Category Archives: Britain

They’re my blue jeans, and I’ll wear them if I want to

What?  I’m supposed to give up wearing jeans because I’m over 52?

A few years ago, I came across a preposterous study conducted by CollectPlus, a UK parcel-delivery service, which asked 2,000 Brits this question:  When should people stop wearing jeans?  Answer:  Age 53.

This answer struck me as absurd.  Even the marketing director at CollectPlus was baffled by the results.  She told the Daily Mail, “Denim is such a universal material and, with so many different styles available, it’s a timeless look that people of all ages can pull off.”

The newspaper didn’t disclose relevant details like the age of the survey’s participants.  Who were these people?  How old were they?  Where did they live?  To make any sense out of this study, we needed details like these. 

What did the participants reveal?  Almost a quarter of them admitted they hadn’t yet found their perfect pair, another 29 percent had given up the quest for that perfect pair, and six percent admitted that they’ve been reduced to tears in the search for it.

Once they found their ideal jeans, however, they’ve held on to them, and 33 percent said they’d wear them practically anywhere, including the theater or a dinner party.

Do these devoted jeans-wearers really expect to give up their beloved jeans when they turn 53?  I doubt it.

Although my own go-to pants are skinny black pants with roomy pockets, my wardrobe also includes some skinny jeans.  I have happy memories of sporting a pair when I visited Yosemite National Park, where they were clearly the best choice.  They protected me from insect bites, spilled food and drink, and potentially hazardous falls onto jagged rocks and other obstacles.  When I hiked alongside spectacular Yosemite Falls, its watery mist hit my clothes, but my jeans’ cotton fabric dried quickly in the mountain air.  And I had pockets galore in which to stash any small items I needed en route. 

In short, they were perfect.  Why would I ever want to abandon them?

I wouldn’t.  But recent events have compelled me to question whether blue jeans are still the great choice they used to be.

The arrival of the pandemic has changed many jeans-wearers’ thinking, especially whether to purchase new ones.  Just look at the statistics.  In July 2020, The Washington Post reported that the pandemic was taking “a real toll” on jeans sales.  Levi’s had posted a 62 percent drop in second-quarter revenue and announced plans to cut 15 percent of its corporate workforce.  Why?  Because people were choosing comfort over the trendy jeans they formerly favored.

Things started to shift back as the pandemic began to loosen its grip.  But reports of sales haven’t been consistent.  Fox Business reported in April 2021 that demand for denim was back. It noted that sales of “the old reliable clothing staple” were on the rise, with consumers buying relaxed-fitting styles rather than the tight-fitting favorites of the past. It added that Levi’s was projecting a potential increase of about 25 percent for the first half of 2021, rebounding from a 13 percent decline.

One month later, in May 2021, a publication called Modern Retail also noted that denim brands like Levi’s were gearing up for the return of sales.  According to this source, skinny jeans continued to claim the largest market share at 34 percent of all jeans sales.  But The Washington Post reported in July 2021 that denim sales were still falling and people were still turning to “less structured” clothing for both work and recreation.  

Two other sources, CNBC and Stylecaster, have issued their own reports. According to CNBC on July 9, Levi’s second-quarter earnings crushed estimates, raising its 2021 forecast.  Stylecaster on July 19 determined that skinny jeans were out, but new/old styles like baggy jeans, low-rise jeans, flares, and even patterned jeans, were in.

Conclusion?  The jeans-scene is pretty foggy.  Trends aren’t completely clear.  Just as the pandemic has surged in some areas and declined in others, the jeans-scene is having its own ups and downs.  Some jeans-wearers will probably return to denim, with possible changes in the styles they choose, while others may abandon buying any new jeans, even though they hold on to the ones they already own.

Here in San Francisco, we treasure the legacy of blue jeans, thanks to Levi Strauss and the jeans empire he and his partner created in 1871.  The Levis Strauss Company is still a big presence in the city, and Levi’s descendants are among the Bay Area’s most prominent philanthropists and civic leaders.  The Levi’s company notably maintains a vast collection of historic jeans in its San Francisco archives.

Right now, San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum is sponsoring an exhibit focused on Levi Strauss and his legacy.  Its website notes that in 1873, “at the end of the California Gold Rush, Levi Strauss & Co., named for a Bavarian Jewish dry goods merchant in San Francisco, obtained a U.S. patent with tailor Jacob Davis on the process of putting metal rivets in men’s denim work pants to increase their durability.  It was the birth of the blue jean.” 

The CJM calls ‘Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,’ “an original exhibition showcasing the life of Levi Strauss, the invention of the blue jean, and their iconic place in the history of American style.”  The exhibit includes over 250 items from Levi’s archives as well as items worn by notables like Albert Einstein.  It celebrates how “the democratic blue jean became a cultural staple and a blank canvas for the rising international youth culture.”

“Youth” is the key word here.  Young people will almost certainly stay loyal to jeans.  Let’s remember that jeans are gender-neutral, racially and ethnically neutral, and still central to the wardrobe of young people, including those in Generation Z.  

Regardless of their age, I predict that jeans-devotees will keep wearing jeans. The result?  Despite the appeal of loose-fitting pants, jeans will probably maintain their place in the world’s collective wardrobe. 

Will I give up my skinny jeans?  Nope.  And I don’t think many other over-50s will abandon theirs.  Together, we’ll defiantly sing (with apologies to Lesley Gore):  “They’re my blue jeans, and I’ll wear them if I want to!” 

{This post previously appeared in a different version on Susan Just Writes. It has been revised for July 2021.]

For Father’s Day: A Coronation to Remember

The U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth has been front and center lately.  Between an awkward state visit by the U.S. president in early June and the colorful celebration of her 93rd birthday a short time later, she has recently occupied a lot of media attention.

But the Queen has a long history in the minds of the American public.  I first heard about her when I was growing up in Chicago and she ascended the throne after the sudden death of her father, King George VI.

The brilliant Netflix TV series, “The Crown” (which I’ve recently caught up with on DVD), has revived my memories of the early tenure of the Queen.  One particular episode in Season I immediately caught my attention.  At the beginning of this episode, “Smoke and Mirrors,” the young Princess Elizabeth helps her father prepare for his coronation in 1937 (following the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII).

The extreme closeness between father and daughter is demonstrably clear.

The story moves on to the preparation for Elizabeth’s own coronation in 1953.  By this time, her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh (dubbed Prince Philip in 1957), has assumed a significant role in her life.  He insists upon orchestrating the coronation itself, choosing to bring “the modern world” into it.

His efforts to “democratize” the ceremony leads to a shocking innovation: televising it.  He proposes that television cameras capture all of the pomp and circumstance in Westminster Abbey.  This move is unthinkable for many who had long served the royal family.  One of the holdovers from the past calls the prospect of televising the coronation an “unconscionable vulgarization.”

But even despite the opposition of Winston Churchill, the Duke finally gets his wife’s approval, and the new queen’s coronation is broadcast on black-and-white TV for all the world to see.

This splendid episode on “The Crown” has special relevance for me.  As I watched the story unfold, I was brought back to June 1954, when a color version of the coronation was showing as a film in a movie theater in Chicago.  For some reason I can’t recall, my father was in charge of me one day.  He decided that we would go together to see the film at the theater in downtown Chicago.

This was a memorable event for me.  I adored my father, but he usually devoted more attention to my older sister than to me.  I was the little sister who, on road trips, was relegated to sitting in the back seat with my mother while my sister sat in the front seat next to Daddy.

It’s not surprising that my father could communicate more readily with my sister, who was two years ahead of me in school.  Although both of us were voracious readers (stunning our local public-library staff by how quickly we zipped through countless books), my sister was probably reading at a somewhat higher level and understood more about the world than I did at that time.

Following a similar pattern, Elizabeth was the older daughter in her family, and if the opening of “Smoke and Mirrors” accurately portrays her relationship with her father, he paid more attention to her and depended more on her than on his younger daughter, Margaret.

As the younger daughter in my family, every hour I could spend with my father when the two of us spent it alone was more memorable than those we also shared with my sister and mother.

That’s why seeing the color film of Elizabeth’s coronation with Daddy became one of my most treasured memories.  Going downtown and plunging into a darkened movie theater in the middle of the day with my father, but no other member of the family, was extraordinary.

When Daddy died later that year, I was staggered by losing him.  As I grew older, it became increasingly clear that our afternoon watching Elizabeth crowned in Westminster Abbey was an afternoon I’d never forget.

As we celebrate Father’s Day this year, I recall once again how lucky I was to have that golden time with him and him alone.

 

They’re My Blue Jeans, and I’ll Wear Them If I Want To

What?  I’m supposed to give up wearing jeans because I’m over 52?

I recently came across a preposterous study conducted by CollectPlus, a UK parcel-delivery service, which asked 2,000 Brits this question:  When should people stop wearing jeans?

Answer:  Age 53.

Even the marketing director at CollectPlus was baffled by the results.  Catherine Wolfe told the Daily Mail, “Denim is such a universal material and, with so many different styles available, it’s a timeless look that people of all ages can pull off.”

The newspaper didn’t disclose such relevant details as the age of the participants in the survey.  Who were these people?  How old were they?  Where in the UK did they live?  To make any sense out of this study, we should know details like these.

What did the participants reveal?  Almost a quarter of them admitted they haven’t yet found their perfect pair, another 29 percent have given up the quest for that perfect pair, and six percent admitted that they’ve been reduced to tears in the search for it.

Once they’ve found their ideal jeans, however, they hold on to them, and 33 percent say they’ll wear them practically anywhere, including the theater or a dinner party.

Do these devoted jeans-wearers really expect to give up their beloved jeans when they turn 53?  I doubt it.

Although my own go-to pants are slim black fabric-blends, my wardrobe also includes some skinny jeans.  I sported a pair last week during a visit to Yosemite National Park. My semi-washed-out jeans were clearly the best choice for Yosemite.  They protected me from insect bites, spilled food and drink, and potentially hazardous falls onto jagged rocks and other obstacles confronting me during my hikes.  (Luckily, I avoided any mishaps.)  When I hiked alongside Yosemite Falls, one of the park’s spectacular waterfalls, its watery mist hit my clothes, but my jeans’ cotton fabric dried quickly in the mountain air.  And I had pockets galore in which to stash any small items I needed en route.

In short, they were perfect.  Why would I ever want to abandon them?

Here in San Francisco, we treasure the legacy of blue jeans, thanks to Levi Strauss and the jeans empire he and his partner created in 1871 (they patented their design in 1873).  The Levis Strauss Company is still a big presence in the city, and Levi’s descendants are among the Bay Area’s most prominent philanthropists and civic leaders.

You may be surprised to learn that the Levi’s company maintains a vast collection of historic jeans in its San Francisco archives. And to celebrate the 144th birthday of blue jeans this year, Levi’s hosted a bunch of special events around town, including the launch of their first-ever skinny 501s for men and women.

Give up my skinny jeans?  Never.  And I think at least a few other over-50s agree.  Last week, I watched singer-songwriter Paul Simon perform on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  Simon, who’s 75, was wearing a pair of skinny jeans that looked a lot like mine.

Bravo, Paul!  It’s great to see you still singing, still writing new songs to sing, and still wearing skinny jeans.  “Hello darkness, my old friend?”  Well, maybe.  If they’re dark blue skinny jeans, that is.

 

 

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas!  That’s what the Brits say, right?  I’m thinking in Brit-speak right now, thanks to recently immersing myself in the world of Victorian London, and I haven’t shaken it off just yet.

The occasion? I showed up at this year’s Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party, held every year at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.

I’ve always associated the Cow Palace with the Republican convention held there in 1964.  The one where Barry Goldwater gave his famous acceptance speech, including the memorable line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”  I remember watching him say those words on TV while I was at home with a high fever.  The whole experience seemed like a feverish nightmare.  A candidate for the presidency of the United States saying those words!  To a Democratically-inclined young person in 1964, Goldwater’s words were shocking.  (Fast forward to 2016, when much more inflammatory speech was hurled at the nation almost every day by another candidate for the presidency.  One, unlike Goldwater, who got himself elected.)

Back to the Cow Palace.  It’s an indoor arena known as a venue for dog shows, sporting events, rodeos, and gun shows.  The Beatles appeared there twice in the ‘60s (and U2 at a special event in October 2016).  I’d never been there before.  But there I was, along with my two daughters and two granddaughters, entering the world of Dickens’s London.

Dickens was an early favorite of mine.  During my teen years, I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and became totally enamored of the characters and plot development in both.  (I also read, or tried to read, A Tale of Two Cities, during sophomore year, thanks to Mr. Hurley.  Every girl in our class, including me, had a major crush on him, the only good-looking under-40 male teacher at our high school.  But the book was a poor choice, even for the best readers among us, because it demanded a knowledge of history we hadn’t yet acquired.  When I returned to it years later, knowing something about the history of that time, I found it quite wonderful.  Still, it was and is very different from any of Dickens’s other works.)

Later I moved on to reading more and more Dickens. Bleak House, an indictment of the law as practiced in Dickens’s London, was a favorite.  I saw Oliver performed on stage and in the movies and saw countless dramatizations of his other stories, including the perennial A Christmas Carol.  The 1982 BBC mini-series of Nicholas Nickleby, starring Roger Rees, was especially memorable.

In short, I was—and am—a Dickens fan.

So off I went to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, not quite sure what to expect.

What I discovered was a whole world of people who turned out to enjoy dancing, music, and theatrical performances inspired by Dickens and the culture of his time.  At least half, possibly more, were dressed in the Victorian fashions they would have worn when meeting Dickens himself.  Perhaps many of these fair-goers like the theatricality of dressing up this way, pretending to be in a different time and place, no doubt escaping the reality of their everyday lives.

A host of vendors offered Victorian-style clothing and hats; many Victorian-clad fair-goers may have purchased theirs at earlier fairs.  Vendors also sold things like second-hand books (some by Dickens), jewelry, vintage photos, and scented items, along with food and drink.  My granddaughters were taken with the stunning dresses, and their mother bought one for each of them on the condition that they wear them as often as possible.

We headed for a few of the performances, including a charming version of traditional Christmas carols (yes, the singers were in Victorian garb), Irish and Scottish dancing, and a typically-British “music hall” comedy.  An over-18 version began after ours and attracted a lot of people waiting in line outside the music hall as we departed (we had two under-18 girls among us).  Finally, we were treated to Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball, where fair-goers could themselves get on the dance floor and twirl to the music of Victorian London.  Just before we left, a beautifully-costumed Queen Victoria showed up, along with her retinue, to wish us all a Happy Christmas and a Good New Year.

The Dickens Fair was tremendous fun.  And it had a bonus:  it reminded me of two special times in my past.  When my husband-to-be Herb and I first began dating, we discovered that we not only lived in the same apartment building near UCLA (where we were working) but we both were also great fans of Charles Dickens.  (In London years later, Herb and I made a beeline for the only house still standing where Dickens lived and wrote.)

Herb somehow garnered tickets for a live performance at UCLA by the British (specifically Welsh) writer and actor Emlyn Williams.  Best known for his plays Night Must Fall and The Corn is Green (both frequently revived on stage and made into notable films), Williams also worked on screenplays for directors like Alfred Hitchcock and acted himself in a number of films.

When we encountered Williams in early 1971, he was touring with his one-man show, in which he portrayed Charles Dickens, bearded and outfitted in Victorian attire, reading excerpts from his famous novels.  (Some say he began the whole genre of one-man and one-woman performances. He appeared in New York as early as 1953 and no doubt appeared in London even earlier. Probably best-known to Americans is Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain.)  Herb and I were entranced by Williams’s stellar performance, and I followed it up by giving Herb a new biography of Dickens as his Valentine’s Day gift.  (Not very romantic, but Herb loved it.)

Ten years later, we learned that Williams-as-Dickens would be performing close to our then-home on the North Shore of Chicago.  At the Northlight Theatre production in Evanston, Illinois, we reveled once again in his zestful reading of Dickens’s writing.

The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is perhaps Dickens’s most memorable character.  Let’s remember what Dickens wrote toward the end of A Christmas Carol.  When Scrooge discovered the joy of helping others, “His own heart laughed.”

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I send you this wish:  May you have a laughing heart today, and every day to come.

 

 

Punting on the Cam

The keys to my front door reside on a key ring I bought in Cambridge, England, on a magical day in September 1986.  It’s one of the souvenir key rings you used to find in Britain (and maybe still can, though I didn’t see any during a visit in 2012).  They were fashioned in leather and emblazoned in gold leaf with the name and design of a notable site.

During trips to London and elsewhere in Britain during the 1980s and ‘90s, I acquired a host of these key rings. One of my favorites was a bright red one purchased at Cardiff Castle in Wales in 1995.  I would carry one of them in my purse until the gold design wore off and the leather became so worn that it began to fall apart.

Until recently, I thought I had used every one of these leather key rings.  But recently, in a bag filled with souvenir key rings, I came across the one I bought in Cambridge in 1986.  There it was, in all of its splendor:  Black leather emblazoned with the gold-leaf crest of King’s College, Cambridge.

I began using it right away, and the gold design is already fading.  But my memories of that day in Cambridge will never fade.

My husband Herb had gone off to Germany to attend a math conference while I remained at home with our two young daughters.  But we excitedly planned to rendezvous in London, one of our favorite cities, when his conference was over.

Happily for us, Grandma agreed to stay with our daughters while I traveled to meet Herb, and on a rainy September morning I arrived in London and checked into our Bloomsbury hotel.  Soon I set off in the rain to find theater tickets for that evening, and in Leicester Square I bought half-price tickets for a comedy I knew nothing about, “Lend Me a Tenor.”  Stopping afterwards for tea at Fortnum and Mason’s eased the pain of trekking through the rain.

When Herb and I finally met up, we dined at an Italian restaurant and headed for the theater. “Lend Me a Tenor” was hilarious and set the tone for a wonderful week together.

We covered a lot of ground in London that week, including a visit to Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, a sunny boat trip to Greenwich, viewing notable Brits on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, tramping around Bloomsbury and Hampstead, and lunching with a British lawyer (a law-school friend) at The Temple, an Inn of Court made famous by our favorite TV barrister, Rumpole (of the Bailey), whose chambers were allegedly in The Temple.

Other highlights were our evenings at the theater. Thanks to advice from my sister, who’d just been in London, we ordered tickets before leaving home for the new smash musical, “Les Miserables” (which hadn’t yet hit Broadway). It was worth every penny of the $75 we paid per ticket (a pricey sum in 1986) to see Colm Wilkinson portray Jean Valjean on the stage of the Palace Theatre.  We also loved seeing a fresh interpretation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Barbican and Alan Ayckbourn’s poignant comedy “A Chorus of Disapproval” at the Lyric.  Although “Mutiny!”–a musical based on “Mutiny on the Bounty”–was disappointing, we relished a concert at South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall, where I kept expecting the Queen to enter and unceremoniously plop herself down in one of the hall’s many boxes.

But it was our day trip to Cambridge that was the centerpiece of our week.  On Friday, September 19th, we set out by train from King’s Cross Station and arrived at Cambridge in just over an hour.  We immediately reveled in the array of beautiful sites leaping out at us on the university campus nestled along the Cam River.  Our first stop was Queens’ College and its remarkable Mathematical Bridge.  The college spans both sides of the river (students jokingly refer to the newer half as the “light side” and the older half as the “dark side”), and the world-famous bridge connects the two.  The legend goes that the bridge was designed and built by Cambridge scholar Sir Isaac Newton without the use of nuts or bolts. But in fact it was built with nuts and bolts in 1749, 22 years after Newton died, and rebuilt in 1905.

Our next must-see site was King’s College.  During my college years at Washington University in St. Louis, I learned that Graham Chapel, our strikingly beautiful chapel–built in 1909 and the site of many exhilarating lectures and concerts (in which I often sang)–shared its design with that of King’s College, Cambridge.  So we headed right for it.  (Graham Chapel’s architect never maintained that it was an exact copy but was only partly modeled after King’s College Chapel, which is far larger.)

Entering the huge and impressive Cambridge version, we were suitably awed by its magnificence.  Begun by King Henry VI in 1446, it features the largest “fan vault” in the world and astonishingly beautiful medieval stained glass.  (A fan vault? It’s a Gothic vault in which the ribs are all curved the same and spaced evenly, resembling a fan.)

As we left the chapel, still reeling from all the stunning places we’d just seen, we noticed signs pointing us in the direction of punts available for a ride on the Cam.  The idea of “punting on the Cam”—riding down the river on one of the flat-bottomed boats that have been around since 1902–sounded wonderful.  We didn’t hesitate to pay the fare and immediately seated ourselves in one of the boats.

The river was serene, with only a few other boats floating nearby, and our punter, a charming young man in a straw boater hat, provided intelligent narration as we floated past the campus buildings stretched out along the river.  He propelled the boat by pushing against the river bed with a long pole.  His charm and good looks enhanced our ride enormously.

The boat wasn’t crowded.  An older British couple sat directly across from us, and we chatted amiably about Britain and the United States, finding commonality where we could.

The sun was shining, and the 70-degree temperature was perfect.  Beautiful old trees dotted the riverbanks, providing shade as we floated by, admiring the exquisite college buildings.

What’s punting like?  Ideally, it’s a calm, soothing boat ride on a river like the Cam.  Something like riding in a gondola in Venice, except that gondolas are propelled by oars instead of poles. (I rush to add that the gondola I rode in Venice had a much less attractive and charming oarsman.)

An article in the Wall Street Journal in November described recent problems caused by punting’s growing popularity.  Increased congestion in the Cam has led to safety rules and regulations never needed in the past.  According to the Journal, “punt wars” have divided the city of Cambridge, with traditional boats required to follow the new rules while upstart self-hire boats, which have created most of the problems, are not.

But luckily for Herb and me, problems like those didn’t exist in 1986.  Not at all.  Back then, floating along the river with my adored husband by my side was an idyllic experience that has a special place in my memory.

I don’t recall where I bought my leather key ring.  Perhaps in a small shop somewhere in Cambridge.  But no matter where I bought it, it remains a happy reminder of a truly extraordinary day.