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Has the world gone mad over distressed jeans?


The meaning, and cost, of distressed jeans.

Levi’s recently announced it has developed a new form of laser technology that will automate the process used to make jeans look older than they are. That is, to rip and tear jeans, and to create what is known as the distressed effect, which has typically been achieved using sandpaper and harsh chemicals. The new technology will reduce the time involved in the finishing process from 20-30 minutes per pair to just 90 seconds, the number of steps involved from 18-20 to about three, and remove thousands of chemical formulations from the supply chain.

I’m not sure how to think about this. Should I be concerned about the people who might lose their jobs? (Levi’s says there won’t be job losses “in the short term”.) Or should we be ashamed of ourselves, that such jobs exist – in which people work their arses off, using sponges and sandpaper, so people better off than them can wear jeans that look as if they’ve been working their arses off.

I could be overthinking this. Probably most people don’t want to look as if they’ve been working their arses off – some designers have said distressed jeans are for people who don’t want to look as if they’re trying too hard. Still, when you stop to think about the labour and chemicals involved in making jeans look worn out, before they’ve even been worn, you can feel bad about your distressed jeans. 

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Until quite recently, there was good reason to be distressed about the distressing of jeans. That worn-out look used to be achieved by workers who blasted the jeans with sand, until it was found that inhaling the dust particles could cause silicosis, a sometimes fatal lung disease. (Sand-blasting is now banned by most jeans manufacturers.)

Left to their own devices, jeans will, given time, self-distress. Denim is made with two cotton yarns – one dyed indigo, which is most visible on the outside, with the undyed yarn on the inside. The dye only penetrates the surface of the indigo threads, and chips off over time, often in places where your body exerts pressure on the fabric from within. Your jeans, then, could be seen as an expression of your unique morphology. Whether you think that’s a good thing presumably depends on how you feel about your morphology.

Distressed and torn jeans have been around for some decades now, and were particularly associated with punk rock. As neatly described in a New York Times article: “The two most important influences on torn jeans are the kneecaps of Joey Ramone [of the Ramones], bursting into view like the surly flesh of a malnourished Hulk. The third is the curt career of the Sex Pistols, a band that existed to promote a London boutique run by their manager, Malcolm McLaren, and his partner, Vivienne Westwood.” Back then, distressed jeans were seen as counter-cultural in a hip, youthful way.

Decades later, ripped jeans, frayed jeans, slashed jeans and jeans with holes in them are mainstream and inter-generational, worn by teenagers, the middle-aged, the rich and famous, and on the cover of Vogue magazine.

In an article in the New Yorker headlined “The Global Business of Sartorial Slumming”, Judith Thurman describes the lengths to which some companies have gone to create (or market) distressed jeans with a difference. A few years ago, a company in Japan wrapped bolts of denim around various objects, like tyres, and then threw them into the bear and tiger cages at Kamine Zoo in Hitachi City, so that the tigers and bears could maul them. The jeans made out of the mauled fabric were then sold under the Zoo Jeans label.

If you want to try this at home, there are DIY tutorials on YouTube on how to create your own “mauled by tigers” look. The advice is delivered without irony. Recommendations include inserting a rolled-up magazine into the legs before taking to your jeans with a box cutter so you don’t slice through both layers of fabric – and teasing out the white threads from the cuts you’ve made to your jeans with the sharp point of a safety pin, so you can unravel the threads without breaking them. Clearly, achieving the right kind of holey look requires some delicacy.

Has the world gone mad? 

The Levi’s label was first patented in 1873 after Levi Strauss, who had a dry goods store, hooked up with tailor Jacob Davis and patented durable work trousers, which were initially marketed to ranch hands, lumberjacks and people working on the railroads. Hard-working customers expected them to last. A 1920 letter in the Levi’s archive from miner Homer Campbell of Arizona describes how he wore his jeans every day for three years except Sunday, but was sending them back because “for some reason, which I wish you would explain, they have gone to pieces”.

He added: “I have worn nothing but Levi Strauss overalls for the past 30 years and this pair has not given me the service that I have got from some of your overalls in the past.”

And now we have YouTube tutorials and digital technologies to achieve the same “gone to pieces” aesthetic. But, as argued in that New York Times article, getting away with ripped jeans, as a design statement, still largely depends on a position of privilege. If the people employed to cut holes in the kneecaps, etc, of the jeans worn by people on the other side of the world turned up to work with holes in their pants, they’d probably be sent home to change.

More recently, jeans makers and retailers have been urging people to wash their jeans less often. I’m not having you on. As described in last month’s column, the making of clothes comes at a considerable environmental cost, yet most of the environmental impact occurs after we buy them, with all the energy and water used in the washing and drying. And jeans, it seems, have a remarkable capacity to stay clean — or, put another way, denim is good at hiding dirt.

A few years ago, jeans experts recommended that if you want to kill the bacteria in your jeans, you could just pop them in the freezer overnight, though there’s no scientific consensus that freezing your jeans is an effective way to kill the bugs in your pants.

Of course, the don’t-wash-your-jeans message is more likely to appeal to people who a) can’t be bothered washing their jeans anyway or b) actually want to preserve that deep indigo colour, and the natural and idiosyncratic creases that come from actual wear and tear.

According to some fashion commentators, dark denim is back, with this season’s styles favouring jeans that come “straight-legged, stiff and in a deep indigo hue”. 

This sounds like jeans from the olden days, and while I need to see it to believe it, I like the sound of that. For those who don’t, there’s always sandpaper and box cutters. 

This was published in the May 2018 issue of North & South.