Denim till it snows
Imagine, if you will, an Orwellian outdoors industry where doublespeak rules. Where canned, cookiecutter experiences are labeled “adventure”; where the inherent qualities of natural fabrics are marketed as “high tech”; and where “packed powder” is a frequent euphemism for machine-made glop. If you’re chuckling, you recognize we already live in this world. One where the phrase “alternative facts” is believed by millions to describe something real—though by definition it cannot exist. Only in such a world could the bold, life-affirming act of skiing in jeans be portrayed by the whims of hater populism as the rock-bottom of mountain style. Let’s make one thing clear: Skiing in jeans rules.
I’m not sure why the contrablishment adopted this view. Perhaps it originated in the crucible of Colorado snobbery directed at Texan visitors to that state’s mountain resorts. Folks who only ski three days a year aren’t wont to forgo utilitarian Wranglers that have served them well elsewhere, yet this hardly seems a reason for derision; in fact, it’s a paean to both DIY ingenuity and sustainability. Why not repurpose something “adequate” in lieu of better-suited garments that will barely be used but whose manufacturer might contribute to global warming, water pollution, and child labor? (I stretch, but you catch my drift.)
And yet, the ranks of ridicule rise. “Cheney Skis in Jeans” stickers and a “Romney Skis in Jeans” sign outside a 2012 presidential debate presaged the “Trump Skis in Jeans” lawn signs of 2016. But they all seek to make similar points: These people are odious, uncool in the extreme, possessed of not a shred of savvy or integrity, and ergo, manifestly unfit to lead. And while this logic is doubtless true, to appropriate jeans—the quintessential American garment invented in 1873 by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis—as a symbol of moral failing is grossly misguided.
The jeans/jerry connection, however, transcends politics. As reported by Britain’s Daily Mail: “While most ski fans shun pricey designer winter [clothing], donning a onesie or slipping on a pair of jeans to hit the slopes is severely frowned upon.” The paper cites a poll by Monarch Airlines that ranked the Top 5 Ski Fashion Faux Pas: Jeans (31 percent); Onesie (16 percent); Tracksuit (15 percent); Bum bags (7 percent); Lycra (6 percent). Clearly respondents had never skied in Eastern Europe—or Tennessee.
I skied in jeans as a kid because it’s what we did everything in. Whether tobogganing, playing hockey or skiing, there was no thought of something better to wear, only of adopting what we had to the purpose. Much as we got good at skiing the East’s manmade ice, we got good at skiing in jeans. You just needed the right layering. Early on this involved cowboy pajamas that might dangle from a cuff, but later it was long underwear tucked into socks, and because you generally couldn’t pull jeans over the top of a ski boot, gaiters were used to keep the boot-pant interface snow-free. I don’t remember being wet and cold (perhaps we expected it), but if the fabric absorbed the right amount of moisture and froze up, it became an impervious layer through which more snow couldn’t melt—the world’s first Gore-tex.
As teenagers, the pros of jeans clearly overshadowed cons: You didn’t have to change before skiing and you didn’t have to change after, meaning you were ready for après, a night out, or going to work. (They also acted as the more economical option.) The fact that your après, night out, or work pants might be soggy mattered not—they would dry. It was Zen minimalism.
In the late ’70s, I ski-bummed out West for a year without proper ski pants. Not a single person snickered behind me in a liftline. Today, though, egos are more fragile, and people wish they could ski in jeans. Proof ? Over the years, several outerwear companies have made ski pants of treated denim to look like jeans. The best came from Sweden, and there are no greater arbiters of fashion than the Swedes. If you prefer old school, the flannel-lined jeans still made by many companies work well.
Suppressed fashion isn’t the only reason we know skiing in jeans is cool. Colorado’s Grist Brewery produces “Skiing in Jeans Bock,” a badass lager whose graphics depict a badass activity. There’s even a skiing-in-jeans film tribute on Youtube with the music from Ginuwine, singing, “Looking good plenty tight/is there room, any more room for me/in those jeans?” And some have even turned the insult meme on its head. Take Trumpskisinjeans.org, for example: “We are skiers and riders in Summit County, Colorado, who want to help fund marginalized people our current president is defunding and mistreating.” The site’s moderators call it “passive resistance,” and place 100 percent of profits from the sale of T-shirts and stickers to Planned Parenthood, ACLU, Protect Our Winters, and the International Refugee Committee.
Here’s the hammer: The greatest ski magazine cover ever, the Powder 40th Anniversary issue, depicts a freewheeling, rad dude in a headband skiing in jeans and an open denim jacket, the look on his face, devoid of even an iota of irony, confirming he has no idea that he’s the coolest skier of all time.
Far from a semiotic saying, “I am weak,” skiing in jeans flatly states: “I don’t give a shit.” And in an age of doublespeak, not giving a shit might really mean you care more deeply about the experience than its accouterments—a decidedly radical statement.
Spencer Harkins is caked and baked. Photo: John Howland