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Making A Fashion Misstatement: Why Do People Buy Pre-Ripped Jeans?

Pre-torn jeans are back, and once again, fashion sense is overriding common sense. (Haley Phelps/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
Pre-torn jeans are back, and once again, fashion sense is overriding common sense. (Haley Phelps/Unsplash)

As anyone who’s seen me arrive at work in mismatched sandals, or wearing a peasant blouse made from Indian bedspread fabric woven on one of Gandhi’s looms, or in my flowered skirt with a hemline from 19never — as any one of these horrified witnesses can testify, I am not a fashion maven.

I never have been.

The hairdo in my school photograph from 7th grade looks like Claire Underwood’s would if she’d stuck her forked tongue into an electric socket while standing in a pool of water deep enough to submerge her 12-inch stiletto heels. In a more recent picture taken of me in a sculpture garden, I can easily be mistaken for a statue jointly crafted by Rubens and Andy Warhol, both of them on acid. Starting when my daughters were about 3 and 8 respectively, it was they who sternly told me “You’re not going out of the house like that.”

I’m mystified by pre-torn jeans.

So okay, I stipulate that my core competency is not in picking or accessorizing clothes. But I am nonetheless observant about them. Like German, fashion is a language I don’t understand but am endlessly amused (and yes, a little frightened) by. Just as a words like Vergangenheitsbewältigung or Schwarzwälderkirschtortenlieferantenhut have highly precise meanings (“inability to cope with the past” and “the hat worn by the black forest cherry cake delivery person” respectively*), I know that a pelvis-high gingham skirt, a leather blouse with more flounces than a colony of scallops, a macramé belt made from recycled Venetian blind pull-cords and a maze of Chinese tattoos on the left thigh signals something very specific about the class, outlook and demographics of the wearer (even if I don’t know exactly what).

However, I’m mystified by pre-torn jeans.

Acid washes and other manufacturing techniques designed to make dungarees looked distressed — these I understand. After all, who wants the tedium of wearing a pair of jeans multiple times if you can just buy a pair that already looks worn? And not just worn, but actively worn, as if while in them, the wearer had done something exotic and unfathomable like … work. But meticulously rent pants? Why pay a premium for those? Why buy them at all?

Last week, while on a tram up to the Getty Museum in a toney suburb of Los Angeles, I studied the attire of the couple sitting opposite my husband and me. The man’s garb was standard Rich Dude — tailored khaki pants, knit blue shirt with a prominent Izod logo on the pocket and a Rolex the size of a King Cobra on his left wrist. His wife wore many delicate gold chains around her tanned neck, a gauzy blouse too complicated to even try to describe and mustard-colored flats of achingly soft Italian leather on her feet.

But it was her pre-torn jeans that mesmerized me. Carefully shredded at the knees, they were a marvel of apparel engineering. The slender bundles of threads traversing each bare patella looked like miniature prison bars, and I wondered what kept them from unraveling. Was there perhaps a cylinder of tiny stitches keeping each fray of fabric intact? Or had the filaments of denim had been chemically reinforced to withstand not only bending and laundering, but an asteroid’s impact? How did they test the quality of the jeans? And most baffling of all, why did the manufacturer make them in the first place?

With any luck, coffee-stained tee shirts will be the next big thing, and at last, I’ll be a fashion maverick.

I was going to ask “Why did she wear them,” but I think I know the answer. We are a genetically diverse species. Just as some base pair on one of my chromosomes has programmed me to be visually attentive to others and blind to myself, hers directs her to seek novelty and display new plumage at any cost. (Well actually, not at any cost. I suspect that the price of the display has to exceed most people’s weekly income. Otherwise, why bother?)

So I’m just going to let this go. Like past trends, pre-torn jeans will pass from being in vogue, and I look forward to their replacement. With any luck, coffee-stained tee shirts will be the next big thing, and at last, I’ll be a fashion maverick.

Author's note: *I must thank my erudite librarian friend, Kevin O’Kelly, for reliably entertaining me with funny German words, bizarre personal ads from the London Review of Books, and obscure facts that are occasionally even more bizarre than the highly publicized ones.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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