The Church of Denim:
The Role of Religion in Cultural Meanings of the Jeans
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 body (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.
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.