Objects of desire

7th July 1995 at 01:00
HISTORY THROUGH OBJECTS. JEANS. By Regine van Damme. 670 85528 6. THE CONDOM. By Eric Chevallier. 670 85529 4. Viking Pounds 7.99 each - Age range 10 plus

The first impression left by these colourful little books is that jeans play a part in the history of sex and condoms in the history of style. The fetishistic naming of Levi Strauss' parts - orange stitching, copper rivets and imitation leather patches - points towards some sly erotic ritual. The enumeration of rubbery flavours and contours - flared, ribbed, dotted - indicates a recherche corner of high fashion.

The books are translated from the French. A chatty text leaps in grasshopper style between bright pictures and different eras. Jeans tells a story that begins with woad and indigo dyes. It then moves erratically through American history from the greed of the Gold Rush and the era of mass immigration to the world-conquering march of coca-colonization.

This takes in a fair amount of extraneous matter such as the story of the Stars and Stripes and a bizarre filmography. It also leaves vital matters out. If part of your narrative theme is the opening up of the West, you should at least mention the Native Americans with more than a perfunctory and euphemistic half-sentence about their being "driven away".

A rather confusing economic summary pulls together FDR, the Second World War and Dean and Brando in blunt juxtaposition.

The Condom uses a broader chronological brush. From the carnal friezes of ancient India and the explicit frescoes of Pompeii (both illustrated) we move through the key discovery by Charles Goodyear of vulcanization in the 19th- century to the fun-packs and frolicsome advertisements of today.

Some of the supporting illustrations have a children's encyclopaedia kind of earnestness. Head-scarfed half-naked natives tapping latex seem to come from the vanished world of Arthur Mee. Others like Rodin's "Le Baiser" and Bonnard's "L'Homme et la Femme" carry a direct and appropriate charge of sexual passion.

There are lots of little jokes about sheep-guts and chemist shops, some gossipy advice on safety precautions (beware of fingernails and cooking oil) and sensitivity. A final serious section on Aids is more hortatory than historical. It rightly preaches tolerance and solidarity with sufferers while the subject of the condom itself fades away.

Neither book is a thorough chronicle of its subject, nor of its context; they are dilettante rather than documentary. They have no time-lines or glossaries. But they will give teenage readers a cheerful and occasionally thoughtful half-hour.

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