Denim often seems innocuous in our daily lives, but the fashion staple holds more than just a pair of keys—they can carry social, personal, and even political significance as well
Freya Wasteneys // Managing Editor
Sierra Holmes // Illustrator
The clothing rack sagged under the weight of denim, hardly offset by the growing pile of pants in my arms. I was looking for something very specific: second-hand, comfortable, flattering, high waisted, light wash, no rips, loose fit—the quintessential “Mom Jean” popularized in the 80s by Levi Strauss & Co. My mission was proving quite challenging despite the overwhelming amount of choice within this particular vintage boutique in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant. Outside, slightly obscured by a backwards ‘F’ decal on the storefront window, a group passed by, oblivious to my plight. All wore a variation of the unofficial Vancouver Uniform: beanies, Blundstones, and some version of the same coveted Levi’s jeans I was busting my ass to find.
As I braved the changeroom once again, I began to see another trend. The first pair was too tight in the thighs and gaped at the waist. The second, although the same size, wouldn’t button up. The third was a size up but wouldn’t stay up without a belt. This theme of failure continued—too short, too tight, too ripped, not the right style—until I had tried on almost every pair in the denim-devoted store within a three-size radius. Sweating and defeated by my vigorous denim workout, I left empty-handed.
I’ve never considered myself particularly picky or style-conscious, but for some reason, I was dead set on Levi’s 501s. Perhaps it’s the perception it lends—the ordinary, practical, everyday vibe. I wanted something comfortable, durable but not totally unflattering. I was drawn to the “low maintenance” perception of these specific jeans but I soon found that the opposite was true.
Jeans are a staple in most wardrobes—ubiquitous. And like most ubiquitous things, we rarely stop to think about the efforts we go through in order to fit in. Given the range of shapes, sizes, lifestyles and values, finding that perfect pair of jeans is anything but a simple process. Ethical standards also come into play. Buyers constantly negotiate and prioritize what is important to them, even if only subconsciously.
Clothing has become a way to display our social groups and to assert cultural capital, belonging and individuality. What we wear can be both a huge source of anxiety or work to alleviate that social discomfort. Underneath it all, it’s uncomfortable to address this seemingly frivolous ‘need’, and yet, for many of the women I know, jeans appear to be the one blissfully uncomplicated choice—the one item of clothing we know we can always wear. Jeans can be both dressed up and dressed down. Fit in or stand out. They are seemingly impossible to find, and yet a consumer report by ShopSmart shows that the average American woman still manages to own around seven pairs.
After trying on jeans with unsuccessful results, I turned to Google. Even a quick search revealed that I am far from the only one having trouble finding this specific style of jeans. Imparfaite.co is an entire website devoted to helping you find your perfect size and fit of Levi’s, interspersed with attractive images of free-spirited young women effortlessly sporting Levi’s and clearly living their best life. “Why should everyone have a 501 vintage?” the website queries. “Because it has dressed the coolest girls of each generation for 128 years.”
Armed with renewed resolve, I began my search once again—this time in earnest. At work, I updated my co-workers on my progress. We bonded over our mutual annoyance of shopping for jeans. One co-worker, in particular, was on a similar quest, and together we spent a fateful day going to every thrift, second-hand or consignment store within a five-kilometre radius. After trying on what probably ended up being around 100 pairs of jeans each in about ten different shops over the course of five hours, we conceded defeat once again. I began to question my obsession, but couldn’t let go.
“In some ways, you can think of clothes as a strategy that can then be applied to different social contexts,” said Gillian Crowther, a Professor of Anthropology at Capilano University. “We have this range of clothes, and you can almost read the entire social lives and activities of people through this.” Surrounded by books, with a pile of unmarked exams on the floor, she sported her own pair of Levi 501s. We laughed self-consciously at the topic of our conversation—how normal this preoccupation has become and how something as silly as a pair of jeans can hold so much significance.
“People have all these different sets of clothing that they use to plan out their lives and all of the areas that they occupy in their lives,” she explained. “They do it based on comfort and discomfort. I want to present myself in some way, and whoever is looking at me is going to say—oh ya, they’re competent, they’re good in that social context. Social competency is part of the anxiety.”
The fit of the jeans we choose can dictate the activities we pursue in our everyday lives. While what is considered the “perfect fit” varies considerably around the world—as do beauty standards, we unconsciously attach a certain pride to having a culturally recognized well-fitting pair of jeans. Objectively, this seems shallow, and yet, considering how we embody culture, it’s somewhat natural that we want to find something that works for us.
“Jeans are that overlooked thing through which we know ourselves but then we also get those wider cultural values that push us and prod us,” continued Crowther, expanding on University College of London (UCL) anthropologist Daniel Miller’s theory of how we come to know ourselves in relation to objects. “It isn’t all necessarily about accumulation and consumption. These objects can tell us a lot about our cultural values.”
After recognizing the wide-reaching potential of denim, Miller instigated the Global Denim Project as a way to amass research and exchange ideas on this sweeping phenomenon as “a sort of ‘open-source’ project linking disparate research.” For many researchers, blue jeans are fascinating simply because they are so universally ordinary—they have become a way to make cross-cultural comparisons, helping anthropologists draw conclusions about the personal, the political and the social in both local and global contexts.
According to Miller — who is also the author of Consumption and its Consequences and Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary—jeans bridge the gap between “habitual clothing (items women “know” they can always wear) and the non-habitual (items that require self-conscious engagement).” A study conducted by Miller found that around half of people worldwide wear jeans on any given day. In The Art of the Ordinary Miller explains that this is because people not only regard jeans as having a “greater capacity than other garments to become intimate and personal as they soften and mold to a particular person but also see [jeans] as the best means to present themselves as citizens of the world.” Jeans are the negotiation between individuality and conformity. It’s surprisingly personal but it’s also political.
In our quest for comfort, affordability and style, considering the ethical and political implications of our clothing choices often feels like an added layer of inconvenience. But given the global reach of jeans, it is an important aspect to consider. The human and environmental impact of the denim industry is especially a concern considering the denim industry was valued at $66 billion USD in 2018 and is projected to increase to $84 billion by 2025. To manufacture a single pair of jeans requires a vast amount of water and energy—a whopping 7,660 gallons of water are required to create just 1 kg of cotton according to the Natural Resources Defence Council. The waste produced from the dyeing process can be extremely toxic to workers, and often leads to massive pollution in surrounding waterways. With this in mind, maybe it’s not so crazy to bring obsessive checklists and standards into our consumption practices. Perhaps finding jeans should be challenging.
Lauren Diewold is a recent graduate from CapU’s Liberal Studies program. Two years ago, she began sewing her own clothes after being deterred by the prices of dresses while shopping for her sister’s wedding. “From there it just turned into this strange hobby,” Diewold said. “But the entertainment value is much higher.” After noticing the proclivity of the tights, plaid and denim jacket combo in Vancouver, her interest was piqued further. As a part of her grad project she decided to make her own “Vancouver Uniform” to look at the time, labour and cost that goes into the creation of these everyday outfits. The entire outfit took 44 hours of inexperienced labour to sew and used $146 worth of materials, making the overall material and labour cost equal to approximately $612. She notes that she could have bought the same outfit at Uniqlo for $134.
“It’s amazing the sheer amount of work that goes into something I could easily buy for a couple dollars,” she said. “If you go to Old Navy on a good day, you can get a tank top for $5… and it would probably take me an hour to make that same thing. I think the biggest takeaway for me is how little we value the labour that goes into clothes. The value and labour are completely detached.”
Movements like the recent Marie Kondo phenomenon encourage individuals to get rid of things that “don’t spark joy,” but far from reducing our consumption, this ethos is seemingly just another excuse to throw thoughtlessly purchased items away. The average Canadian buys 70 pieces of clothing each year, and much of this ends up in the landfill. In his Globe and Mail article on “The life-changing magic of making do,” Benjamin Leszcz argues that rather than purging ourselves, we need to redefine our relationship with things. “Making do is about taming the reflex to discard, replace or upgrade; it’s about using things well, and using them until they are used up,” he wrote. “Taken literally, it simply means making something perform — making it do what it ought to do.”
Rather than becoming less materialistic, Leszcz argues that we need to become more so, and in the process learn to find the value in the things that we buy. “In this way, we can not only mitigate the high cost of thoughtless consumption, saving us money and the planet harm, but also, we might just wind up a whole lot happier,” Leszcz said in reference to Juliet Schor’s Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.
Since she began making her own clothes, Diewold has noticed that it’s become a lot harder to get rid of clothing. “You think of the time and effort that went into it and you immediately see it in a different light,” she said. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s really hard to tell the value of the clothes you’re buying. Even if they’re a $300 pair of jeans, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ethical, or even paying their workers that much.”
I have not resorted to making my own clothing yet, but if nothing else, the time and energy I’ve spent trying to find this particular pair of jeans has made me more aware of my own less-than-stellar consumption practices. When you spend a month trying to find a single item of clothing, you begin to realize how often we resort to fast fashion to ease our social anxieties. The process of buying ethically can be daunting—especially for those restricted financially. In the end, we can only do our best with the resources available to us.
After devoting so much time to my search, I eventually caved and bought a new pair. The jeans fit perhaps three out of my five criteria. They were affordable, stylish and durable but the comfort and ethics were questionable. In an effort to make them a little more comfortable (physically, not morally), I found myself immersed in a bathtub full of water—a technique I’d read about on the Internet. I spent the evening lunging and squatting around my living room in wet pants in a last-ditch attempt to stretch out the restrictive, conforming denim. “I think I’ve lost a little bit of respect for you,” joked my boyfriend of six years as I halted mid-lunge. I considered his comment for a moment, agreed and then continued the process of stretching out my jeans. What can I say? I, too, am imparfait.