Doctoral candidate, Institut für Europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
This is about “carrot-cut” jeans (Karottenschnitt): a type of jeans, how people use them and what they make of a number of small but symbolically potent Berlin-based denim brands that sell them. Picaldi’s jeans (and those by some other local brands that have followed this example, namely Daggio Romanzo, Blucino, and Casa) are based on a denim model by Diesel Jeans (“Saddle”) which was popular among a wide variety of men in the mid-1980s. The carrot-cut is defined by its high-waist fit, its relatively loose shape around the thighs, and slightly narrower form from there towards the hem. During the 1990s, mainstream fashion moved away from this cut, which is often considered conspicuously masculine. However, the cut has been in continuous demand by smaller, more specific groups of people since then, including – in Germany – immigrant youth and young adults, Turkish- or Arab-Germans of the second generation.
In the late 1990s, before Diesel stopped selling this model, it was copied and re-branded by a small-scale retailer in Berlin-Kreuzberg, run by a first- and a second generation Turkish immigrant. The retailer ordered the jeans from an Istanbul-based manufacturer, Picaldi, and sold them at a cheap price to neighbourhood youth. Since then, the store has grown into a small retail chain with twelve stores, an online dealership, and a handful of franchises in other cities. A sense of style, which originated among youth in Kreuzberg, spread with the brand. Marketed as the “Zicco” model by Picaldi, the “carrot-cut” denim now comes in many fabrics, dyes, washings, and designs. The company also produces other products such as sweaters and jackets, which often display the brand name prominently. Picaldi’s carrot-cut jeans are the most popular leg-wear for young men in many high schools and vocational schools in Berlin, especially those with a strong immigrant and/or working-class representation.
I reconstruct that story and the narratives surrounding it, which have become part of local lore – in different versions among different groups. Furthermore, through participant observation in various settings, ethnographic interviews and other methods such as go-alongs and media-based group-discussions, I research life-world meanings, emotions and distinctions in which such narratives are embedded. The following description is based on that work.
Partly as a generic item, partly as a branded one, the carrot-cut acquired the status of a marker of ethnic and lifestyle identity among boys and young men with Turkish, Arab, and other immigrant backgrounds, most of whom come from low-income families and face various forms of exclusion and discrimination. Many among Picaldi’s customers describe their own apparel as “gangster style”, referring to real or imagined connections to organized crime, the shadow economy, and the gangster figure in international popular culture, in mafia films and gangsta rap most prominently.
Such semantic connections between jeans and street crime were solidified through endorsements by local gangsta-rappers who had become highly successful in commercial terms. In that process, they disseminated the style and the brand’s name on a mass-media scale. At the same time, the denim type and brand became increasingly stigmatized by a variety of other social actors as embodying a type of personhood and masculinity deemed vulgar, deviant, “foreign”, lower-class – or all of the above.
For many outsiders and, to a lesser extent, to insiders as well, the crucial term in that context is prollig – a pejorative word that refers to showy, rude, assertive behaviour, loudness, and, in an (by now) indirect way, the working-class, the proletariat, or low social position more generally. Certain homologies seem to pertain between the jeans’ material properties and the meanings that are given to them: between, most prominently, the high-waist style in which the jeans are supposed to be worn, the male body shape it is taken to support and highlight (a narrow waist, muscular legs and behind, and a V-shaped upper body), and a self-confident, straightforward, dominant demeanour and personality. Such homologies are part of a low-complexity stereotype. Nevertheless, there also is some overlap of inside and outside understandings and usages, and consequently, a material-social-semiotic “lash-up” (H. Molotch) that helped bring about the style and jean as cultural entities.
After Picaldi’s initial growth among second-generation immigrants, it found a second major group of dedicated customers: largely working-class, “white” young men in the former East, many of whom live in areas such as Hellersdorf or Marzahn which have a small presence of immigrants, a high unemployment rate, and a strong presence of racist violence. Stylistically, there are similar aesthetic traditions; in the East, men’s carrot-cut had remained popular as well, though the overall stylistic patterns and practices (grooming, accessories, styles of movement et cetera) were hardly identical. Furthermore, the rise of Berlin gangsta-rap (and other somewhat similar, slightly more playful, genres) contributed significantly to the carrot-cut’s resurgence.
These stylistic developments parallel structural positions, as both the so-called “foreigners” in the West and the so-called “Germans” in the East share a basic class background and, in different ways and extents, experiences of socio-economic, cultural, and educational exclusion. The spread of the “Picaldi style”, which I call transversal diffusion, is remarkable not least in that the ethnic line that divides those groups is otherwise much harder to cross, both on the level of ideologies and on the level of political affects.
The ethnographic lens also shows the ways in which other relevancies complicate such socio-cultural dynamics. Among many young people, the ubiquity of Picaldi denim in schools and on the streets has given rise to heated conversations about the right and the wrong way to wear them, about colours, fabric and dye that only “foreigners”, “Germans”, “easterners” or, even more importantly, “wannabes” and “children” would want to wear. Many young men stopped wearing them because they associate them with a bygone biographic episode, or because they have been “polluted” by their popularity among boys whose pre-pubescent masculine pretence seems almost painfully obvious. At the same time, though, all of this is about relatively inexpensive pieces of denim which, theoretically, anyone may buy and wear. If, for instance, one shops at the Picaldi warehouse sale, one may get name-brand-clothing at no-name cost, which is not a trivial concern. Furthermore, for many people, carrot-cut jeans are just some leg-wear among others. Dads wear them. People grow up emulating what others in their surroundings wear, and how they carry themselves. One person’s deviance-from-the-norm is another person’s milieu-based conformity. Cautioning against facile attributions, such practical ambiguities document the indeterminate, socially embedded, multi-faceted nature of cultural symbolism.
I take this overall story, and its complications, as a vantage point to approach three sets of questions, which lead from ethnography to a cultural analysis of post-fordist working-class-ness in an ethnically diverse urban environment. Firstly, what does the relevance of these jeans in people’s life-worlds really consist in? How do people wear them, and what meanings, affects and emotions play into these practices? What difference do they make (and when and where do they make a difference)? What are the ways in which people use this type of denim to practically “manage” the dilemmas of conformity and individuality within this specific context? Which distinctions and which forms of symbolic togetherness and sociality are being created, upheld, challenged or broken down in this process? How do they play out over a number of years in individual lives and in networks of friends, classmates and acquaintances?
Secondly, I consider the specific social and cultural conditions that allowed this particular type of denim and these brands to emerge and take on such symbolic potency. This approach, I believe, will shed light on the ephemeral ways in which people handle various forms of social inequality. The third concern is methodological. I follow scholars such as anthropologist John Hartigan and cultural theorist Brian Massumi, who argue that it can be helpful to supplement the focus on “identities”, which is most often directed by psychological theories or theories of discourse, with a focus on “cultural figures”. The latter stresses the continuities and the affective flows between representations and appropriation while simultaneously highlighting their mediated and performative aspect. Denim represents one medium in which individuals and groups negotiate their relation to such “antagonistic” figures, which they may simultaneously embody, use to make sense of their situation, and, reflexively and satirically, hold at a distance.