Jhe age of the tracksuit began – as every history student will now learn – on March 11, 2020, the day the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and the age of lockdowns began. The details of his disappearance aren’t officially verified yet – but they say the journalism is the first draft of the story, so I’m calling him for Oct. 31, 2021, when Squid Game’s dystopian seaweed-green tracksuits became the go to the Halloween disguise.
So now it’s time to put your jeans back on. I don’t just mean they’re over, although no doubt that can be a little tricky after two turgid years of feeling dissatisfied with life within eye distance of the fridge. No, the real challenge is getting your head back in jeans, not your waistline. The most telling sign of the casualness of our wardrobes is that jeans, which were once what we wore to dress up, may now be too much of an effort. It’s not that I’m saying our standards have slipped, but – well, actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
There’s nothing more satisfying to wear in the morning than your favorite jeans. Jeans are timeless and democratic because while silhouettes, colors and washes come and go, everyone who owns jeans makes them their own. Looking at someone wearing a pair they love that fits is like looking at the perfect black and white portrait: candid, yet flattering.
This year’s Golden Globes ceremony didn’t have a red carpet, but it was a fashion moment that energized the denim revival. One of the evening’s big winners, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, is set in rural Montana in the 1920s, articulated between the dust-and-horse iconography of Western cinematic tradition and modernity and the raw 20th century energy as it begins to roar full speed ahead. Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil acts as a male braggart in broken jeans with leggings, but it’s Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter who steals the fashion show. Light and lanky in the new stiff jeans his mother bought him to fit on the ranch, he looks like a soldier boy in a new uniform.
In westerns, jeans represent real-world toughness — resilience, to use the buzzword of the hour — but also the American dream. The brass rivets that characterize each traditional pair shine like the nuggets that gold hunters once swept the rivers of the western states for. Plus, jeans represent gender – as they always have and always will. (Think Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA album cover, with the jeans-clad rear view of the Boss in front of the flag stripes.) Resilience, whimsy, adventure, and sexiness: he’s not amazing, really, that jeans are a style icon.
The Power of the Dog is the latest and most acclaimed in a new wave of westerns – from News of the World to the slick The Harder They Fall – that are bringing us back to denim as a nostalgic, easy way to dress. If we had fallen in love with jeans, it was at least partly because they had become way too complicated. In the decade since skinny jeans began to fall out of favor, the question of what jeans are for has become vexed. I’ve lost count of how many smart women have pulled me aside to seriously and quietly ask me if it’s still okay to wear skinny jeans, or what a barrel leg or a peg leg is, or whether mom jeans are really chic or a joke in which being a mom is the punchline.
Denim designers and brands have mingled in endless confrontations between high waist and ultra high waist, wide leg or bootcut, patchwork or embroidered, indigo or bleached. Writing about what jeans to wear began to feel like reporting on an increasingly labyrinthine and distant civil war, in which no clear victor ever seemed to emerge and good and evil had become impossible to judge. . And jeans shouldn’t be so hard. They should be the first route in the wardrobe: an easy option that you don’t have to waste time thinking about.
Now they’re back in the spotlight, and without the hipster bickering over the difference between mom jeans and dad jeans. Instead, the new denim style icons are icy classics. Celine’s latest Paris Fashion Week featured jeans that looked easy and timeless. Think Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Marilyn Monroe between takes on the set of The Misfits, photographed by Eve Arnold in rolled-hem jeans. The great and late Nick Kamen in this laundromat ad. Janet Jackson in the 1990s, in ripped jeans and a crop top. Elle Macpherson running 2000s Holland Park School in jeans and a blazer. This is a rich lineage that goes back to the savage utilitarianism of the western.
But denim is a “thirsty” fabric to work with, requiring large amounts of water and energy to produce. A pair of jeans is likely to have four or five times the carbon footprint of a t-shirt, due to the heavier weight of the fabric. The environmental impact is multi-layered and brands deal with it through different strategies. Reformation uses low-impact, non-hazardous chemical dyes to keep workers safe and reduce water consumption. Its best-selling Cynthia high-rise straight-leg jeans require 685 gallons (2.5 cubic meters) less water to manufacture than conventional jeans. Frame has developed biodegradable denim and yarn jeans, with rivets replaced by buttons and closures that can be removed, so the garment will completely disintegrate if buried at the end of its life. White Stuff uses 98% recycled water and 85% air dry in its manufacturing process to reduce energy consumption. (Its very wearable £55 Robyn barrel jeans are well worth a look.) Nudie pioneered repair shops, to standardize and facilitate the process of repairing and reworking jeans instead of replacing them.
The scattered approaches to the sustainability issue can confuse consumers, but there are ethical shopping strategies everyone can agree on: buy fewer clothes, buy vintage when possible, minimize washings, and wear the clothes Longer. And on all of these metrics, jeans can score surprisingly high. You only need one pair that you like and they will work with everything. Vintage is a great way to shop for denim, not least because jeans change shape the first few times they are washed, so it’s only when you try on a pair that’s already been worn that you can get a real sense of how they will adapt. We’ve all experienced the disappointment of jeans that look great in the fitting room but fall apart within weeks. Freshening up with an eco-friendly laundry spray and spot cleaning is a faster and less environmentally damaging way than overwashing. And best of all: jeans get better with age. My desert island jeans, a straight-leg pair of Levi’s 501s, were already vintage when I found them last year, and they look even better now than they did then. If we fall in love with our jeans again, let’s hope it’s forever.