Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
For my 30th birthday in January, I decided I needed a new hobby, and that it should be wearing expensive, uncomfortable pants. I’m a Capricorn, so it only makes sense that adulthood, for me, must be approached as a series of trials and tests of will: I marked my 22nd year with a tattoo, and this new milestone with my very first pair of raw denim jeans.
Raw denim is a true nerd’s category of clothing, the rare subset of fashion that is the domain mostly of men, and thus overrun by complicated terminology and geeks eager to tell you you’re doing it wrong. Basically, though, what “raw” amounts to is denim that wasn’t washed to soften it up (and remove excess indigo dye) before it was sent out into the world — though mine had been Sanforized, or soaked, to pre-shrink them. Raw denim is also usually made of nearly pure cotton — so minimal-to-no Lycra or spandex or what have you, the stuff that gives stretchy jeans their elasticity. What you lose in immediate flexibility, you gain in durability: They’re harder to stretch, but also harder to stretch out. My pair arrived on my doorstep deep blue, stiff, and difficult. Then it became my job to find the patience and persistence to wear them into shape.
These were from a San Francisco-based company called Doublewood, which I found via a Reddit thread on raw denim for women — where else, I guess. In addition to being raw, they are selvedge; the denim was produced on a shuttle loom, rather than a projectile loom. Shuttle looms produce smaller amounts of fabric and their swaths have finished edges, as opposed to the ravel-able stuff that gets woven on projectiles. Some people claim that shuttle loom denim is higher quality, but that’s not necessarily true — just because what’s produced in high volume is often low in cost and quality doesn’t necessarily mean that this is always the case.
Mostly, selvedge is a thing because raw denim enthusiasts tend to be detail-obsessive, and the selvedge edge (selvedge equals “self edge,” see?) is exactly the kind of tiny, inconsequential-but-handsome thing they love to be able to notice. This kind of talk is the absolute tip of the raw denim terminology iceberg; if you’re interested, you can read a fairly comprehensive history and glossary here.
My desire for raw denim was borne of a handful of intersecting elements. The first was just the inevitable boredom that comes from having worn tight black skinny jeans for approximately eight years straight. I’ve thinned through the inner thighs of Uniqlo’s pairs quickly and a handful of more expensive brands at a slightly less aggressive clip, so I was particularly interested in something that might wear in, not out.
But mostly, honestly, raw denim is, like so many things in my life, something I’d only ever watched boys do and wanted to try out for myself. It couldn’t be that unpleasant. Could it?
No, actually, let’s dispatch with this now. They’re more uncomfortable than the lovely stretchy stuff I’ve grown accustomed to, but on the scale of voluntary physical unpleasantness I’ve experienced, they rank well below the tattoos, for instance. In fact, I was less bothered by the experience of sitting around in them than what it felt like when I moved: how they shifted not with, but against, my body. The cut of waistband into the flesh around my waist was a constant reminder that there is flesh there, that my body has a shape, and isn’t always the shape that clothing can predict or follow.
I have it easier than many people in this regard: I’m short and thick-thighed, but generally petite enough to fit into fashion, and this project wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I barely squeezed my flat white girl’s ass into a pair of size 27 jeans, and thank god, because Doublewood tops out at 29.
There are a wider range of sizes available from unisex or men’s lines, but there are no guarantees that their fit will work for you — I tried on A.P.C.’s unisex Petits and still found myself swimming in them, not like some charming naïf with hipbones and ankles poking delicately out of an oversized cut but instead a square of denim at the bottom and my torso perched incongruously on top. Heddels, a website that promises you can browse “all the raw denim in the world” with “any parameter you can imagine,” will let you narrow your search by your measurements and denim weight and country of origin — but not whether the jeans were designed with a woman’s body in mind. Like so much “unisex” clothing, raw denim tends to cater to a narrow range of female bodies, and as usual in fashion, “androgynous” really just means boyish.
You are pretty much always buying yourself a fantasy when you buy clothing, and raw denim is no exception. Owning and wearing it falls neatly into the boyfriend jeans fantasy of conveying money, taste, and access to various kinds of male — or at least masculine — power. But it also fits in with my semi-joking refrain that 2017 is the year of Be Your Own Boyfriend — which means, mostly, that I’ve given up on trying to make men be nice to me, and instead I’m experimenting with being nice to myself.
You don’t have to dress up “like a dude” to do it, but I find that it helps — to remind me that so many of the things I associate with masculinity are in fact always available to me, and that being femme doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with being female. In fact, I feel more “like a woman,” whatever that means, in these jeans. There’s a quiet confidence in allowing the specifics of my shape to remain shrouded. I don’t have to prove that I have curves — or narrows — to anyone. And I am allowed, for once, to let go of the pervasive fear that I’m fooling you by wearing something “flattering:” that in clothes and makeup I look like a girl, but stripped of those things, I reveal my true state as a weird amorphous flesh-blob. (Therapists have already diagnosed my body dysmorphia, thanks.) This way, the shape of my clothes — not my body — becomes the point of the outfit.
It does not hurt that one of the first times I wore them I ran into an ex who took great pains to tell me, blinkingly, that I looked “really — like, really good.”
I haven’t worn the jeans in all that well yet; it’s hard enough to put on pants every morning when you’re a full-time freelancer, much less your least comfortable pair. But I’ve done enough time in them that I’m starting to notice them changing — creases at the backs of the knees and the front of the hips that stay even after I stand up.
They also present a styling challenge. As much as I like them, they’re so different from everything else in my wardrobe that it’s surprisingly difficult to find tops and shoes that look right: items appropriately agender that don’t veer into butch. (Nothing wrong with it; just not my vibe.) So far I’ve liked them with button-downs and ballet flats, or sheer tunics tucked in at the waist; my first instinct was to balance their size and weight with something tight up top, but, in fact, they want to be given softness and billow. That’s the best thing about them, really, these jeans, is that they’re different and unexpected, and in small but daily ways they challenge my sense of style and of myself, reminding me that all I’m ever doing is playing dress-up, reminding me that all that matters is that it’s interesting, and expansive, and fun.