MARY KENNY

Irish Independent - Weekend Magazine - - Column -

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.

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