“Wear the Pants”


“Like many girlfriends and parents of the time, she was engaged in the quixotic task of encouraging a reluctant young man to manifest a more traditional version of manhood.”

I have a special relationship with the Dockers brand. From 1988-91, I lived with a girlfriend who was in charge of production scheduling of the nascent Dockers line at the Levi Strauss headquarters in San Francisco. At the time, I was “model size” for the brand: 32 inch waist and 32 inch inseam. That meant that I fit nicely into every test pair of Dockers used for advertising, evaluation or as a production trial run. Every week my girlfriend would bring me home a few new pairs. By the end of our relationship I owned 72 pairs of the Dockers — dozens of shades of kakis, tweeds, no-iron cottons and all manner of plaids, stripes and even some day-glow colors that never made it into production.

I owned them, that is, but I didn’t wear them. I had many reasons for this refusal. I told my girlfriend that I wasn’t crazy about the fit. Those were the days of the pleated front. On my waist they poofed out near the pockets and rode up on my stomach giving me the uncomfortable feeling of wearing a cummerbund. What I didn’t tell that long suffering girlfriend — because I didn’t realize it myself at the time — was that there were other more psychologically complex and, dare I say, generational reasons in my stubbornness.

On some unconscious level I was hearing a subtle message in the fact that my girlfriend at the time continued to bring home new pairs of Dockers, even though I resisted wearing them. Like many girlfriends and parents of the time, she was engaged in the quixotic task of encouraging a reluctant young man to manifest a more traditional version of manhood. My refusal to take the hint and lead a life more like her father’s was passive aggressive — I didn’t fight or flee from the expectations that I get a real job, marry my girlfriend, sire children or buy a home. I simply demurred. I made a million small decision that avoided those paths — one of those was made every morning when I didn’t put on those pants.

When my girlfriend and I cleaned out that apartment and went our separate ways (her to a top-tier MBA program and me to a friend’s couch) those dozens of pairs of dockers went into two large Hefty Bags and I took them to a homeless shelter.

I managed to stay in blue jeans for another 15 years all the way through Docker’s “Nice Pants,” campaign. I disappointed girlfriend after girlfriend by failing to evolve. It was only during the roll out of their “Wear the Pants” slogan that I considered the brand again.

Thinking about that “Wear the Pants,” slogan, it occurred to me that the marketers had basically adopted the message my former girlfriend had tried to deliver back at the beginning of my adulthood. “Wear the pants,” clearly suggests that we are not quite the men our fathers were and we need to “get it together, son.” Indeed, the marketing campaign has even promoted some science to back up this claim. On the Dockers website, much is made of the apparent fact that serum testosterone has dramatically declined in the last 20 years.

The admonition that we’re not cowboying-up to manhood is a charge that has been deeply internalized by Gen Xers. Indeed it has been digested, metabolized and long ago passed out of our systems. Try as they might, the insistance that we “wear the pants,” no longer pricks an insecurity. We’ve heard it before about a million times. Speaking as a vanguard Gen Xer the underlying message of Dockers “Wear the Pants — Face it you’re a man,” campaign doesn’t sting, in bores.

For many of us who have lived through this time of radical change in gender roles there exists a deep desire to avoid yet another discussion about the meaning of manhood. Leave me alone for fuck’s sake — I’m over 40. That there is no agreement on the meaning of manhood is a fact but it no longer keeps me (or us, I think) awake at night. I’ve figured it out alright — with little help from my generation. As an individual I am no more responsible for creating or conforming to an ideal of manhood than I am for boosting the testosterone in our collective blood.

Recently I hung out for an afternoon in the last official stand-alone Dockers store in America. It was a week from closing its doors — the end of a misguided attempt to turn Dockers into a Gap-like brand that sold to men and women. (What could be less sexy than a piece of women’s clothing with the label “Dockers”?) Not only were the pants 70 percent off but you could buy the long glass display tables, the clothes racks and the mirrors. You could even buy the mannequins (torso or full bodied for $75 buck each). The mannequins were lined up naked at the back of the store – a little army of shiny white plastic figures. One’s eyes were invariably drawn to the smooth fist sized lump between their legs, placed there no doubt to give the pants the illusion that they were covering a real set of male testicles.

I tried on a few pairs. My inseam is still 32 but my waist is now 36. I looked in the mirror and saw a man entering middle age. Now that the brand was no longer a challenge to my life’s course, I could see that they were pretty decent pants. I walked up to the cash register with 14 new pairs. Even at the fire-sale discount, they were far more expensive than those freebees I got long ago. Still, I think I’ll be putting these pairs to use — a better-late-than-never admission that you can’t wear jeans and t-shirts forever.

“What are you going to do with the stock you don’t sell?” I asked the manager as I handed him my credit card.

“What we don’t sell in two weeks is all going to the homeless,” he said.

Sometime next month I’ll be going down the street — feeling all middle-aged in my premium Dockers —  and I’m going to walk by a homeless man wearing an identical pair. I hope we look at each other and at the same moment say: “Nice pants.”