Hello, and thank you for tuning into this week’s episode of True Style, where my goal is not to tell you what to wear but to help you figure out what you want to wear. My name is Lakyn Carlton and I will be your host today and for the foreseeable future.
Today’s pod top, as you could probably deduce from the title, is all about denim.
The average person owns not one, not two, but 7 pairs of jeans, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone, anywhere, that hasn’t worn a pair at least once in their lives. I, personally used to have an affinity for colored, super skinny jeans, back in my MySpace days. But, while I don’t actually own any now, nor do I wear pants at all, really, I can acknowledge that they are a necessary staple for many.
On May 20, 1873, the first version of what has come to be known as the blue jean was patented by Jacob Davis, a tailor, and his partner, someone you may have heard of: Levi Strauss, who at the time was a fabric wholesaler in San Francisco. They were a simple, straight cut pant made of cotton twill that had been dyed naturally using a plant called indigo, with a button fly and, most notably, copper rivets at the corners of the pockets to prevent rips, a feature that miners, the original market for the new jeans, had specifically asked for. In 1890, right as the original patent expired, which allowed companies like Oshkosh and Wrangler to market their own versions of jeans, Levi began selling the still classic 501, with the now iconic double rows of orange stitching meant to further reinforce pockets and seams. It took about 50 years for the button fly to be replaced with a zipper, and for belt loops to be added.
While jeans were standard issue for war workers during World War 1, it wasn’t until the 30s that they really became a part of the cultural zeitgeist by the cowboy movies, and sexy cowboy actors of the time, mainly John Wayne and Gary Cooper. The first pair of women’s jeans wasn’t sold until 1934. But, it didn’t take long for Vogue to give them the seal of approval, calling them “western chic” and running photos of glamorous actresses like Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard wearing them both casually and for photo ops,
officially making them a coveted wardrobe essential for the everyday woman.
In 1942, denim itself—that is, as a textile—officially became fashionable outside of jeans when Claire McCardell—who I’ve talked about before on the show—sold 75,000 denim popover dresses, ushering in a new era of relaxed, casual, and accessible womenswear. Over the following decades, jeans have gone from simple blue pants meant to take a beating to symbols of everything from status to counterculture to liberation.
Thanks to bad boy celebs like James Dean and Marlon Brando, jeans came to be known as the uniform of the anti-establishment youth. Around this time, a simple straight-legged boot cut was the norm, worn of course with the newly normalized T-shirt, which, until then had almost exclusively been worn underneath quote-unquote proper clothes. But, denim styles are ever- evolving, and, in the 60s and 70s, the straight cut was replaced with more fitted ones that flared at the knee, though they still carried the spirit of rebellion of the previous decade and featured heavily in both peace-loving hippie circles and the women’s liberation movement.
In 1976, jeans hit the runway for the first time with Calvin Klein’s debut of designer denim, and we watched as brands fought to create the newest, hottest looks with new techniques in dyeing such as acid washing, and adding spandex to create much skinnier silhouettes. In the 90s, a new trend was born, something we had never seen before: suddenly, it was cool for jeans to look like they had been worn for years to the point of basically falling apart, but without the effort of actually wearing them. Our parents called it depressing.
Actually, it’s called distressing.
Okay, it’s a little inaccurate to call distressing a “new” trend in the 90s. We’d seen distressed jeans as far back as the late 70s, mostly as a part of the British punk subculture that had emerged as a rejection of Margaret Thatcher’s extremely restrictive reign over Britain. While ripped jeans themselves had started to become associated with the poor working class who couldn’t afford to replace their clothes as often, they soon evolved into a symbol of solidarity with said working class, and eventually became a desired look all on their own, with DIY deconstruction serving as a statement of revolt against the establishment. But fashion is no stranger to the commodification of movements and cultures so, as time went on, and brands looked more and more to the youth as tastemakers, distressing turned into just one more way
to justify insane price tags for basic cotton pants.
But how exactly did so many brands take normal wear and tear, and push it to the extreme while also mass producing thousands of garments a day?
For larger, more quantity-oriented fashion companies, they use a machine called the 2500W Laser Sharp Denim Abrasion system. Each pair is secured to a metal frame, and the pattern is pre-programmed. The lasers are so precise they can burn through only the top layer of threads if so desired.
For higher end, more quality-oriented fashion brands, however, hand-ripping is still fairly common. There are a variety of tools used in manual distressing such as pumice stones, and a drill tool called a Dremel, which uses sandpaper to grind holes into jeans. Remember when sandblasting was all the rage? Did you know that that effect is made by literally blasting sand out of an air gun? The more you know.
But hand-ripping is slowly but surely going away, as even luxury brands prioritize speed to market, as well as look for ways to cut the cost of production wherever they can. Distressing by hand can add 30 minutes to an hour to the production of a pair of jeans, and require an entire team to carry out, whereas lasers can do the most intricate designs in as little as 90 seconds, and require only a picture to go on.
Levi’s announced its plan to replace human workers with machines in 2018, claiming it’s ultimately better for the environment. While that is partially true, especially considering some distressing effects are achieved through the use of harmful chemicals, it’s a bit disingenuous when you look at the bigger picture. Is it really a net-positive to effectively eliminate thousands of jobs, while also scaling up production to nearly 75 million pairs of jeans per year? Is that really sustainable?
If fashion is one of the most environmentally damaging industries—and it is— denim, specifically, is one aspect of fashion that contributes the most to that harm. Just one pair of jeans requires an absolutely astonishing 998 gallons of water, and the growing of cotton accounts for 16% of all insecticides and about 7% of all herbicides used worldwide, which leads to the hospitalization of over 1 million agricultural workers per year due to acute pesticide poisoning. Not to mention the pollution of soil and water systems.
Fortunately, cotton can be recycled, but the process is expensive. Even
worse, with the ubiquitousness of stretch denim, some jeans can’t be recycled at all, or even upcycled—that is, repurposed into other things—as spandex and lycra are essentially plastic, and break down in ways that 100% cotton does not, compromising the integrity and longevity of anything you make from it.
There are plenty of new denim brands with a focus on sustainability, such as Outland, and Boyish, but, I personally believe the most sustainable denim is second- and even third-hand denim.
Regardless of how poorly stocked or just uninspiring your local thrift store might be, you can all but guarantee racks and racks of jeans.
“But, Lakyn,” I hear you screaming, “I can barely find my size in new jeans, you expect me to comb through Goodwill looking for a pair that fits?” And no, I actually don’t. Let’s talk about jean sizing.
It’s no secret that women’s sizing makes no sense whatsoever. Simply put, the majority of clothes from the majority of brands are just never going to be a perfect fit for you or me or anyone else, regardless of your size. But jeans are a unique sort of problem.
Most jeans are designed for a very specific set of proportions. Generally, if your waist is exactly 10 inches smaller than the widest part of your butt, you’re good to go. But, most of us do not fit into that narrow window. Personally, my butt is about 14 inches bigger than my waist, meaning if I were to buy a pair of jeans tomorrow, I’d most likely have to go up 4 inches in the waist to get a perfect fit in my hips, and have them tailored. And that’s exactly what I recommend for you.
Taking in a pair of jeans at the waist band, can range from $15 to $60, depending on a number of factors. You can find secondhand jeans for as low as 99 cents at Value Village, or starting around $7 on an online thrift store like Thred Up. Compare that to all the money you’ve wasted on jeans that don’t fit, or on pairs with spandex that started degrading the second you put them on for the first time, and it’s a bargain.
That said, if you haven’t got the time, there are denim brands like Decade Studio, who is not our sponsor for today. Decade specializes in what they call the Ratio Fit, which utilizes not just your waist and hips but also the difference between the two to determine your size and get you the perfect
pair of jeans that contour your body the way you want, without having to add stretch which, as I mentioned before, can compromise the longevity of your denim. They’re a bit pricier than what most of us are used to, but, imagine, only needing one pair of jeans for the rest of your life.
Of course, sizing is not the only factor in finding your perfect pair. Now, there are plenty of articles and stylists out there that will tell you how to find the most quote-unquote flattering jeans for your body type, but I don’t believe in body types. Or, rather, I don’t believe they should dictate how you dress, especially considering most body type based style tips are based on the idea that everyone wants to appear taller and thinner.
I personally prefer to focus on your personal ideals, instead of a one style fits all approach. I call it Dressing For Your Body Goals.
Let’s jump right in with one of the toughest body types to find denim for: the girl with ample hips. If your goal is to enhance your hips, or, create more of an hourglass figure, I recommend skinny or straight legged jeans. No, they’re not cheugy, regardless of what zoomers on TikTok have to say. I’d go with a high rise to snatch in that waistline, and on top, go for tops with big sleeves or some sort of interesting feature on the shoulders. If you want to conceal your hips, however, and create more of an even silhouette, try wide legged jeans with more of a mid-rise, and boxier tops that skim the top of your hips.
If you’re tall, and want to look even taller, go for jeans that start to flare around the knee. Low rise will also elongate your torso. If you’re on the shorter side and want to look taller, try a cropped, slim pair. The little peek of ankle will give the illusion of longer legs.
For my top heavy girls like me who want to balance out their figure, especially a short torso, I’d also suggest wide legged or flared jeans, anything with a bit of volume on the bottom. And while I do recommend a lower rise, you can also get a lengthening effect by French tucking your tops into a mid-rise.
If you want to create the illusion of curves but you have a more rectangular shape, look for fitted, flared pants. If you want the illusion of a bigger booty, try mid rise jeans without back pockets for a bit of a lift, with shirts that are cropped but not too cropped.
At the end of the day, jean styles, and, clothing trends in general, are always
changing, so, rather than focusing on what’s in right now, I’m always gonna recommend you focus on what’s in for you personally. And, maybe, just maybe, what’s in for you isn’t denim at all.
When I was brainstorming this episode with a friend, she posed a very valid question: with everything that’s happened over the past year, with so many people being pushed inside, and even more being pushed to the frontlines where comfort and function has been prioritized over style across the board, are jeans dead?
In the early 2000s, when the most popular jeans were both prohibitively expensive for the average person and prioritized super flat stomachs and tiny butts, we saw a shift away from denim and towards things like leggings, joggers, and yoga pants. We also had jeggings. It was a dark time. But the pendulum swung back as jeans got, well, more fun. We had colored jeans, destroyed jeans, super stretch jeans that might as well be leggings, printed jeans, even cargo jeans for one weird season. As thrifting and more quote- unquote alternative styles hit the mainstream, we got mom jeans and eventually boyfriend jeans and cutoff jeans worn with tights and Litas. Remember that?
But even now, with so many styles available, some of the fashion conscious are finally jumping on the wave I’ve been on since 2009 and saying no to denim altogether.
I actually don’t think you need to change your style all that much to divest from denim, but, Teresa in Oakland wants to know how to start moving toward a more elevated casual style that isn’t just jeans and T-shirts.
First, you need to figure out what exactly your go-to is. It’s not hard, it’s just what you throw on when you don’t want to think about an outfit. For most people, that’s some sort of top and some sort of jean. But what I want you to focus on is what tops you go for. For me, it’s usually a blouse or button down. Usually, I’ll tie it up or French tuck it. So, to go on the bottom, instead of jeans, for a simple elevation, you could do a wide legged pant, or even some nice joggers.
With T-shirts, I’d definitely go for a satin midi skirt, maybe even with some pleats, especially if you like your tops more cropped.
For sweaters, I’d go for a slim pant or a wrap skirt, or, if you don’t live in
California, look for sweater knit skirts that are heavier and warmer.
If you’re more of a sporty type who wears hoodies and sweatshirts, try a faux leather pant or even a men’s suit pant or trouser, and don’t shy away from prints or non-neutral colors.
All of these could be worn with sneakers, or, really, whatever casual shoe you typically go for, though, I personally love a mule.
Well, that does it for this All-Denim episode of True Style. I hope you learned something today! Tune in next week where I break down the 21 Questions to Find Your Style. You can find those questions on the True Style Substack