Global Denim Project

Dedicated to Understanding the Phenomenon of Global Denim – its history, extent, economics, and consequences

The Global Denim Project is based on what may initially appear to be a very simple question, but that in fact has a very profound answer.

Our research suggests that on any day the majority of the world’s population is wearing just one textile – denim, usually in the form of blue jeans. We want to know why.

We see denim as an example of the ‘blindingly obvious’ (Miller and Woodward, 2007), something that has become so taken for granted, in part due to its ubiquity, that we fail to appreciate how and why jeans have become such a dominant form of daily attire throughout the world. This is particularly marked given the sheer range of other possible clothing choices, and when we consider how little denim jeans have changed since their first incarnation in the 1880s as Levi jeans. The continuity over time in the basic style of blue denim jeans as well as the persistence of it as a style in the face of other clothing choices means that denim’s triumph must be as much despite commerce as because of it.

The project was launched through a paper called A Manifesto for a Study of Denim, (Social Anthropology 2007 15: 335-351 by Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward). Daniel is based at the Department of Anthropology, University College London and Sophie is based at the Department of Sociology, The University of Manchester.

The paper argued that there are several unique features of blue denim jeans. Blue jeans are the only garment commonly sold as distressed, they have become the default choice for many people when they do not know what to wear, they are the world’s most ubiquitous (and hence most generic) garment and also often the most personal. It is the combination of these factors that is part of denim’s seemingly universal appeal: being the most personal as well as the most generic (something that design attempts to replicate through the phenomenon of distressing) means that people are able to use denim as part of their struggle to reconcile the universal and intimate aspects of their lives.

The Manifesto also argued for a unique approach to the further study of denim. That if we want to understand both the cause and the consequences of this global phenomenon then this meant we needed a huge programme of research, combining many different forces. Instead of academics choosing their next topic because no one else was studying it we suggested that over the next five years people choose to study an aspect of denim because so many other people will work on the same topic at the same time. The model is loosely based on an ideal of ‘open source’ in that we are not an institution (we also have no large overarching funding) and all the projects are autonomous.

One product of this loose collaboration is this website where individual projects can introduce themselves. A further publication, Global Denim, edited by Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward, published by Berg in 2010, offers in-depth analysis of many of the research projects involved in this project.

This shows how historical perspectives and anthropological perspectives can contribute to each other in this wider task of accounting for denim and demonstrating the consequences of global denim.

It tackles topics ranging from recycling denim to denim in Bollywood (see specific project pages on this site for more details of individual projects). A special issue of the journal Textile addressed more specifically issues of the materiality of denim and the papers consider design as well as consumption (such as Keet’s work on Japanese denim on this webpage).

Although we have over twenty projects here, we feel this is just the start, so if you want to be part of something that takes it energy simply from our enthusiasm for the topic and our willingness to collaborate, then please do get in touch.