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At some point between the day the first cowboy rode out west and when Bruce Springsteen’s ass appeared on the cover of Born in the U.S.A., jeans became both the quintessential and the default American pants. They’re an article for labor and leisure, everyday wear for the everyman. In reality, they’re pitiful for both. Jeans are not comfortable, not flattering, and not carefree. The American public has been duped. We've been sold an image of freedom and rebellion, conned into expecting effortless style and casual Fridays. It was all a lie. Jeans are bad.
(Here I should say that when I say “jeans,” what I mean are blue jeans. [The word “jeans” is always plural.] Denim trousers come in every color, but when you hear “jeans” you first think blue. They’re far and away the most ubiquitous and the most iconic. Beyond this, the indigo used to dye denim blue fades with age in a way that poses problems other dyes do not.)
I’ll admit that, when jeans look good, they’re unlike anything else. There’s something inimitably satisfying about the way denim transforms with age, molding to the wearer’s body — particularly when the wearer’s body is one that merits a mold. Years later, I still remember the faded jeans — from dark blue to nearly yellow, like a denim sunset — of the singer of a punk band I saw in high school, though I’ve long since forgotten the group’s name. I can picture how Rashida Jones’s A.P.C.s broke right above her Adidas in a paparazzi photo I once saw, and the way Jonathan Richman’s knees approached threadbare translucence on the front of a Modern Lovers bootleg.
The problem is that, for every great-fitting pair of jeans, there are hundreds of awkward and ostentatious pairs — 90 percent of them on men. Even celebrities, with their stylists and high-end tailors, are not immune. Think of a famous man — an author, a musician, an actor, whatever. Google a picture of him wearing jeans. It’s almost always awful. Even Bob Dylan’s jeans on the iconic cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan are kind of off. One wants to believe that these guys simply can’t dress, but maybe the problem is deeper than that.
Oppressed by choice, I have long aspired to be one of those people who wears the same thing every day. I just can’t do it. I own pairs of non-denim pants in both blue and black that I have absolutely no qualms with, but after a few days in a row I get sick of them. I believe that the perfect jeans would be different, something I could mindlessly put on every morning. I am embarrassed to admit that I currently own four failed attempts. Every nine months or so, I see a pair of crisp, clean jeans in a store and think this time will be different. I convince myself that they fit just right (and that my old jeans will sell on eBay). Then I take them home and realize big denim has duped me again.
From top on down: The waist is somehow too big and too short, either falling off when I stand or cutting into my skin while revealing my boxers when I sit. The pockets are too short to hold my phone, which awkwardly rubs into my hip bone. Slim-fit jeans are too tight on my calves and their tiny leg openings make my shoes look huge and stupid. Straight-leg jeans are better until about mid-shin, at which point an optical illusion occurs. Instead of opening in a circle, like a pipe, the narrowing of my leg at the ankle causes the excess fabric to flap on the sides, making it look like I’m rocking bootcuts. They don’t make me feel like the Marlboro Man so much as an aging president trying to pass himself off as a ranch owner.
The logical interpretation of this complaint might be that I’m an overly-particular weirdo committing an extended self-own. Which is probably true, except: I have no problem with any of my other pants. A good pair of chinos is easy to come by at any price point from $40 (Uniqlo, with free tailoring) to $200 (I think Norse Projects’s are nice). I can’t think of any logical reason why they should be so structurally different from jeans, and yet. The waist stays up, there’s proper room in the thighs, deep pockets, and the ankle tapers nicely to fit just above my shoes. Despite their stodgy reputation, a pair of chinos will make you feel comfortable anywhere, whether that’s a fancy restaurant or your couch. They go with sneakers or dress shoes, a T-shirt or a blazer.
When I mention my denim quagmire to others, they instantly know what I’m talking about. I’m not crazy. Everyone I’ve spoken to identifies with the struggle to find the right pair of jeans. My brother Oliver has found that “jeans that come in normal blue colors have outdated fits and jeans that fit well usually have some sort of sandy wash.” My friend Gabriel told me that he’s come to associate blue jeans with “rockabilly people from Chicago.” Not even celebrities are immune from this torment. Eva Mendes says that “I think jeans are really uncomfortable actually… They're so restrictive!” Nicole Richie agrees that jeans are binding, adding, “I do not like them.”
Despite their rugged branding, jeans are incredibly finicky. Maybe there was a time in America’s manufacturing heyday when quality denim was available for a decent price, but today, cheap jeans look it. They’re often shiny and streaky, thin and elasticated, factory-distressed and decorated with elaborate back pockets. “Good jeans,” the kind that every person who’s read a fashion blog is told they must own, aren’t expensive per se, but they cost enough to warrant a bit of care.
Here’s where owning jeans turns into project management. Let’s say you want a pair of dark blue jeans, the kind that won’t make you look like a slob at work nor a suit at the bar. Do you want raw denim — stiff jeans that will slowly break in, for optimal personalization — or something pre-washed? If pre-washed, they’ll be softer, but you’re less likely to get the kind of fade that looks individualized; as you wash them, you’ll end up with a pair of ordinary bright blue jeans.
Now you need to decide how frequently you’d like to clean your new pants. Some companies recommend washing your jeans every few months; others say avoid it forever, if possible. Washing too often will reduce the denim’s contrast; never washing means your jeans will be dirty (if you care about that), and also increases the likelihood that they’ll rip. Should you decide to launder them, everything from water temperature to detergent to drying method will affect the outcome. Levi’s suggests taking a bath in a pair of its 501s and keeping them on until they dry; let me assure you that this is a terrible way to spend an afternoon. Also, keep in mind that denim stretches with wear, so what fit in the store might be too big after a month; at the same time, it can also significantly shrink in the wash, so what fit in the store might become way too small.
Let’s not even get started on the decision to cuff, or not cuff, or roll. The whole thing is complicated enough to drive a cowboy to slacks.