I’m running out of days in this month, and the last few posts took more time than I expected, so I’ll conclude May with a brief hat-tip to one of the greatest unintentional memes that the City of Brotherly Love has to offer, and it gave it to the world long before the concept of memes was a thing. Maybe even before the term entered everyday parlance or before Richard Dawkins ostensibly coined it in his 1976 tome The Selfish Gene. (Probably not that old, but maybe.) For dyed-in-the-wool Philadelphians out there (or anyone else), does this sign in the East Passyunk Crossing neighborhood, the heart of South Philly, ring a bell?
No? Since it’s not necessarily even clear what I’m referring to in this very busy photo, it is not the big, brash, uninteresting Sweat Fitness sign. It’s the other, smaller one, closer to the center, with the words “South Fellini” under it, using blue and yellow that matches the trim of the adjacent storefront. For those who don’t know Philly well, the sign is probably utterly meaningless and bizarre. (Who kisses like while standing/squatting like that?)
But for the rest of us–those of us who know anything about Philly (or even lived there some time between 1990 and 2015), it evokes this:
My photo of “King of Jeans” dates from 2012, the year the store itself closed and a few years before the huge display came down completely, along with the building upon which it was mounted, when the latter got demolished to make way for a taller mixed-use structure in the gentrifying neighborhood. It would have been only a few blocks away from this parody (or tribute) at South Fellini. I covered the original sign as part of an exploration of business signage along the East Passyunk commercial corridor. It was for many years a landmark of this historically working and lower-middle class area, disproportionately Italian American until the 1990s. By the turn of the 20th century, East Passyunk Crossing’s proximity to Center City Philly caused demand to surge, home values to escalate, yuppies to move in, and storefronts that previously sold school uniforms or nail salons to get supplanted by truffle oil vendors and yoga studios. King of Jeans was, needless to say, a holdover from a bygone era, evoking both disco and (through the woman’s attire, not her shoes) the original roller derby fad of the late 1970s, although the sign itself was much newer; advanced sun-bleaching rendered its age indeterminable. It was the visuals to a Jim Croce song (also a Philly guy). In the King of Jeans sign, only the man is actually wearing jeans, making the choice of attire as strange as the uncomfortable position of the pair in the throes of amour. How does this help sell the products within the business it represents?
From its dawn in the early 1990s, when the greaser/disco eras it evoked (yes, I’m aware these don’t really overlap) was already hugely outré, the King of Jeans sign elicited strong and polarizing reactions: people either adored or despised its tawdry references. When developers dismantled the sign in sync with the building’s demolition in 2015, various parties squabbled over who would get to proudly display it in a museum, though just as much of the online chatter voted to see it smelted down to something unrecognizable. (It ended up going to Provenance Architectural Salvage, and is still marginally visible to the public, from what I can tell.)
Polarizing imagery is often the most memorable and the most meme-able. For better or worse, the King of Jeans logo achieved a synecdochic role within South Philly: emblematic of its past, arousing embarrassment for the people diluting the blue-collar Italian roots. Meanwhile, those sad to see East Passyunk’s yuppification might reluctantly ally itself to the sign’s kitschy, Guido nostalgia. It was a signature post on social media for people seeking to prove they were in South Philly. A local band, Pissed Jeans, named their third album after the store. I can’t say for certain, but I’d venture to bet more than a few couples posted as our derby-girl and shirtless greaser for Halloween costumes.
King of Jeans is gone, of course, but South Fellini, a multimedia graphic arts company and retail storefront, offers a wry tribute amidst its other Philly meme gear.
Turns out this sign at their entrance originally served as a display at the construction site after the demolition of the King of Jeans building. Local artist Kid Hazo named his opus Queen of Jeans, reversing the standing positions of the two protagonists, and giving the heroine jeans at last. Once the replacement apartment building went up, the Queen of Jeans sign got removed and the logo repatriated to the South Fellini storefront. And there it stands as a cockeyed revival of what for years thrived as the most photographed site in South Philly. By reversing the sexes, South Fellini has preserved an artifact and reinforced its meme-worthiness, because anyone who is “in the know” about South Philly history will understand immediately what this sign is referencing. Alas, that hip contingent is shrinking through attrition, not only as the old-school Italian Americans either move out or die, but because so many new arrivals have no long-term connection to the neighborhood or memory of retro signage. This decline in South Philly’s historic population will only render South Fellini’s storefront sign a greater anomaly.
Which might be the point. If it stands out sufficiently, it will provoke passers-by for how weird and out-of-place it is, and some just might step inside. And for those who care enough, and want to signal to others they “go way back” within East Passyunk, they can always pin a replica of Queen of Jeans onto their shirt.