The Jeans Problem

I am feeling high-minded, full of vim and change-the-world vigor. I am going to do something that stylists, fashion mavens, and Presidents have been unable to do for over a century. I am going to solve the jeans problem.

The problem isn’t how your ass looks. No one but you and your trainer can tackle that. Nor is the problem how much they cost. A person who buys $300 jeans is right fucking on in my book. Prosperity is always stylish.

It’s not whether or how to wash your jeans. It’s not whether you should hang them on a hook. It’s not figuring out what cut is cool, or how can you tell if they’re made of Carolina Cone Mills denim. Excuse me. Those jeans made on a shuttle loom? Should I grow a beard? Is it “selvedge” or “selvage?”

It’s none of those things. Your fade is fine, Miss Lady and Mr. Man. Take a bow. Your dungarees are about to be set free, ‘cause Stylerant loves your ass. Now close your eyes.

Poof! There is no jeans problem.

Whoa. See how I did that? Of course you didn’t. Your eyes were closed. And your existentialism is in arrears. You think there are “in” jeans and “out” jeans. You remember JNCOs. You sneer at denim with sparkly pocket embroidery. You disdain designers. Your weft is true. You announce, “I know a pair of Mom jeans when I see them, and I’m not gonna do it. And them girls showing they ass cheeks in Daisy Dukes are disgusting.” I love it when you talk urban. Yet you live in fear.

There are no Mom jeans or Dad jeans, just Mom asses and Dad bellies. As my peeps often say, “It’s not them. It’s you.”

No article in the wardrobe is responsible for more personal angst, tempts more derision, or inspires more bad pop music than jeans. They are the great interpretive garment. They are to clothes what jazz and the blues are to rock and roll. No matter how crazy they get, three things are certain: you will come back to them, you will wear them, and you will say you will never wear them like that again. You may be laughing at the acid-washed 80’s today, Dear Lover, and you may be cocksure you’ll never have to sing the bell-bottom blues in your natural lifetime, but announcing your intentions is a good way to hear God laugh.

From James Dean to Jay Z, jeans are also the great American garment, even when they come from a collapsing sweatshop in Bangladesh. When I was a kid, my Dad told me that Levi Strauss made the first ones from the canvas of Conestoga wagons, like the ones on TV westerns where frontier women gave birth and Sioux lined the ridges against a desert sky. He made that shit up. There was no Google to bust Daddy’s urban myth back then, just afternoon TV.

Today, you can get the real skinny with a Wikipedia visit: denim was originated by the French. Take that, Imogene! They were originally called serge de Nimes, which is French for “pinchy crotch.”

The best history I’ve found is 2007’s A Short History of Denim by Lynn Downey, Levi Strauss and Company’s company historian. Jeans as we know them were “invented” by a tailor in Reno named Jacob Davis who’d been adding rivets to the pockets of work clothes so they wouldn’t rip. He sent a letter to Levi Strauss in San Francisco, looking for an investor. Old Levi put up the money and, like a true capitalist, named the company after his own bad self. Little is revealed of what happened to Mr. Davis. One thing is certain, no one calls his pants “Jacobs,” though the idea of “pulling on your Jakes” would have had a certain ring.

I’ve also been searching the interwebs for one of those fancy animated timelines of jeans styles to get a more linear sense of their history. Again, the Levi’s site has one of the best, even if they’re carefully crafted recreations Photoshopped nine ways from Sunday. But for a real taste of the awesomeness of denim over time, look at this. I am digging 15-year-old Brooke Shields for Calvin and Farrah-Fawcett in flares on a skateboard.

But back to existentialism, that unstitched state of disorientation in a modern, absurd world. Surely that’s what Sartre meant when he asked, “My ass look OK in these?” Recently, the NYT ran a piece heralding the return of Dad jeans via Kanye for APC. Fashionista cried absurdity and posted a rebuttal. Meanwhile, here in Nashville, even a few guys from Williamson County are beginning to look for the red-threaded edge inside the bottom hem and drop names like “Cone Mills.” The NYT piece, rushing to be more blue jaded than blue jeaned, says the super-blue Faux-Americana selvedge thing is fatiguing. I agree, but as part of my personal crazy, I nurse grandiose visions of authenticity: selvedge is higher quality, it fades better, I write a style blog. The fading thing is ironic, for in this moment, one should never let his denim fade, nor his skin wrinkle. You will look either poor or old. In style, the meek inherit a shopping cart at TJ Maxx, and little else.

All things considered, it’s almost disingenuous to make fun of the current seriousness surrounding $300 jeans. They are no more or less awesome than my 70’s faded flares or the 80’s Girbauds I proudly bought from Casual Male in Hickory Hollow. Nor is that soaking-in-a-tub thing new. When I was in junior high in the big city of Madisonville, Kentucky, a thing was to go downtown, get some Levi’s at the Tack Shop on the town square—if you don’t know what a tack shop is, shame on you, city boy—and commence the fitting process by easing your adolescent ass into a bathtub full of hot water with the jeans still on. You wore them until they dried. The results were a blue bathtub ring and whitey-tighties the color of Johnson’s blue baby powder. There was also bleaching, if you wanted to speed up the fading process, but if your Mama caught you hastening the wear on your school clothes, she would not be amused, and you’d wind up grounded for a week.

Today, it’s just the opposite. You buy raw denim, and purveyors like Imogene and Willie tell you to get them so tight you cannot get them buttoned without writhing on the floor and inverting your third chakra. The theory is, raw denim, being both unwashed and unrinsed, will stretch. Of course, it will also shrink, which is one of the reasons you’re not supposed to wash them. The other reason is so the wrinkling and whiskering that happens during the first 100 or so wearings will “tell your pants’ own unique story.” If pain is the touchstone of all spiritual growth, then modern denim is the new chi. All it takes is a few Benjamins and the willingness to submit to a stitchery greater than thyself.

My contrarianism helped me avoid this route until recently. I cheated a couple of ways. One was the purchase of some perfectly fine, already-washed I&W’s from a consignment shop. I suspect that the previous owner either failed in his resolve on the break-in period, or needed rent. (This reminds me of a young entrepreneur I recently met. He was introduced as a scrappy, startup guy living on ramen noodles in a crackerbox apartment. He made his pitch in $300 pants, which confounded his myth.)

The second way I’ve avoided the hard spiritual work of raw denim is to buy shrink-to-fit Levi’s that are two inches too big in the waist and four inches too long, then wash the bejesus out of them in hot water and immediately put them in the dryer. Wash, dry, repeat. I can hear the purists in 12 South howling. I personally thought of it as efficiency. Also, hygienic: call me old fashioned, but I like clean clothes. I fart in my britches, sit on stuff where other people’s butts have sat, sweat, and leave my pants on the floor at night where I can find them in the dark, in case of a fire, the burglar alarm, or Ambien-walks. I want to be wearing nominally clean pants when the sirens come or they find me wandering around the ghetto Kroger in my Haflinger slippers.

Yet one can avoid the hard work of style for only so long before self-awareness demands sacrifice. Sooner or later, you gotta get off that sidewalk, walk in, and smell the congregation. I discovered a startup jeans company called Gustin on Kickstarter. Their big entrpreneurial idea is to take orders (and your money) until they get enough cash to start a production run, then they make all the microinvestors their own jeans from select raw denim for just $75, which is super cheap. Ramen costs extra. I signed up.

It was kind of cool at first. I selected my fabric and my cut. The Cone Mills USA run was already sold out, so I chose Japanese selvedge (a now-debunked denim myth: Japan is where all the original shuttle-looms went after American companies developed faster, cheaper machinery). Not being wholly ready to submit, I fudged a little, and bought a size up to allow for machine laundering, knowing I’d never make it to 100 wearings before my aversion to odor kicked in. I Amexed my $75, and the updates on progress of my production run started hitting my inbox.

I think this was around Christmastime. The updates continued, rather too frequently to maintain my interest. The minutiae became as annoying as “look what I’m eating” photos on Facebook. “We got the fabric off a really big boat today and put it on a truck.” “We started the pockets today. It’s really complicated. Let us tell you about pocket fabrics.” I unsubscribed. Winter ended. I started buying spring linen shirts at UAL. My company moved. I learned to play guitar. (OK, I made that part up.)

Finally, I received the email that my selvedge Gustins were shipped! Have you ever noticed that in online commerce, the word “shipped” is always followed by an exclamation point? I guess it would be too droll to simply say: “Your pants shipped.” Then again, if being a mini-mogul of a sartorial startup doesn’t merit chirpy punctuation, what does?

The big day came. The UPS man left the pants on the porch, along with my week’s other somnambulant purchases. I put them on.

They were stiff.

They are still stiff. I wear them about once a week. At this rate, they will take two years and be infused with enough butt bacteria for a biology experiment before they stretch and whisker enough to tell their story, which will be one of poor circulation to the nether regions. This strikes me as a demonstration of faith, like marriage, or hitchiking to California. “It’s the journey,” and all that.

I am going to start an urban myth about selvedge right now, so we can all go back to buying clothes that fit. It begins thus: tight, raw denim makes you impotent, just like bicycle seats without grooves in the middle do. (Not me, mind you—everyone else.) Let me tell you what really happens during that break-in process: the double seams bisect your balls each time you sit, then cinch. Testosterone levels drop to zero, and anyone who says otherwise (again, except me) is a lying sack of serge. The dye also seeps through your underwear, leading to a slow chemical reaction with your pubes, causing them to prematurely grey. This is the real reason early 30-something metrosexuals are shaving their scrotums. By 34, satisfying sex is a memory. By 40, you die lonely in your mid-century flat, a post-modern monk, and your West Elm sofa winds up on Craigslist. Your last wish is that you’d been born in an era of faded stovepipes, going commando, and letting a little air in there. Dad jeans mean you can, you know, actually Dad. Hashtag: #selvedgekills.

I am glad my own youthful experiments with Levi’s in the bathtub did not have a lasting result on my sperm count. (Are my denials clear enough yet?) This brings me to another example of why all jeans must be awesome: in one of my previous marriages, when denim was in a gentler phase, I once enjoyed sex in a Dillard’s change room. Yup, right there beside Big & Tall under the florescent fixtures, behind the beige curtains. I strongly recommend shrink-to-fit Levi’s 501’s. They’re stiff at first, then they shrink. (Sorry: that joke was just sitting there and I had to use it. I’m not as funny as Fashionista.) My point is, I am convinced this would not have happened if I’d been trying on khakis and a Polo golf shirt; she’d have been yawning in a chair near the mirrors.

Here, I should probably acknowledge that my adventures with my new raw jeans are nothing on what women endure. Men have it easy. And in Nashville, despite all the Barista Parlorians and 12 South Burger Uppers, I still see many male 20-somethings without a clue, showing up to take their ladies to dinner wearing faded Luckys and flip flops. This is disrespectful. A gentleman should acknowledge the fear and fatigue his date has endured, at least until they rent a flat together and start taking one another for granted. Aside from platform heels and that whole giving birth thing, few things demonstrate the fortitude of the fairer sex as well as the quest for the perfect pair of jeans. You’d think some would say, “Fuck this noise, I am not a jeans person,” and just wear a muu muu. Where art thou, Betty Freidan? There’s something powerful about a garment that can cause even a glass-ceiling shattering, ballbusting CEO to try on 27 different brands, cuts and sizes, then pay as much for them as for a Hugo Boss suit just to enjoy dinner at Rolf and Daughters. While all jeans are awesome, it can be argued that denim has not been kind to feminism.

Finally, my research has also taken me to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™. The latest report on jeans is informative, if puzzling. For instance, the average person owns seven pairs of jeans. By 2018, the global jeans market will be a $56 billion industry. The study reveals that “more than 8 of 10 consumers (84%) say fit is very important to their jean purchases, followed by comfort (76%), and ‘makes me look good’ (64%).” If I read this correctly, this means that 84% of people are “lying their asses off”, 76% are “telling a damn lie,” and 64% of jeans wearers have a modicum of self-awareness. The study also says that “on average, consumers say they spend approximately $35 on a pair of jeans, slightly higher than last year ($33).” Clearly, no one was surveyed in Fido.

Excuse me: my reader radar is beeping. I bet you didn’t know that, that I have reader radar. It’s embedded in my amygdala. Lord. Its analytics are signaling that you remain unconvinced that all jeans are cool. I’m also rambling and I have to pee, which means I’ll have to re-button afterward, which is another reason I go to the gym. So there’s nothing left for it than for me to rub your thighs in it, and direct your attention to the back of your chest of drawers or closet. See those? Mmmmmhmmmm. You bought them, Sugar. One could negatively interpret your stack of defunct denimes in a couple of ways: either you were not cool when you put down your $35, or you were never cool to begin with. I have more faith in you than that, because you read Stylerant. (It is, after all, all about me.) So resist the urge to purge your closet or to delete the photos of your Guessed and Calvined backside from Facebook. Remember that one day you will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the closet door on it.

Jeans are life, and as such are like your music collection: every song is awesome, except when it’s on “shuffle.” Denim is a love that’s love, not fade away.

Wait. Didn’t Buddy Holly wear a black suit?

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