Teachable Moment with “Dad Jeans”

As we near the end of summer, we get busier and busier with all the work we had hoped to complete (manuscripts, essays, reviews) and can no longer forestall (course prep).

But toward the latter end, I was pleased to see all the fuss around Barack Obama’s jeans because it fits in so well with my lesson plans to teach Roland Barthes’ The Fashion System. I usually use “mom jeans” to illustrate the concepts of signified, signifier, sign, and sign system, which usually allows me to reference the infamous Saturday Night Live skit, The Housewives series on Bravo, the phantom polling figures of the “soccer mom” and subsequent “security mom,” and a particularly reprehensible article in the local college paper policing the sartorial decisions of mothers for the annual “Mom’s Weekend.” (The message being, “Students, don’t let your mother dress like sluts!”)

In doing so, I ask students to consider if a pair of high-waisted, tapered, pleated denim pants in an even, if faded, wash are ever “just” jeans or, as Barthes writes, if “every object is a sign.” Following from this, what ideas, values, stories, and so forth come to be associated with “mom jeans,” whether or not a person wearing them is a mother, or whether or not a particular mother wears them? And how these jeans might locate that person not just in the fashion system, but also discourses of race, class, geography, gender and sexuality?

Now the Washington Post’s fashion writer Robin Givhan lets loose her horror in a helpful demonstration of the semiotics of a pair of outdated jeans for the civic body: “Obama’s jeans sat relatively high on his waist and so some have referred to them as ‘mom jeans’ because they managed to make the lanky Obama look . . . well, not so lanky. But really, these are the jeans of middle-aged dads who have thrown in the towel and decided that when they get home from the office and take off their suit, all they care about is comfort. Because they cannot wear their pajamas in public, their 20-year-old jeans are a viable alternative. And by God, they still fit!” (To this “near-seditious exploration into the president’s casual-time wardrobe,” The Cut says, “Ouch.”)

CNN even covers the controversy, with E!’s celebrity stylist Robert Verdi asserting as the segment’s “expert,” “They are definitely mom jeans.”

Embedded video from CNN Video

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