True blue: how to fall in love with jeans again

·6-min read

The tracksuit era is over, and denim is back. But with a dizzying number of styles – and claims of sustainability to wade through – which will you pick?

The tracksuit era began – as every history student will learn from now on – on 11 March 2020, the day that the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and the age of lockdowns commenced. The details of its demise are, as yet, not officially verified – but they say that journalism is the first draft of history, so I’m calling it for 31 October 2021, when the dystopian seaweed-green tracksuits of Squid Game became the go-to Halloween costume.

So now it is time to get back into your jeans. I don’t just mean getting them done up, although there is no doubt that may be a little tricky after two turgid years spent feeling dissatisfied with life while in eyeballing distance of the fridge. No, the real challenge is getting your head back into jeans, not your waistline. The most telling marker of the casualisation of our wardrobes is that jeans, which used to be what we wore to dress down, can now feel like too much effort. It’s not that I’m saying our standards have slipped, but – well, actually, that is exactly what I’m saying.

There is nothing more satisfying to reach for in the morning than your favourite denims. Jeans are timeless and democratic, because while silhouettes, colours and washes come and go, everyone who owns a pair of jeans makes them their own. To look at someone who is wearing a pair that they love and that suit them is like looking at the perfect black and white portrait: candid, but flattering.

Sex on legs … Bruce Springsteen on the cover of his album Born in the USA.
Sex on legs … Bruce Springsteen on the cover of his album Born in the USA. Photograph: Blueee/Alamy

This year’s Golden Globes ceremony had no red carpet, but it was a fashion moment that has turbocharged the denim revival. Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, one of the night’s big winners, is set in rural Montana in the 1920s, hinged between the dust-and-horses iconography of the cinematic western tradition and the modernity and raw energy of the 20th century as it begins to roar to top speed. Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil acts out masculine swagger in broken-in jeans with chaps, but it is Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter who steals the fashion show. Slight and gawky in the stiff new jeans that his mother has bought him so that he will fit in on the ranch, he looks like a boy soldier in new uniform.

In westerns, jeans stand for real-world toughness – resilience, to use the buzzword of the hour – but also for the American dream. The brass rivets that are a feature of every traditional pair glint like the nuggets for which goldrushers once panned the rivers of the western states. Also, jeans represent sex – as they always have and always will. (Think of the album cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, with the Boss’s jeans-clad back view standing in front of the stripes of the flag.) Resilience, fantasy, adventure and sex appeal: it is little wonder, really, that jeans are a style icon.

The Power of the Dog is the latest and most lauded in a new wave of westerns – from News of the World to the very stylish The Harder They Fall – that are seducing us back to denim as a nostalgic, easy way to dress. If we had fallen out of love with jeans, it was at least partly because they got way too complicated. In the decade since the skinny jean began to fall from grace, the question of what jeans are “in” has become vexed. I have lost count of the number of clever women who have taken me aside to earnestly, quietly enquire whether it was still OK to wear skinnies, or what on earth a barrel leg or a peg leg was, or whether mum jeans are actually chic or a joke in which being a mum is the punchline.

Designers and denim brands became embroiled in never-ending face-offs over high rise v ultra high rise, over wide leg or bootcut, patchworked or embroidered, indigo or bleached. Writing about what jeans to wear began to feel like reporting on an increasingly labyrinthine and remote civil war, in which no clear victor ever seemed to emerge and right and wrong had become impossible to judge. And jeans should not be that hard. They should be wardrobe route one: an easy option that you don’t have to waste time thinking about.

Now they are coming back into focus, and without the hipster squabbling over what actually is the difference between a mum jean and a dad jean. Instead, the new denim style icons are stone-cold classics. Celine’s most recent Paris fashion week featured jeans that looked easy and timeless. Think Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Marilyn Monroe between takes on the set of The Misfits, photographed by Eve Arnold in rolled-hem jeans. The late, great Nick Kamen in that laundrette advert. Janet Jackson in the 1990s, in ripped jeans and a crop top. Elle Macpherson doing the noughties Holland Park school run in jeans and a blazer. This is a rich bloodline that traces back to the rugged utilitarianism of the western.

But denim is a “thirsty” fabric to work with, requiring large quantities of water and energy during production. A pair of jeans is likely to have four or five times the carbon footprint of a T-shirt, because of the fabric’s heavier weight. The environmental impact is multilayered, and brands are addressing it via different strategies. Reformation uses non-hazardous low-impact chemical dyes to ensure worker safety and to reduce water usage. Its best-selling Cynthia high-rise straight leg jeans require 685 gallons (2.5 cubic metres) less water to make than conventional jeans. Frame has developed jeans made from biodegradable denim and thread, with rivets replaced by buttons and fastenings that can be removed, so the garment will fully disintegrate if buried at the end of its life. White Stuff uses 98% recycled water and 85% air drying in its manufacturing process, to cut energy usage. (Its very wearable Robyn barrel jeans, at £55, are well worth a look.) Nudie has pioneered Repair Shops, to normalise and ease the process of repairing and reworking jeans instead of replacing them.

Scattergun approaches to the sustainability problem may perplex consumers, but there are ethical shopping strategies that everyone can agree on: buy fewer clothes, buy vintage where possible, minimise washing, and wear garments for longer. And on all of these metrics, jeans can score surprisingly highly. You only need one pair that you love and they will work with everything. Vintage is a brilliant way to shop for denim, not least because jeans change shape in their first few washes, so it is only when you try on a preworn pair that you can get a true sense of how they will fit. We have all known the disappointment of jeans that look good in the fitting room but slump into a saggy mess within weeks. Refreshing with an eco-friendly laundry spray and spot-cleaning is a quicker and less environmentally damaging way to care for them than overwashing. And best of all: jeans improve with age. My desert-island jeans, a pair of straight leg Levi’s 501s, were already vintage when I found them last year, and look even better now than they did then. If we fall back in love with our jeans, let’s hope it is for ever.