Newfangled Styles for Newfangled Lives: Guest Post by Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Tanya Lloyd Kyi lives in Vancouver with her husband and children. Her most recent book, 50 Underwear Questions (Fall 2011), takes an amusing look at the role underwear has played through the ages. The Blue Jean Book (2005) is the story of denim’s rise from its origins with hardscrabble miners and cowboys to its popularity among laborers, rebels, and the incurably hip. An updated version, including comic-style illustrations, has been published in 2011 under the name The Lowdown on Denim.

I’m a pop culture idiot. When my husband quotes old TV shows, I stare at him blankly. When my friends play “name that tune,” I lose every time. My knowledge of brand names is pitiful and fashion labels are a lost cause.

It’s not my fault (or so I tell myself). We didn’t have cable until halfway through elementary school. Our truck had an eight-track player. There wasn’t a mall or movie theatre within an hour’s drive. When my cousin visited from Vancouver and brought a Weird Al Yankovic cassette, it was like she’d arrived from another planet. (A cool planet.)

I’m not exaggerating. My town was so remote, we were wearing 1980s hairstyles well into the 90s. I’d prove it, but my grad photos spontaneously combusted, due to excess Ice Mist.

So, when my publisher suggested I focus on pop culture connections in my books about underwear and denim, I panicked. I couldn’t write about pop culture! I knew nothing! Nada! I mean, I’d heard of Madonna and her pointy bra, but how many other pop culture connections could there be?

A lot, as it turned out.

Book Cover 50 QUestions About Underwear

The first thing I learned – the thing that helped me stop hyperventilating – was exactly what "pop culture" meant. I learned this by attending my son’s preschool art class where, serendipitously, they were studying Andy Warhol (a guy who used both undies and jeans in his work.) According to those art class folks, popular culture could be anything that appealed to masses of people. And if something was really catchy, it probably had a connection to innovative ideas, or changing views of the world.

Write about world views, new inventions, people with strong opinions? Those things, I could do.

In The Lowdown on Denim, I wrote about city slickers who adopted cowboy fashion, hoping it would make them look rugged and tough on the streets of New York. About teen rebels who used denim to shake up staid schools. About peace activists who stripped off their jeans while peeling away their parents’ beliefs about capitalism and war.

Book Cover The Lowdown on Denim

In 50 Underwear Questions, I wrote about women who wore bloomers. Not because they wanted to shock their aunties in the floor-length dresses. No, because they wanted to bike. And ice skate. Maybe even try a cartwheel.

Until writing these books, I had assumed that fashion designers in far-off cities dreamed up clothing trends and inflicted them upon the rest of the world. It turns out that sometimes, people demand newfangled styles to go with their newfangled lives. Just ask the gold miners who wanted better pants, way back in the 1800s. Or the astronauts who requested underwear that didn’t slide in space.

Today, I pay more attention to pop. And when I pull on my undies or my jeans, I stop to wonder… what exactly are these styles saying? Because my jeans might be about more than covering my butt. Who knows? They might be changing the world.

August 31, 2011
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