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What's Distressing About Distressed Clothing

Everything old is new again.

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To be fair, “Lmao wait one minute” is an apt response to this particular pair of sneakers. A grungy pinky-gray shade reminiscent of worn pointe shoes, these sneakers resemble a Twinkie in that they look not so much made as extruded. They’re scuffed and grimy, and they’ve got these dull burnished silver strips of duct tape wrapped fore and aft; their frayed laces, knotted like lies, promise to snap. Coming from Italian company Golden Goose, the sneakers are brand new. Barneys New York was selling them for $585, believe it or not.

All the IG famous are wearing the “distressed look;” it’s the hot way to greet the Tyler Durden apocalypse that glimmers on our collective horizon. Kim Kardashian was spotted wearing a cavemen-hemmed denim mini skirt; Gigi Hadid was caught wearing jeans that are more holes than fabric; and Justin Bieber was throwing the shaka sign in a shredded houndstooth jacket. Everyone who’s anyone is “distressed.”

Fashion writers are committed to calling this school of fashion “street.” Slashed, repurposed, mended, patched, and abraded — these clothes, magazines would like us to believe, are simultaneously authentic, elegant, and easy. It’s clothing that’s not supposed to look as if it costs $900, which is the price of the Fear of God jeans favored by Yeezy and Russell Westbrook, and it’s fashion that’s not supposed to read like it’s $1,450, the cost of the patchwork Vetements jeans that are sold out, like, everywhere. But selling capital-F Fashion is never as simple as a price tag, a label, or even a silhouette, and there’s a mass political weight hiding beneath the visible marketing tip.

Kim Kardashian in a distressed white dress with Kanye West. Photo: Josiah Kamau/Getty Images

It costs a lot to look fashionably wrecked. Givenchy’s $1,000 ripped hoodie (sold out) is a fitting irony for the end of 2016, the king trashfire year of all trashfire years. It’s not merely that this torn and worn sweatshirt costs twice as much as the average retail worker makes in two weeks. It’s also that clothing this processed often take a huge toll on the environment. One pair of jeans famously requires about 2,900 gallons of water, about 1,800 to grow the cotton and the remainder to weave and dye the fabric (a process that requires multiple iterations of synthetic indigo dye) and craft the fabric into a garment. This water-print is bad enough, but the cost to the environment mounts. Most denim is made in China or Bangladesh, not hotbeds of environmentalism. Xintang, the Chinese town that is the denim capital of the world, makes about 300 million pieces of denim clothing a year. The river runs blue with dye, the pollution so intense that the town literally cannot give houses away.

It gets worse, of course, because things always do. While some makers of distressed clothes use fairly environmentally friendly lasers to tenderly burn holes or strategically slit knees, most use sandblasting, a technique shown to cause silicosis and other fatal lung diseases. Organizations like the UK’s Labour Behind the Label, Sweden’s Fair Trade Center, and the Clean Clothes Campaign have been studying sandblasting’s effects on its workers for the past decade, and the news isn’t good. Those artfully worn and soft-as-deer-noses jeans are a lot less pretty when you discover that the (underpaid, often migrant) workers who made them suffer from chronic breathing ailments. While Turkey now bans the practice, it has moved to areas with less oversight, and while some jeans makers like Levi’s, Gucci, H&M, and others have publicly banned sandblasted jeans, others don’t. Pretty clothes have never meant pretty processes, and expensive clothes have always cost more than money.

These emperor’s new threads have a long, frayed history. “New arrivals have always had two ways of certifying their superiority over the hated ‘middle class,’” Tom Wolfe wrote in 1970’s “Radical Chic.” The first, Wolfe suggests, is to gild themselves in the lilies of aristocracy, a Trumpian endeavor of columns and servants and conspicuous wealth. The other, Wolfe says, is the “gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders,” a practice he roots in the British Regency period when nostalgie de la boue — literally, a yearning for the mud — was “very much the rage.” As Jane Austen wrote her delicate, ironic fictions, new Regency money dressed like tavern wenches, fought like street pugilists, and generally lavished in déclassé decadence. Time passes, yet the only thing that changes is the beat.

The lower half of a woman who is wearing frayed denim and black pumps. Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Almost 50 years later, Wolfe, the Great White Suited One, still has a point. Fashion writers like to draw a straight line from the current obsession with ripped sweaters, holey T-shirts, and shredded jeans to ‘90s grunge or early ‘80s punk — sartorial nostalgia seems to revolve faster than Mercury as old looks spin in and out of fashion ever more quickly. But while style nostalgia may be quick, fashion memory is short. It’s easy to draw a straight line from Vivienne Westwood’s bondage pants for her London boutiques Sex and World’s End to Off-White’s reconfigured Levi’s, but even if you pepper that timeline with nods to Kurt Cobain, as Fear of God’s Jerry Lorenzo does, you’re missing some important, if unappealing, stops.

You’re missing, for example, Roberto Cavalli, the Italian designer whose sandblasted, jewel-encrusted, baroque-printed, and tarted-up denim defined the over-the-top style of the Clinton era. You’re skipping the mall chic of the “acid-wash” trend of the Reagan era. You’re overlooking the haute couture patchwork of the hippie era, perhaps the first time when people purposefully bought new clothes rubbed raw with sandpaper in order to look aged. Above all, you’re averting your eyes from the point, and that is this: Rich people have always adopted the clothing of the hoi polloi in order to appease their own feelings of inauthenticity and to show that they’re, like, cool with the revolutionaries.

A woman in distressed black jeans, a black shirt, and black sneakers. Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Writing for the New York Times Magazine last spring, Troy Patterson asks, “Who Gets to Wear Shredded Jeans?” and his answer is, disturbingly, everyone: “These are clothes that suit the Friday-evening needs of Forever 21-year-olds buttressing their unformed selves with ceremonial battle scars, and they also meet the Saturday-morning wants of grown-ups who, arrayed as if to hint at having been out all night, enliven the running of errands by wearing trousers that look and feel like an opiated hangover.” Young or middle-aged, the shreds mark you as hip enough to do your thing while looking like you don’t give a buttoned-up fuck.

But here’s the thing: If 15-year-olds can plunk down $55 of their hard-earned babysitting money at American Eagle in Branson, Missouri, and if Karlie Kloss can be paid to wear Raf Simons’ $760 Destroyed Y Sweater, and they can both share the shredded aesthetic most reminiscent of a Salvation Army castoff worn by a Dumpster-diving crustpunk, what’s separating the cool kids with the swole credit score from the wannabes who count their pennies? In other words, if your fashion makes you look poor, how do you make sure that people know you’re rich? Because, after all, no one rich enough to pay $462 for Off-White’s Tulip Shorts wants to actually look poor — they just want to look like they’re so rich that they don’t care if they look poor.

The short answer is that you Beau Brummel up that bitch, which is to say that you turn your pursuit of clothing and your act of dressing into a prolix ritual, a religion, if you will, one that takes you on deep dives into fashion houses like Carpe Diem, an Italian brand that makes bespoke garments out of leathers that have been crushed, washed, and buried in the deserts of Afghanistan. No rip is too dear, no fade too subtle, if people who know what they’re looking at know that what they’re looking at is a pair of $495 Frame Nouveau Le Mix jeans.

Two women walk down the street in distressed clothing. Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Beau Brummel, history’s shorthand for aggressively well-heeled men, is an aspirational figure for wealthy cool kids wanting to assert their sartorial street cred. Brummell made trousers look good in the late 18th century, a time when trousers — not the passé knickers and hose of Brummell’s dad — were clothing that workmen wore. Sans-culottes were the revolutionaries of France; quite literally, the name translates to “without breeches.” If the wearing of jeans differentiated blue-collar men from those who wore suits until the advent of casual Fridays in the ‘90s, so too did the wearing of pants differentiate classes of men in the late 18th century. Brummell made trousers de rigueur, and he did it with a clothing budget of about $160,000 a year (adjusted for today’s money).

In the eternal high school of life, we’re all desperate losers hoping to be mistaken for one of the in-crowd. Artfully ripped clothes appear to perform that delicate dance between not trying and trying too hard, and when we can “get away” with it (as if fashion is a crime), what transcendence! The question is knowing about shredded clothing, knowing its political history, knowing its taint of elitism, knowing its cost to people and to planet, and knowing that no matter what we do we will never, ever be as unintentionally cool as Joey or Janis or Lenny, who will choose to buy these clothes? The French aristocrats lost their heads over trousers. Who’s next?


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