Ilove all kinds of funky, weird fashion. But I did hope that by 2018, the irritating trend for deliberately torn, or “distressed”, jeans would finally come to an end. No: it’s still ubiquitous. I sat on a Dublin bus the other week opposite a young woman with perfectly shaped eyebrows, carrying a designer shopping bag and reading Colm Tóibín’s latest oeuvre: and on her lower limbs the familiar sight of jeans deliberately ripped in several places. Stylish? Or just affluent women mocking the poor by wearing clothes, often made in Bangladesh or the Philippines, that have been subjected to deliberate tearing, holing or scraping.
Denims are either ripped by hand — the posh designer labels do it that way — or by machine, more cheaply. By hand, it’s labour-intensive and takes some hours (so Gucci can justify a label of €799). If done by machine, it involves a form of sandblasting which can expose garment workers to silicosis, a lung disease also associated with asbestos.
Being judgemental about what other people wear is unbecoming, and I try to rein in any tendency to purse the lips in disapproval. Instead, I look for an explanation of why the fashion for torn clothes was so successful, and why, too, it has lasted so long — it’s been with us since at least 2010.
Some fashionistas trace it back, further, to the 1990s’ just-off-the-battlefield ‘grunge’ look. And then anything embraced by celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Jodie Whittaker — the new Dr Who — or Lily James will have a following.
The novelist Amanda Craig, who has featured the torn-jeans scenario in one of her books (in The Lie of the Land, a guy taken for a tramp in slashed trousers is really an ageing rock star), says that it’s just a modern version of Queen Marie-Antoinette play-acting as a simple shepherdess: people who can afford high-class couture choosing instead “prole chic”.
One commentator, Mike Rowe, claims that torn-jeans style is intended to “foster the illusion of work”. It’s “costume for wealthy people who see work as ironic”. Nola Jacinta Maria suggests on a Facebook posting that “distressed” apparel is a boast that “skills such as repair sewing, patching and darning are lost arts”.
But maybe we shouldn’t over-interpret appearance. Maybe slashed clothes don’t “mean” anything at all. It’s a look that’s in vogue, and a slash at the knees can be flexible for joints. There have been many more harmful crazes in fashion history. Society ladies in the 1890s had ribs removed surgically so they could conform to the hour- glass shape demanded at the time. In the 1920s, women had double mastectomies on healthy breasts so as to achieve the boyish, flat-chested look then admired. Ripped trousers are small beer, by that measure.
People aren’t necessarily making a “statement” when they choose what to wear. Maybe there’s a generational misunderstanding around all that, too. The recent thong controversy in a rape case revealed contrasting mindsets on dress interpretation. A (female) barrister suggested that a young girl sporting a thong might be seen as game for a sexual encounter. But younger women perceive no such connection. They feel entitled to wear anything they fancy without it being a form of signalling their intentions.
Perhaps the generation mismatch was ever thus. When I was about 15, I made to go out to a party wearing fishnet stockings. My mother and two aunts were almost in tears begging me not to sally forth “looking like a prostitute”. They were seeing a form of apparel as a dress code for selling sex. I just thought fishnets dead glamorous — and maybe gratifyingly attention-getting.
In our more fluid world, there’s more confusion around “dress codes”. There used to be rules and regulations about what you could and couldn’t wear, and it was great fun breaking them. It took time for women to be accepted wearing trouser suits in some locations, and for years there was a battle at Ascot over how much flesh was acceptable. But increasingly, individuals tend to wear what they like, and often they don’t attach all that much importance to their choice.
Daft styles are just for fun. When Meghan Markle was recently seen sporting the “French tuck” — when half your shirt or blouse is left hanging outside your trousers, with the other half tucked in — it drove some commentators apoplectic. I thought it quite amusing: a visual rebuttal of perfect neatness and symmetry.
Over-criticism of what people wear can be stuffy and unkind. Yet the torn-jeans look still strikes me as destructive and contemptuous. I take some comfort from a summing-up by Aine O’Donoghue, a young Irish fashion designer working in London, who notes that distressed jeans “have had a remarkably strong place in the fashion industry, both high-end and high street” for some time now. It was “a statement against the establishment” when it started.
But “seeing it as a fashion trend now, at the price point it is, seems disjointed. It seems ignorant instead of a clever nod to its history.” Perhaps this means that by 2019, at last, this maddening style will have run its course.