The Tyranny of the Jean

There’s a reason why old ladies wear polyester pants with elastic waists. It’s not because they are old. It’s because they are wise. They figured out that the long-term fad of wearing denim trousers is a crock of you-know-what.

How did we get here? Jeans were originally used for heavy-duty work such as swabbing decks and cleaning out horse barns. They became required uniforms for prison inmates and factory workers. Their closely woven fabric protects the wearer and is practical. I get it.

Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke

My father-in-law, a farm child during the Depression, was adamant about not wearing jeans himself and he wasn’t particularly supportive of his wife wearing jeans either. He felt that wearing denim trousers belonged to his impoverished past, a past that he wasn’t eager to revisit. He never told me this personally — he was too polite to ever criticize what I was wearing — but mother-in-law Esther shared the story with us. After that, I tried to honor him by avoiding wearing jeans when I was with him.

What I don’t get is why we have adopted this particular clothing item as the American casual wear uniform. The jean really began its ascendancy during the 1950s as a symbol of rebellion against authority — think James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Throughout the sixties, the blue jean represented continuing changes in societal norms, bringing down the formal dress rules of previous generations. It wasn’t a negative social shift; it was time for the world to be less restrictive about dress codes. I get that too. I was part of it. I just don’t see that we have improved on our world by now making the blue jean the new norm.

Let’s count the ways that jeans are annoying.

  • Jeans are a bear to dry; we have to hang them because they take forever and they shrink in the dryer.
  • Jeans have to be bought in a size or more smaller because over time, they stretch during wearing. There is nothing worse than wearing a pair of jeans with the rise falling down to your knees and the rear dragging on your thighs.
  • It can take days or weeks to find the brand and style of jean that fits correctly, and then once you’ve found it, the manufacturers change the dimensions and you can’t replace the perfect jean.
  • Even with spandex or other stretchy material woven into them, jeans are just plain uncomfortable after a while. The waistband is restrictive and the thick seams can rub against tender skin causing chafing and sore spots.
  • You have to have jeans in several lengths to fit your shoes. In fact, the average American woman has seven pairs of jeans in her closet.

Every time I hear Stacey and Clinton on What Not to Wear tell a client that she must buy a dark wash jean for her wardrobe (and then pay money to have it tailored to fit perfectly), it annoys me. I know that I am swayed by what they say, and I’m not the only one spending valuable time in my life searching for the right pair of jeans and then paying LOTS of money to purchase it. As much as I think they are on the right track with most of their ideas, their superciliousness about “mom jeans” bugs me. Frankly, I don’t think the loose- fit jeans are particularly flattering and they could be replaced with other sorts of trousers, and that leads us back to polyester pants.

I feel like we’ve created an environment that feels like Animal Farm.  Jeans good: Pants bad. People comment that you are overdressed if you show up to a casual party in simple black trousers and not jeans. The sea of expensive blue jeans worn in the middle school where I teach is testament to the peer pressure related to blue jeans. I have actually seen 14-year-olds wearing 7 for All Mankind jeans to school, and one of my students had a pair of $150 jeans stolen from the gym locker room. There is a thriving resale market for used jeans, and jeans were a black market staple in several communist countries. REALLY? We’re stealing jeans?  How did we come to this?

As for me, I’m going to happily purchase a new pair of casual trousers to wear on my vacation. They will be made of a modern synthetic and “might” have a bit of elastic in the waist. I will be able to wash them in the sink and hang them to dry overnight. They will be exactly the same size in the evening as they were in the morning when I put them on. The seat won’t drag and the knees won’t bag.

The ladies at my mom’s nursing home know a thing or two about practicality and I’m ready to learn the lesson from them. How about you?

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