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California Is Making Denim Its State Fabric. Too Bad Denim Is Barely Californian.

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Denim: The fabric of our lies.

Mark Hunt/thinkstock.com

California has more than its share of official symbols: Its state mineral is gold, its state animal the California grizzly bear, and its state fossil the saber-toothed cat.

On Wednesday, the California State Assembly added one more item to that list when it overwhelmingly passed a bill declaring denim its new state fabric. Sponsored by Democratic assembly member Marc Levine (who did not respond to a request for comment), the bill lays out a clear rationale for the declaration, starting with a definition of denim itself: “Denim is a sturdy cotton twill fabric [whose] history is interwoven with California history from the 1850s through today,” it reads. In what follows, the bill suggests that it’s designed to celebrate the state’s cotton farmers, its textile producers, and its garment manufacturers.

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But the bill’s number, A.B. 501, betrays its true honoree: Levi Strauss. Indeed, if California wants to be honest, it should just drop the charade and admit it’s not really interested in fabric at all. Instead, it’s effectively declaring Levi’s its state company. But Levi’s, while one of California’s iconic institutions, no longer makes clothes in the Golden State—and it never sourced its denim from there.

However important Levi’s may be to the state, it’s a little gauche to lean in to the legacy of a company that has mostly bolted. California’s history with denim is very real, but the fabric isn’t really a part of the state’s present, despite its burgeoning micro-industry of high-end jeans brands. To pretend otherwise is to let a pleasing myth supplant the complex realities of manufacturing and production. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating denim, of course, but focusing on its rich past may blind us to the facts of American production. As politicians often do when they fetishize the legacy of American Heritage brands, Levine bows to the work of marketing executives rather than actual laborers.

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As it happens, Levine’s bill doesn’t even really get its history right, slipping up in ways that suggest he really wants to celebrate jeans, not the fabric from which they’re made. By way of evidence for California’s deep connection to the history of denim, for example, the bill follows Levi Strauss’ lead and references the 1873 U.S. patent 139,121, claiming that it was awarded “for the invention of jeans.” In practice, however, that patent has nothing to do with the “sturdy cotton twill fabric” from which so many jeans are made today: Levi Strauss actually requested it for rivets applied to pocket seams.

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Significantly, that innovation wasn’t even Californian: Jacob Davis, the tailor listed on the patent, lived and worked in Reno, Nevada, at the time. What’s more, Davis initially employed his rivets on pants made from duck cloth, not from denim. Here we see how muddled the bill really is: Letting synecdoche run amuck, it keeps shifting from the fabric it’s supposedly applauding to the pants sometimes made from them back to the most famous purveyor of those garments.

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Levi’s itself may not even deserve Levine’s admiration: While it remains a Californian company, headquartered in San Francisco, it’s been decades since it produced the majority of its garments domestically, let alone in California. As James Sullivan explains in his book Jeans, the company—which once had manufacturing facilities throughout the country—began shifting its production abroad in the 1980s, a process that continued into the early 21st century. Today, the effects of that shift are clear: On a nine-page list of its suppliers, Levi’s (which is, to its great credit, uncommonly transparent about these matters) names only five Californian partners, none of whom appear to be involved in production of denim fabric itself. To contrary, its fabric mills mostly appear to be international: It works with textile manufacturers in Mexico, India, China, and elsewhere, but not in California. Even in its golden age, the company looked out of state for its fabrics, relying most heavily on the now defunct Amoskeag Mills in New Hampshire.

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While many upscale fashion brands do produce denim garments in California today—that is, they cut and sew jeans out of denim—that relatively small luxury industry can’t possibly account for the 200,000 jobs A.B. 501 attributes to it. To the contrary, even the California Fashion Association only associates 191,635 “direct and indirect jobs” with the state’s apparel industry as a whole. And just as Levi’s once did, most brands that do produce locally source their actual fabrics from mills based elsewhere. The San Francisco-based Gustin, for example, draws heavily on Japanese and Italian textiles for its premium jeans. Like many other high-end brands, including Los Angeles’ Buck Mason, it also buys from North Carolina’s Cone Mills. Californian companies that I’ve spoken to in the past have told me that while they’d like to source their fabrics locally, they haven’t been able to acquire samples that fit their needs.

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Still, if you follow A.B. 501’s logic, you might think there was an even more basic contemporary connection between California and denim, one found in the cotton itself. In 2015, the bill claims, “29 California gins ginned over 700,000 bales of cotton.” Those are impressive numbers, sure, but there’s a reason that cotton isn’t California’s state fiber: According to the Department of Agriculture, the United States produced 12.9 million bales of cotton in 2015 alone, with states like Alabama and Georgia dwarfing California’s annual output. What’s more, though A.B. 501 claims that each bale “can generate 325 pairs of denim jeans,” there’s no evidence in the bill to indicate that any of California’s cotton serves that purpose.

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States are, of course, under no obligation to nod to present realities when selecting their symbols. Much as the gold rush is a thing of the past and saber-toothed cats are long extinct, denim arguably is part of California’s larger iconography, and therefore deserves recognition. In that regard, there’s nothing wrong with the assembly’s decision to honor a fabric deeply woven into regional mythology. As I’ve argued before, however, denim’s own mythology is often a fantasy of labor, allowing us to pretend that we respect and admire hard work without actually working. But if California wants to celebrate its own past toils, it could probably stand to put in a little more effort, too.

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