorite and potassium permanganate, add to the environmental burden of denim manufacture.
A pair of jeans has a virtual water footprint of 11,000 litres – enough to fulfil the daily drinking and cooking requirements of more than a thousand Indians. To compare, the virtual water content of a pair of jeans is four times that of a cotton t-shirt. Moreover, in the absence of enforcement of environmental regulations, people living in the vicinity of production centres face immediate and grave threats from the pollution to their health and natural ecosystems.
Textile and garment workers along the production chain also suffer from low wages, long working hours, exploitative conditions, and serious ailments. The garment worker who tailors our jeans in sweatshops is often a poor young woman trying to make ends meet. While asserting our freedom to dress the way we choose, let us also remember those who make our clothes.
Neeta Deshpande is working on a book on cotton and the handloom industry in modern India.