Classic denim is beloved because it can be whatever you want it to be
Words: James Nash | Images: Rex Features
Look around you. At any given moment, there’s bound to be more than just a handful of people wearing a pair of skinny jeans. Since soon after Hedi Slimane took over the creative direction of Dior Homme, they have become the ubiquitous pants of anyone even vaguely fashionable. By now, your dad probably owns a pair.
But fashion is fickle: The super-slim style is becoming increasingly scarce among those who stay on the cusp of coming trends. Those in the know have begun to return to more relaxed silhouettes, which bespeak a more romantic era – and are comfier to boot. Not only that, but there’s been a return to the original values that denim represented, as opposed to the spandex-cotton blend atrocities that were popularised in skinny jean construction.
Nothing in the history of clothing has had as great an impact on pop culture, and perhaps society as a whole, as the classic fit pair of jeans. From the romantic ideals of the old American West, to the anti-conformist aesthetic of James Dean and Marlon Brando in Hollywood cinema, they’ve come to represent what was needed from the people of any given era. In the same way that indigo dye fades, leaving an imprint of the wearer’s life, so too does denim take on an imprint of the times. Yet it isn’t merely the material, nor the dye, that has taken on such a profound place in our sartorial heritage. The fit itself, high-waisted and straight-legged, represents an ideal: clothing as a practical expression of yourself, fitting the wearer’s needs and not wanting to do anything more. Just you and your denim, the quintessential coupling. Comfort personified. This romantic place denim holds in society’s heart comes from its ability to fit anyone’s wardrobe.
Take this example: Levi’s didn’t make denim for women until 1934, so they simply wore the men’s jeans instead. Thus “boyfriend” jeans, as they’re now known, were born and women still emulate this look to this day, likely over a century later. Skinnies were lauded for their supposed androgyny, but classic denim had done it well before.
Of course there is no example of classic denim more famous than the Levi’s 501, the father of modern jeans. It wasn’t ‘til 1890 that these denims were known by this name, but the first pair Levi’s produced were made in the same style: high-waisted with a button fly and straight legs. A piece of modern history, the 501 remains relatively unchanged, a testament to the longevity of classic denim. Trends come and go as quickly as one notices them, but the 501, and classic denim, is forever. One of the few instances of economic downturn from Levi’s came in the late 90s. People wanted absurdly baggy jeans, inspired by hip-hop culture, and Levi’s refused to cave to the then immensely popular trend. In retrospect, their stubbornness on this matter might have done much for the brand’s integrity in the long run.
Because that’s what the 501 and classic denim represents – a mentality: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This mentality has found its home in the minds of the masses. From cowboys at the turn of a century, braving unfriendly frontiers, to teenage kids in tumultuous times, looking to stand out and speak up, it has been a piece of history time and time again. Whatever era you might draw inspiration from, you can feel safe knowing that 501s were a part of it somewhere, worn by someone.
In this internet-driven world we live in, it’s far too easy to fall victim to the winds of change, ushering in ‘the next big thing’. Thankfully this trend reminds us all of our roots, and just how easy it can be to look good. All you have to do is be comfortable, and who does that better than your favourite pair of jeans?