Being Modern: High-street jeans

By Kate Burt
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:01

In 1950s America, jeans were deemed so culturally subversive that teenagers were banned from wearing them in many public buildings. It's hard to imagine the same furore today over a rack of identically "distressed" (and distressingly flimsy) high-street skinnies or supermarket stretch denim.

The contemporary version is anathema to the blue jeans Andy Warhol once said he wanted to die wearing, or the ones Sid Vicious, in his suicide note, asked to be buried in, and which Yves Saint Laurent regretted not having invented himself.

Those jeans were iconic in their own right (as were their wearers, including John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe). Back then, the garment sat at the crossroads between authenticity and style: cool yet practical – and credibly so, due to a tough-guy lineage as the one-time uniform of convicts, cowboys and sailors. There was a reason the Rebel without a Cause costume crew put James Dean in them (above), inspiring youth culture itself: jeans were the hoodies of their day.

Levi Strauss must be turning in his grave. His reign began in the mid-19th century, flogging denim to miners, and was latterly complemented by other reassuringly sturdy brands such as Lee and Wrangler. And such was the status quo until well into the 1990s. Plentiful specialist vintage stores churned out American prison-issue originals for hipsters, while the average Joe/Joanna could get their discount newbies in dedicated superstores such as Dickie Dirts and Crazy. These were the heady, and unwittingly purist days. But once the burgeoning chain stores realised nearly everyone in the country owned several pairs of jeans, they naturally cashed in.

In the context of a modern fashion chain, there is no call for comfortingly unchanging designs; season in, season out; nor things that improve with age. Jeans had to get fancy to keep up. And we've lapped up these throwaway usurpers, the quick-to-wear-out (as opposed to satisfyingly slow to wear in) ironed-on crotch creases, artful paint splatters and ruched ankles. So really we have only ourselves to blame.

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