THE MEANING OF JEANS
IN TODAY’S FASHION BUSINESS, EVERYTHING FROM SWEATERS TO NYLON PANTS ARE CALLED “JEANS.” DO SHOPPERS UNDERSTAND? DO THEY CARE?

Byline: Scott Malone

What do we mean when we say “jeans,” anyway?
The answer would seem simple: five-pocket, straight-legged denim pants. But do they have to be indigo, or does black denim count? What about leather?
Jeans as a concept is not a static thing. The crisp, snug-fitting, dark indigo jeans of the Fifties; the washed-out, ripped bell-bottoms of the late Sixties and early Seventies, and the oversized looks adopted by inner-city youth starting in the early Nineties are all jeans, but very different jeans.
Those looks and more have their place in the jeans world. Spend any time looking at the jeanswear collections of recent seasons and you’ll see the jeans concept continues to expand, lately to include polyester pants cut slim like traditional dungarees, skirts, sweaters, T-shirts and, in some cases, nylon cargo pants.
But while there is diversity within the jeans world, there are also some powerful common themes, observers and industry executives agree. The most common is comfort — but perceived as much more than a mere physical sensation.
“To me, when people say jeans, it is a state of mind. There is an easiness to it,” said Devin Burt, creative director at Levi Strauss & Co. of San Francisco. “If someone says to me, ‘I’m wearing my jeans,’ it definitely puts a framework or aesthetic around what that would be.”
David Wolfe, creative director of New York retail buying organization The Doneger Group, agreed that the idea of jeanswear is a broad one.
“There’s a jeans concept that really goes way beyond the garment,” he said. “All over the world, the word ‘jeans’ means an American approach to style. As the fashion lifestyle in our time continues to grow more and more informal, the concept of jeans just embraces more and more.”
Indeed, consumers’ enduring emotional attachment to jeans has proven an attractive lure to businesses, who’ve continued to expand the “jeanswear” category in an effort to wring more money out of the market.
“Outside the industry, people still think blue denim means jeanswear, he said. “I don’t think they pay any attention to what we consider jeans, anyway. That’s just the industry talking a secret language.”
But consumers’ visceral relationship to jeans is clear: Today, pretty much everybody wears them.
“It’s almost a universally accepted fashion statement,” said Allen Kemp, design director at Silver Jeans of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
That hasn’t always been the case, of course. Until the Fifties, jeans were essentially the uniform of the working class. And while their durability and comfort eventually made them an integral part of the American wardrobe, it took time for them to become objects of desire, particularly for those past their teenage years.
“I remember when jeans became a fashion garment in the late Fifties, when James Dean and Marlon Brando suddenly made jeans seem cool,” said Wolfe. “I grew up in rural Ohio, and we wore jeans, but we called them ‘dungarees’ and wore them because they didn’t wear out. But once they got sex appeal, there was no holding them back.”
While jeans began their journey from boring work clothes to coveted fashion products in the Fifties, it took a couple of decades for their appeal to spread to all segments of the population, contends fashion historian Valerie Steele, chief curator of the museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
“The Seventies are the moment when jeans were totally incorporated into the fashion system,” she said. “That’s when everyone from grandmothers to babies started wearing them.”
That version of the jeans trend, among people who until then were not its traditional adherents, was spawned at least in part by the entry of designer names into the segment, including Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein. But just as important as the designer logos was the new fits that they brought to the party, contended Silver’s Kemp.
Virtually from their genesis until the 1970s, jeans lines were dominated by men’s sizes. While women’s jeans had been sporadically produced as early as the western-wear craze of the Thirties, it was the designers of the Seventies who really refined the idea of jeans cut for women’s bodies.
“There were a lot of problems initially,” Kemp said. “They referred to everything in a women’s fit as it related to a men’s fit. You had a three-inch pinch, or a two-inch pinch, which took a men’s fit and pinched in the waist. But there was always a problem of them gapping at the waist or being too tight at the hips.”
Developing fits specifically for women started the ball rolling on today’s even wider variety of fits: tight for those who like them tight, several gradations of roomy for those who prefer comfort, huge for those who want room for company in their jeans.
People wear their jeans differently, explained Angelo LaGrega, president of VF Corp.’s mass market jeanswear division, which includes the Wrangler, Riders and Chic brands.
LaGrega’s business targets women with two sets of needs. One target customer “wants a flattering product, he said. “The first thing she does when she tries on a jean is run to look in the mirror. She wants to look attractive in those jeans, and that is a major motivator. The opposite end of the spectrum is the consumer who wants to feel so comfortable when she puts them on, to have a Saturday-morning kind of feeling.”
Just as jeans can mean different things to different customers in terms of fit, they also occupy a variety of fashion niches depending on the customer’s lifestyle.
“Jeans are either very casual or can be dressy, depending on the occasion and point of view of the wearer,” said Beverly Rice, senior vice president for merchandising strategy at Jacobson’s, a 24-store Indianapolis-based specialty chain. “Older customers are more inclined to wear jeans for leisure and younger customers are more inclined to see them as all-purpose.”
But why do so many people want to wear jeans?
Because they’re associated with youth and sexiness, most observers agree.
“Denim is more than just an American way of dressing, it’s a billboard for individuality,” said designer Tommy Hilfiger. “For the past 50 years, denim has achieved an ever-changing uniqueness by being the canvas through which youth expresses itself.”
Steele, the historian, said jeans retain their association with individuality and rebellion, qualities that are to some degree romanticized by Americans.
“Even as they’ve been increasingly incorporated into the fashion system, nevertheless they still carry some of the same antiestablishment charge,” she said. “They still seem individual, iconoclastic and young. They are one of the few kinds of clothing that has very strong associations for people all over the world.”