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The Church of Denim:


The Role of Religion in Cultural Meanings of the Jeans


by Marcelle Novelli



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Introduction

With approximately fifty percent of the global population wearing blue jeans (Miller and Woodward 2007), denim has undoubtly become a ubiquitous piece of clothing and an icon of globalization. Launching the Global Denim Project, Miller and Woodward (2011) suggested that denim has become part of ‘the blindingly obvious’, being “so deeply taken for granted [in everyday life] that we have become blind to their presence and importance” (p.2).

As Finlayson (1990) argues, denim itself has no meaning, it only becomes a meaningful piece of clothing once it is placed within a certain context. From this, denim’s history can be traced back to the sixteenth century, when The Andrés, a prominent Protestant family from the French town of Nimes, invented the sturdy fabric (Downey 2014). Having its roots in Protestantism, denim served a strong work ethic: it was made to perform and made to last. 

Given the religious context in which denim was born, this proposed research seeks to explore the role of religion in the local meanings of denim. Focusing on Brazil and the Netherlands, two countries with polar opposite cultures, existing ethnographic research on denim shows how people from different cultural contexts assign different meanings to this global product. In Brazil, tight blue jeans are often regarded as an object of sensuality and sexuality, accentuating the female body, with a special focus on the buttocks (Mizrahi 2011). Blue jeans, then, are not seen as ‘an ordinary slice of daily life’, but as an ‘extraordinary’ or ‘almost miraculous’ product that enables Brazilian women to produce the right body1 (Pinheiro-Machado 2011, p.187). Denim occupies a quite different place in Dutch society: jeans are regarded by the Dutch as a casual everyday item, practical, classless, worth the money and able to give expression to the wearer’s individualism. (Feitsma and Smelik 2017). 

As will become clear, the different religious backgrounds of Brazil and the Netherlands have played a significant role in shaping these radically different societies. The jeans may be found to signify many aspects of these social and cultural differences, from politics to gender roles and from racial issues to notions of the body. While it might seem provocative to try to understand cultural interpretations of jeans through religion, it’s influence in society is unprecedented: if religion can shape countries, it certainly has the power to shape fashion. 

Literature review

In order to explore the role of religion in cultural meanings of denim in Brazil and the Netherlands, it is important to first create an understanding of the dominant religions within the concerning countries. I will then move on through a cross-cultural comparison between Brazil and the Netherlands, focusing on religious explanations of cultural differences between both countries and how these differences are reflected in the jeans. 

Roman Catholicism versus Calvinism

In the sixteenth century, the teachings of French theologist John Calvin found fertile soil in the Netherlands. Although Calvinism never gained mass support among the Dutch, it did have a dominant position within Dutch society as it had manifested itself as the country’s public religion (Veldman 1997). Eventually, the Netherlands had developed an image as the ‘most Calvinist nation in the world’ as Calvinism proved to be a guide for the foundation of Dutch culture (Balkenende 2009). Around the same time, Portuguese colonists brought Roman Catholicism to Brazil, which ceased to be the country’s official religion after the establishment of the first Brazilian Republican Constitution, although remaining politically influential. Today, Brazil still counts the world’s largest Roman Catholic population (Rapoza 2016). 

Calvinism developed as the religion of sobriety, moderation, honesty, tolerance, and a strong work ethic. Living up to an egalitarian spirit, Calvin expressed a disdain for hierarchy by rejecting the pope’s authority. Instead, Calvin organized the church from the bottom up and acknowledged the need for individual interpretation of the Bible. (McKim 2004). Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, knows a strict hierarchical system, recognizing the pope as supreme authority and the Church as the sole authority to interpret the Bible. Additionally, the Roman Catholic Church contrasted with the Calvinistic avoidance of overt displays, by developing a visual culture of publically displaying opulence and wealth. This was also reflected in the Roman Catholic aristocrats’ turn to extravagant lifestyles. However, the biggest difference between Catholicism and Calvinism, as stated by German sociologist Max Weber (1930), was ‘the complete elimination of salvation through the Church and the sacraments’ (p. 105). Driven by rationality, a Calvinist has to follow his pre-determined path alone in order to meet his destiny. On the other hand, the Roman Catholics trusted in magical, superstitious and sacramental forces for eternal salvation. 

National mentality explained through politics

Many historians are convinced that Calvin’s thinking has had major influence on the development of Dutch democracy and the individualization of Dutch society. Having a long tradition of striving for equality, Dutch historian Herman Pleij explains, the Dutch repel concepts of hierarchy, prestigious leadership and feelings of superiority. Such an egalitarian attitude is openly expressed by the Dutch Royals: before taking the throne, the Dutch Crown Prince announced in a television interview that he would bring a more informal and approachable touch to the constitutional monarchy. “Call me what you want when I’m King”, were his words to the Dutch people, particularly insisting them not to call him ‘Your Majesty’.2

Similarly, Dutch politics are driven by a consensual decision-making process known as the Dutch polder model of democracy (Dickson 2014). This model is a reflection of the country’s political culture of ‘consultation, compromise and consensus’ (Hendriks and Toonen 1998). Based on the polder model, the Dutch have a coalition government with a collegial and collective system, in which decisions are made by the cabinet as a whole and the power is distributed amongst ministers. (Andeweg & Irwin 1993). This pragmatic structure of political collaboration in the Netherlands shows similarities with Calvinistic tendencies towards pragmatism, anti-authoritarianism, and independence of thought.3

Compared to the Netherlands, Brazil shows a contrasting political culture which seems to be deeply marked by the country’s colonial past. While Protestantism valued hard work, Catholic principles in Iberian countries favored idleness and pleasure. This aversion against  manual labor manifested itself in Brazil with the enslavement of Blacks, a Portuguese legacy from sixteenth century colonial rule (Holanda 2012). Moreover, the practice of slavery was justified and supported by the Roman Catholic Church as a means of purification and salvation of souls (Muldoon 2005).Having a political system with a persistent hierarchical nature, Brazil’s political culture keeps sharing common grounds with Roman Catholicism. According to anthropologist James Holston (2008), systems of inequalities that oppress the many in favor of the few, given life to by Brazil’s elites, have outlived colonial times and authoritarian regime, to now survive in democracy. Consequently, Brazilian law acts upon a system that is driven by a concentration of power and based on inequality.

The biggest difference between Brazil and the Netherlands on the level of politics is the Brazilian hierarchical structure rooted in Roman Catholicism, as opposed to the Dutch egalitarian structure rooted in Calvinism. This is reflected in the Brazilian and Dutch mentalities, which are characterized by respectively a vertical - and horizontal way of thinking. As for the cultural meanings of the jeans: The Dutch see the jeans as a ‘classless’ product, valuing them for their democratic character and ability to adapt to the individual. This fits well with Mark Alizart’s (2015) pop theology theory, which links the Protestant spiritual journey of bildung or ‘building’ on one’s self (the assembling of an identity) to the birth of fashion: the same principle goes for denim, as it provides endless innovations and possibilities to make it your own style. Brazilians, on the other hand, attach a meaning to jeans that automatically connotes a hierarchical dynamic: the power of jeans to produce a body conforming to a certain ideal suggests a superiority of one body over an other and therefore social differences.

Distinct and fluid gender roles

The construction of gender roles in Brazil (and Latin America in general) has often been considered to be influenced by a macho culture that was introduced by the colonialists through interracial interaction with women from the indigenous population. As Darrow L. Miller (2012) explains: Machismoconnotes male dominance and superiority, whereas marianismo (the female equivalent of machismo) is related to the Virgin Mary, a symbol of a woman’s virginity and childbearing, therefore emphasizing female submissiveness and  suffering.  These two ideals, shaped by Roman Catholicism, played a key role in the construction of traditional gender roles in Brazil: ‘(…) machismo cannot exist without marianismo. If women did not accept their alleged ‘fate’, machismo would collapse” (Miller 2012, 53). Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model shows that Brazil scores significantly higher on the masculinity/femininity scale compared to the Netherlands, which means that Brazil can be seen as a more macho or masculine-oriented society.5 According to Hofstede: “Masculinity stands for a society in which social gender roles are clearly distinct: Men are supposed to be assertive, tough, and focused on material success; women are supposed to be more modest, tender, and concerned with the quality of life.” (Hofstede 2001, p.297).

When discussing the relationship between women and the church, historian Kenneth Stewart (2011) goes against the popular narrative that Calvinism slowed down female advancement within society. According to Stewart, Calvin was a quite progressive figure in his time, as he had argued for the equality of male and female human beings. Taking actions adaptive to this gender approach, Calvin contributed to a ‘carefully contained spiritual reformation for women’ (Potter 1986, 739).6 Following Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model, it can be stated that the Netherlands is a feminine society, in which gender roles are more fluid. Several statements in the media confirm this, for instance: ‘Dutch men act like women and Dutch women act like men,’ (Koppe, 2015), Dutch women as ‘polder model’ (Kramer 2011) and ‘the [Dutch] father as über mother’ (Fogteloo 2016).7 This overlaps with Calvin’s elevated view of women, as well as the Calvinistic tendency towards egalitarianism and aversion towards excessive display – in this case the overt display of femininity and masculinity.

The cultural meaning given to jeans in Brazil as a product of sensualisation and sexualisation of the female body reflects the distinct gender roles shaped by Roman Catholicism in Brazilian society. The Dutch, on the contrary, move away from gendered  notions of the body when ascribing meaning to the jeans. Following Calvinist principles, the Dutch approach to jeans doesn’t emphasize any female or masculine traits, therefore reflecting fluid gender roles representative for Dutch society in general.  

Religion as birthplace of racial issues

Many Brazilians still see Brazil as a ‘racial democracy’, following the ideas of Gilberto Freyre (1986), who argued that Brazil, unlike other post-slavery countries, had escaped racial discrimination. However, the denial of racism throughout Brazilian society is now considered to be a veil over the country’s ongoing racial issues. This became evident after a survey from 1988, in which 97% of those interviewed said that they were not prejudiced, while 98% responded that they knew people who were.8 The conclusion was: “Every Brazilian feels like an island of racial democracy, surrounded on all sides by a sea of racists” (Schwarcz 2003, p.5). However, Brazil has its own approach to race, meaning that color of the skin9 varies according to social status: “In Brazil, if a person gets rich, he gets whiter” (Schwarcz 2010). So while color is considered a flexible concept to categorize people, being white stays the favourable choice.

The prevailing white ideal in Brazilian society is thus based on a racial preference of white over black, a thought developed from Muslim slavery (which made distinctions between black and white slaves) and eventually adopted by the Roman Catholic colonialists from the Iberian countries (Sweet 1997). Given this white preference in Brazil, Kia Caldwell (2007) describes how Brazilian women are either classified in the category ‘beauty’, associated with facial features, or the category ‘sex’, associated with body features: “black women have traditionally been defined as being sexual, rather than beautiful” (p.88). In a Playboy article from 1984, Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre called the female buttocks Brazil’s ‘national passion’10, which, he explains, is a phenomenon that dates back to colonization when the Portuguese mixed with indigenous women and women from African descent. Ironically, this forced racial mixing was widely recognized as evidence of Brazil’s racial democracy (Brito 2016).

Going back to the jeans in Brazil, it becomes clear that it’s cultural meaning, which emphasizes the jeans’ ability to highlight female sensuality and sexuality (the female buttocks in particular), shows similarities with Brazil’s colonial past and the ambiguous practices involving the idolization of black women together with their objectification and sexualisation by white superiors.

The body as (non-)capital

Brazil has a beauty culture primarily focused on physical appearance. According to Brazilian anthropologist Mirian Goldenberg (2011), the ‘worked out, sculpted, healthy body’, displayed by the Brazilian elite, is the most imitated body in the country. In Brazil, Goldenberg explains, the body is considered a form of capital, acting as a source of status and success in private and professional life. This fits well with recent study showing that seven out of ten Brazilians believe that buying beauty products is not a luxury, but a necessity11 and global rankings placing Brazil on the second place in the category plastic surgery. 12 Goldenberg links her theory of the body as capital in Brazil to Bourdieu’s (2001) theory of masculine domination. According to Bourdieu, women are socially constructed into symbolic objects for men’s prestige, whose existence is one of being looked at by others. Hence women constantly experience bodily insecurities, or ‘symbolic dependency’, by being controlled over their physical appearance and being forced into showing their femininity. Once they have submitted themselves to the rules of the ideal body, Goldenberg explains, Brazilian women are rewarded by becoming part of a superior group.

Brazil’s body-driven culture becomes all the more apparent during Carnival, originally a Roman-Catholic celebration brought to Brazil by the Portuguese, which now has matured as an opulent spectacle with the female body on center stage. As some experts claim, the pronounced and graphic display of female nudity and the sexualisation of Afro-Brazilian women during Carnival reflect Brazil’s male-dominated society and traces of the country‘s  colonial past (Eakin 1998).13  Whereas Calvinism follows the Renaissance approach to gender, which implied that men and women were created equal, Medieval Catholicism follows the Aristotelian approach, which implies that women are the defect version of men (Stewart 2011). This Aristotelian view suggested that women were the weaker sex, unable to control their lust, and in their weakness being a temptation for men to commit sin. The projection of this Aristotelian perspective on women was the Portuguese colonialists’ treatment of indigenous and African women in Brazil, reducing them to their sexuality and making them obedient to men’s perverse needs. Although nowadays Roman Catholicism doesn’t follow the Medieval approach to women, these thoughts did stand the test of time – Brazilian media being particularly guilty for this.14

The Netherlands has an affection with the nude body. However, whereas in Brazil the media presents the body as sensual object, in the Netherlands nudity (and sex) is portrayed as casual everyday practice. As Paul Verhoeven (2015), one of the first directors to introduce nudity in Dutch cinema, once put it: “In the Netherlands, we don’t have a culture of disguising or making things more beautiful than they are” (Heezik 2015). From this, it can be argued that the display of the body in the Netherlands significantly differs with body exhibition in Brazil: the first being a projection of Dutch mentality, the latter belonging to an aesthetic domain inseparably linked to Brazil’s culture of appearance.

In the column ‘Mama, je lijkt op een vleermuis’ (‘Mom, you look like a bat’), Aaf Brandt (2017) describes how, once Dutch women realized French fashion didn’t match with their larger bodies and active lifestyle, they massively started to embrace Scandinavian fashion: “[Scandinavian clothes] are never tight, but loose fitting and slightly monumental (…)”15. In their research on the Dutch fashion mentality, Maaike Feitsma and Anneke Smelik (2017) describe how the Netherlands was indeed influenced by French fashion, but in the long run not fully convinced by its ‘perceived excess and impractical elegance’. The favoring of clothes that disguise the woman’s figure and take away the focus off her gender goes hand in hand with the overlapping gender roles in Dutch society. Unsurprisingly, the Dutch notion of dressing the body reflects Calvinist principles of sobriety, pragmatism and egalitarianism.

Returning once more to the jeans, it can be argued that, if the body in Brazil is perceived as a form of social capital, than displaying it through form fitting jeans means displaying status. This again shows a similarity with Roman Catholicism and its practices involving opulent and excessive displays. The jeans from a Dutch point of view, however, are not centered around outward, aesthetical appearance of the body, but on inward, symbolic values similar to Calvinism. Finally, the ‘magical’ function of jeans in Brazil, which implies its ability to create an ideal body, touches upon Weber’s (1930) notion of the ‘magical’ in Roman Catholicism. The magical refers to the outward sacraments of the Catholic Church for inner grace. The form fitting jeans in Brazil can then be seen as an attempt similar to a sacrament to divinize the body, letting it reach beyond its earthliness towards a more divine state.

Conclusion

With this proposed research I seek to explore the role of religion in the cultural meanings of denim. By doing a cross-cultural comparison between Brazil and the Netherlands from a historical and sociological point of view, I developed an understanding of the cultural differences between those two countries on the level of national mentality, gender roles, racial issues and the notion of the body, supported by the countries’ religious backgrounds.

Eventually, I have been able to demonstrate Calvinist and Catholic beliefs are no longer exclusively tied to religion; it has moved beyond it, manifesting itself deeply in society’s behavior and thinking. Regarding the jeans and its cultural meanings in a certain context, my findings are as follows:

In Brazil, the jeans can be seen as a mode of objectification of gendered racial inequalities and social differences, fostered by Catholic hierarchical thinking and a Medieval approach to women. Driven by Roman Catholic ideas about display and male domination, the jeans follow the notion of aesthetics linked to the body, while also inhibiting a sacramental function. In the Netherlands, the jeans can be see as a democratic tool for assembling an identity, encouraged by the Calvinistic spiritual journey of building on one’s self, the notion of durability and a Renaissance approach to women. Driven by Calvinism, the body becomes less relevant to the jeans and instead follows symbolic values.

The historical approach in this research proposal could serve as a base for further investigation into the power of religion, its implications on society and the jeans in the future.


Reference list


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Andeweg, R.B. and Irwin, G.A., 1993. Dutch Government and Politics. Macmillan, New York.

Bakhtin, M.M., 1984. Rabelais and his World. Vol. 341. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Bandyopadhyay, R. and Nascimento, K., 2010. Where fantasy becomes reality: how tourism forces made Brazil a sexual playground. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 18(8), pp.933-949.

Brandt, A., 2017. Mama, je lijkt op een vleermuis. De Volkskrant, column, 11 March 2017, viewed 10 May 2017, <http://www.volkskrant.nl/mode-en-mooi/-mama-je-lijkt-op-een-vleermuis~a4471679/>.

Bourdieu, P., 1990. Structures, habitus, practices. The logic of practice. Stanford University Press, Stanford, pp.52-65.

Bourdieu, P., 2001. Masculine domination. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Brito, L.D.C., 2016. The crime of miscegenation: racial mixing in slaveholding Brazil and the threat to racial purity in post-abolition United States. Revista Brasileira de História, vol.36 no.72., Sao Paulo.

Caldwell, K., 2007. Look at Her Hair: The Body Politics of Black Womanhood. Negras in Brazil: Re-envisioning black women, citizenship, and the politics of identity. Rutgers University Press, pp.81-106.

Da Matta, R., 1991. Carnivals, rogues, and heroes: An interpretation of the Brazilian dilemma. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame.

Dickson, D., 2014. The People's Government: An Introduction to Democracy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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Eakin, M.C., 1998. Carnival: The World Turned Upside Down. Brazil: The once and future country. Palgrave Macmillan, pp.142-147.

Feitsma, M.M.A. and Smelik, A.M., 2017. Denim Goes Dutch: A Myth-in-the-Making. Delft Blue to Denim Blue: Contemporary Dutch Fashion. IB Tauris, pp.104-118.

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[1] The ‘right’ body refers to the Brazilian body ideal – big bottom and tiny waist – as described in Pinheiro-Machado 2011. 

[2] NOS interview 17-04-2013

[3] Some historians argue that Dutch Calvinism already existed before Calvin. According to Dutch historian Herman Pleij, the polder model has its roots in the Middle Ages. He points to three factors: in the thirteenth century, cities in the Netherlands were self-regulatory, as the feudal system found in other European towns did not gain ground; the absence of centralized power and an eternal battle against the sea to reclaim land forced the Dutch to collaborate in the creation and maintenance of shared polders; finally, the Dutch established a trade culture, with rival cities competing through commerce instead of war for the sake of good business (Pleij 1998, 2005, 2014). Following this theory would mean that Calvinist mentality was actually a Dutch mentality, and that the circumstances made it easy for Calvinism to manifest itself in the Netherlands. Willem Frijhoff (2009), an other Dutch historian, states that it was probably a recipe consisting of both arguments: Dutch mentality opposed authoritarian and hierarchical structures and the Calvinists followed by further strengthening the egalitarian thinking in Dutch society.

[4]During a trip to Latin America back in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI offended millions by suggesting that Catholicism had purified indigenous populations.

[5]  On the Masculinity dimension in Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model, Brazil scores 49, whereas the Netherlands scores 14. See Hofstede 2017.

[6] In her report “Gender Equality and Gender Hierarchy in Calvin's Theology” (1986) Mary Potter stressed the importance of  taking into account that, while the theology of John Calvin considers women equal to men (for the Calvinistic God, all humans are sinners), it also defined women as inferior creatures with restricted roles within society. This contradictory difference between gender equality and gender hierarchy in Calvinism resulted in ‘a spiritual reformation for women in the sixteenth century [that] had little effect on social and political structures’ (Potter 1986, 739).

[7] Citations are translated in English for this research proposal. 


[8] Survey conducted under the coordination of Lilia Schwarz in 1988.

[9] In Brazil, race has never been black and white. In 1976 the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) recorded 134 terms used by Brazilians to describe their own skin color. Examples varied from ‘disappearing donkey’ to ‘dirty white’ and from ‘chestnut’ to ‘toasted’.

[10] This is evident in contemporary Brazil. For instance, the Brazilian media’s idolization of the female butt, the bottom-oriented samba dance that originated in Rio de Janeiro, and the annual Miss BumBum contest in Brazil. 

[11]Results from a research conducted by Credit Protection Service (SPC Brasil).

[12]Results based on data from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery in 2015 


[13] From early on carnivals have been politically charged, particularly when it comes to criticizing the elite. Bakhtin (1984) sees carnival as a ‘the people’s second life’, providing a temporarily escape from rigid and hierarchical society to experience ‘freedom, equality and abundance’. Today, some experts argue that Brazilian carnival is still a medium of emancipation, as it includes a wide spectrum of the country’s society and puts Afro-Brazilian women (literally) on a pedestal (DaMatta 1991).

[14] See Bandyopadhyay and Nascimento 2010.

[15] Translated for this paper.








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