Global Denim

Project Details


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.

List of research projects
London Denim. Daniel Miller, UCL, and Sophie Woodward, University of Manchester, conducted an ethnographic study of why people wear denim in North London.

Personal uniforms of Denim in the UK. Project by Fiona Jane Candy, University Central Lancashire of many years looking at denim, design and body movement.

Ethical Denim in Sweden. Research by Emma Lindblad, Stockholm University.

Indigo Bodies in Italy. A number of research initiatives focussed on the use of Denim Jeans in relation to gender, sexuality and eroticism are being developed and coordinated by Roberta Sassatelli, University of Milan. Further projects are also being carried out collaboratively. These are Blue Twenties: Jeans in Milan, with Simona Ettori, Favorite Jeans and Self Perception, with Federica Galeazzi and Jeans, Masculinity and Sexuality with Daniele Pilloni.

Old Jeans: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Narratives and Materiality. This project explores different methodologies for investigating denim jeans, through an interdisciplinary collaboration between the School of Social Sciences and the School of Materials at the University of Manchester and is lead by Sophie Woodward.

Jeans in Socialist Hungary. Ferenc Hammer, Eötvös Loránd University, undertook historical research into the place of denim during the socialist and post-socialist period.

“Carrot-cut jeans” in Berlin Moritz Ege, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, studied relatively small but symbolically potent Berlin-based denim brands and how people use them.

Jeans and social stratification in Switzerland This project explores the high end of the jeans market in Switzerland and was lead by Laure Sandoz, University of Basel and Ellen Hertz, University of Neuchatel.

Denim Branding as Technology in Turkey Project by Eminegul Karababa, Middle East Technical University, Turkey, on the importation of denim branding as a technology, and the development of Eastern markets.

Brazilian Jeans. Project by Mylene Mizrahi, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, on Brazilian jeans and funk balls.

Fake Denim in China and Brazil. This project is carried out by Rosana Pinheiro-Machado, University of Oxford.

‘Cowboy Cloth’ and Kinship in China. This research by Tom McDonald, University College London, explores jeans consumption in a South-West Chinese city.

Kojima, the Jeans town in Japan. Philomena Keet investigates jeans production and consumption in the town of Kojima, ‘denim Mecca’, and its regional branding campaign, designed to boost both tourism and industry.

Made in Japan Philomena Keet looks at the premium denim manufactured in the West of Japan which is sold throughout Japan and the rest of the world.

Jeans in South Korea. Jiyeon Hong, in a PhD at the Univesrity of Edinburgh, explores imported jeans and ideas of authenticity in South Korea.

Denim in Bollywood, India Clare Wilkinson-Weber, Washington-State University, Vancouver, explores the denim in Bollywood films.

Jeans in Kannur, Kerala A photographic essay by Daniel Miller, UCL.

Denim: Production and Consumption on the Globalised shop-floor. Based on research in Port Said, Egypt, Leila Zaki Chakravarti came to see how export-orientated denim production carries strong local connotations of reaching out and being part of a wider commercial order of globalised garment production and consumption.

Imperial Denim in the US Sandra Curtis Comstock on the place of blue jeans in the consolidation and transformation of American power in the 20th century.

Denim Shoddy Completed project by Lucy Norris and Bodil Olesen on denim waste and shoddy.
Short titleGlobal Denim
StatusNot started


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