Her bare legs wrap around his denim-clad waist. He grasps her hips on the tailgate of an old pickup truck. But this is no spontaneous encounter. The moment has been meticulously framed. Surrounding the backside of a lean male we see a small section of surfboard, a hint of nearby ocean, a lock of female hair, and the text “#Equipped to be true” inserted across the bumper like a virtual sticker, forever on top of the imagery. Instead of sweetening the seaside, a location synonymous with romance, Levi’s paints a gritty, down-home picture. An alternative idealization stakes its claim as the genuine article.
Given the context presented by Levi’s, being true means being faithful to a romantic partner but also being faithful to reality. Reality tells us that beaches are not always sunny, but it also tells us that a pair of jeans and fidelity of character are two different things. Have we misread the message? Is sex itself the truth on offer? Or should we credit Levi’s with an appreciation of tenderness and perhaps even a reverence for procreation? What does it really mean to be true?
Let us consider the source and check the label. On the back of Levi’s jeans we find the iconic patch declaring “Levi Strauss & Co. San Francisco. Cal.” True? Hardly. On the inside we find another label: the origin of manufacture. Try Dhaka, Bangladesh. Further inspection of the iconic patch reveals another inconsistency. The brand’s description as “Quality Clothing” was true at one time, but those days are long gone. Quality denim is made on a shuttle loom, a machine now obsolete in large-scale fabric manufacturing. Shuttle looms take longer and require more fabric to produce one pair of jeans. In favor of larger yields, quality has gradually reduced in line with technological advances. Excluding limited editions distributed through high-end boutiques, Levi’s now produces mediocre denim at best.
The history of this unique fabric tells the story of American capitalism. With a general reduction in quality has come an increase in marketing and profits. But denim also has its own story to tell. From workwear to youth fashion to mainstream staple, rugged became rebellious which in turn became naughty. Might the next phase be ironic? After all, what does a consumer actually get when they purchase a pair of jeans today? A garment no longer durable enough to withstand years of heavy use, a product too common to substantiate legitimate rebellion, and a symbol too generic to command the levels of sex appeal insinuated.
Levi Strauss & Co, it must be said, is hardly to blame for the effects of globalization, but the company’s recent advertising does contribute to the sphere of cultural misunderstanding. One cannot label any intention or relationship as true without implying that the label also represents the truth. But the truth, if anyone cares to see it, is far away from the little scene of Americana presented by Levi’s. Trace container ships to distant ports and invisible factories, to third world labor and first world bank accounts. The real truth behind a pair of jeans is the discrepancy between image and reality.