Washed, pre-distressed, ripped and destroyed denim is certainly back. After a few years where the predominant trend in denim was unwashed, dark and slim, the last few seasons have seen a welcome diversity re-enter the fold. Whether one attributes the return of washed out jeans to the 90’s revival that has also seen more than one brand send flannel shirts tied about their models’ waists down the runway, or to the advent of normcore and similarly subversive trends, the take-away is the same.
Like many revivals, today’s washed jeans aren’t quite what Obama wore when he threw out the first pitch.
Instead, they are cut slimmer, more artfully distressed. And unlike the acid and stone washes of yesteryear, today’s jeans are not uniformly faded. They are selectively sanded and torn to mimic years of natural wear and tear. Distressing techniques have come a long way, but as you may have guessed from this article’s title, I’m not here to advocate for washed denim. As great as this new breed of denim is, I’m instead advocating for the old stand-by, a pair of raw jeans you wear, love, and eventually destroy yourself.
Wabi Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic that revels in the inherent imperfections of the world. Under the lens of Wabi Sabi, pre-distressed, hand torn denim lacks imperfection. Because it is done by design, washed denim is perfectly imperfect. These designed jeans lack the entropy and continual evolution of a pair worn from the beginning.
Applying a japanese aesthetic to an article of clothing originally designed for miners in the California Gold Rush of the 19th century at first seems a stretch. But, like so many things Americana, we would not have the durable selvedge denim that is usually sold raw and wears so well were it not for Japan. When American manufacturing and the demand for denim began to ramp up in the 1950s, factories had to replace the traditional shuttle looms on which the densely knit selvedge denim was spun. Japanese manufacturers purchased these shuttle looms from American factories on the cheap, and like their interpretation of Ivy style, began to manufacture high-quality fabrics for use in Americana designs.
The selvedge and raw denim craze in the US began in earnest in 2009 with the workwear boom. Brands like Filson, Barbour, and Red Wing, renowned for their heritage and quality manufacturing, served as an entree into style for many men. These brands stood for something and had a history that was fetishized by many in a way that overshadowed their interest in clothing. Instead of buying a pair of Red Wing work boots for how they looked, you could be said to be investing in quality, supporting American Labor. In retrospect, heritage clothing felt as much like building a collection as it did building a wardrobe. Wearing a pair of selvedge jeans was more about the fades and the quality of manufacturing than it was the style of the jeans. Often worn with a big upturned cuff to show off the distinctive strip of old-loomed selvedge denim, it was a sartorial secret handshake between those in-the-know.
Since the Americana boom, the tell-tale stripe of selvedge has been applied to all manner of pants, from fast-fashion jeans to artisanal trousers. But that doesn’t mean that a pair of “raw” unwashed jeans, that you take the time to break in yourself shouldn’t still form the foundation of a wardrobe. At the beginning of the process they are slightly rigid. But they are also a clean inky blue that lends them a polish and sophistication you don’t often see in a pair of jeans. As they break in and soften they will lighten up slightly, taking on a beautiful hue, neither too dressy nor too casual. In the first few washes, these jeans have a great versatility, sitting as comfortably with a t-shirt and sneakers as a pair of chukkas and a sweater or blazer. As they continue to break down and fade, tear and get patched, they only grow more comfortable and more interesting. Although more casual in nature once they lose the bulk of the original indigo dye, the result is a beautiful silver blue. You have a pair of jeans whose fades and wear patterns reflect the contours of your body. No designer can re-create this work.
Returning to the concept of Wabi Sabi, a pair of unwashed jeans is a beautiful representation of the tag often attributed to the concept: “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. Rather than viewing a pristine pair of jeans as something to be protected, treat them as something to be worn down. Don’t dance around them the way you would your nice clothes, even if you’ve spent as much on a good pair of jeans as you have on anything else in your closet. Wear them to that concert, the big meeting you have, and the drinks afterwards. Run errands, change your light bulbs. Live your life in your jeans. After all, these were pants for miners and laborers. If they could dig for life’s fortune in them, I’m sure they can handle your Saturday night, no matter how wild.