Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What are women's jeans for?

I know you've all been waiting for an update on my quest for all-cotton women's jeans. It continues, on and off. I've ordered some online (free shipping both ways...), but am not optimistic.

While I had not initially articulated it in these terms, I've come to realize - ever since moving to the woods and not periodically replenishing on lower Broadway - that the problem with spandex/stretch in jeans is that it gets fried over time in the wash, and is thus responsible for this effect. The low-rise-ness comes from the fact that whichever material allows the jeans to look perfect in the store will, after X washes, deteriorate and cease to cover all they were meant to cover. You're left, in other words, with just the cotton, and the illusion of having lost weight, even if your non-stretch clothing items and recent rediscovery of Haagen Daaz tell a different tale. So not only is this crap material (in my opinion) the reason the dye just slides off today's oh-so-flattering dark-denim skinny-jean, but it also explains the ubiquity of low-rise, even on wearers of jeans that were not sold as such.

Above and beyond my own quest, I started getting really curious if 100% cotton women's jeans exist. I clicked on various styles from different brands to see fabric content, making a point not to bother with styles with "skinny" or "legging" in the name. And the verdict is: stretch is as ubiquitous as high-fructose corn syrup, and much in the same way - there where you expect it, but also where you don't. Old Navy, which has the most all-cotton options I've found, nevertheless puts heaps of polyester as well as stretch in its most basic style. L.L. Bean sells several all-cotton versions of the "mom," as well as one attractive variant that's plenty synthetic. A classic look from Wrangler has spandex, as do virtually all from Levi's. (One gorgeous pair is all-cotton but goes for $178, at which point you might as well go to A.P.C.)

There are many good explanations for how all denim marketed at women came to be stretchy. Factors such as the dropping cost of spandex and the desire of consumers not to feel fat - automatic vanity sizing, so much so that the reviews of all-cotton Old Navy jeans include remarks about how they're sized too small. We've come to expect stretch, so we have no real concept of what any pants size ought to feel like.

There's also the near-impossibility of finding clothes that fit properly at chain stores, which is where everyone - rich, poor, in-between - shops, paired with the continued societal insistence that things fit properly. Add 2% spandex and (until they're worn out) your jeans look made-to-measure. The necessity becomes all the more obvious when you try on pants that don't have stretch, but that are no less mass-produced. They look... wrong, in a way one is not used to anymore. They bring us back to an era when pants were sometimes unflattering, and when one might discover that pants bought three months ago no longer close.

While I have not taken this as far as bringing pants from the 1990s to the lab, my sense is that the ubiquity of stretch in women's jeans is a result of the circa-2004 trend of premium jeans. These were the $200 pairs, typically with distinctive stitching on the back pockets. Often, and differentiating themselves from the designer jeans of earlier eras, they did look massively better than the ones that came before, better shades of denim, better fit, and at the ready to be styled with a pair of heels and a sequined tank top, the going-out uniform of that era. They probably also fell apart in the wash, but they looked good in a way that the flared Mudds, Levi's, or (remember those?) Jnco's did not. Then, understandably, cheaper brands switched over to the "premium" look, using more/darker dye and increasingly more stretch, until a pair of black leggings could be defined as jeans. There is now virtually no non-premium-inspired alternative. Even "classic" jeans have stretch.

So the pros of stretch are obvious. Until the jeans fall apart, you have that once-elusive garment: a made-to-measure pair of jeans, and in an ego-flattering size, at that. And if spandex isn't as eco-friendly as cotton, you're at least not needing to buy new pairs every time your own size shifts ever-so-slightly. Also, of course, a budgetary advantage. That problem from days of yore - jeans digging into your waist and cutting off circulation when you sit down - is not such an issue when spandex is involved.

But why, if stretch is so wonderful, is it ubiquitous in women's jeans, but just about unheard-of in men's? Men's jeans, except in styles aimed at would-be Mick Jaggers, are typically 100% cotton. They look like... jeans. The way jeans used to look. And yet you don't hear men complaining that it's impossible to find a decent pair of them.

A seemingly pointless question that points to something far greater: why are women's jeans 2% spandex, men's 0%? Why is the gender difference in denim - that is, the reason for a woman to buy women's jeans, a man men's - an issue not of length and crotch-roominess, but stretch?

One possibility is that women want to believe they're a size six, while there's no male equivalent to this desire. Another, that it's expected women will buy new jeans every five minutes regardless, so there's no need to promise durability. Yes, stretch=junk, "premium" be damned, but women love shopping, so why not sell them junk?

The most likely explanation, however, is that women are expected to wear body-con everything, whereas men are penalized for doing so. Men do not have problems finding "jeans that fit," because there's no expectation that a pair of mass-produced denim pants will fit like made-to-order riding breeches. For men's jeans to fit, they need to be big enough to close, small enough not to fall down. And they hardly even need to fit - belts can hold up jeans that are too big, and beer-bellies can most certainly pour over pairs that are too small. For this reason, the only women's jeans at a non-horrendous price point to lack stretch are called "boyfriend jeans," although let it be known that "boyfriend" can become "sexy boyfriend" only with the addition of 2% spandex.

So it's progress, in a sense, that women's jeans are now at least comfortable. It's still expected that they be skin-tight, but at least now, there's less of an expectation that we ought to shape our own bodies to fit into the pants, now that the pants stretch to fit our bodies. (Soup commercials be damned.) Form-fitting no longer means circulation-destroying.

But ideally... what do we want here? Men also in jeggings? In principle, I support this sort of thing, but in practice, I remember the ubiquity of the men-in-tights look among Parisian joggers, and I don't think we want a shift in this direction. Narrow pants, yes, super-spandex, no. I suppose I'd rather see a shift in the other direction, with a redefinition of what it means for women's jeans to "fit." Something like "boyfriend" jeans, but without the more-offensive-the-more-you-think-about-it name.

14 comments:

Britta said...

So, I have also felt the desire for pants that don't stretch out a size with each wear, but I'm not sure I'd totally want to return to 90s jeans. I've found that my current jeans last long enough so that by the time they wear out I'd want new pants anyways. I have to admit too, I like the flattering tighter fit (at least for the first wear) + flexibility to move.

I do own some all cotton jeans, which I bought in China in 2006 from some high end boutique (for China), but which were on sale for about $10. (which seemed like a lot at the time with China goggles on), and they were fairly flattering, pretty tight to various degrees and certainly kept me honest in terms of weight (see above), but they could constrict movement, so that I couldn't bend or squat or kneel easily.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

True enough re: movement. If (best-case scenario) the pair I just ordered actually fit, next question will be if they aren't too armor-like.

I'm almost wondering, in terms of how they wear, whether the problem isn't so much stretch being junk, as the fact that pants with stretch are more accommodating, so they get worn across weight fluctuations, and lo and behold, after ten years of wear, the holes appear.

But as much as I'm not in favor of being uncomfortable, I think there's something to be said for the jeans-waistband method of weight maintenance. If you're not trying to gain or lose weight, owning a scale and checking every minor fluctuation's probably a waste of time, unnecessarily stressful, etc. But if a pair of pants that used to be loose now won't close (or vice versa), this is indicative, generally, of a greater shift. With 2% spandex, once you can't close your pants, your doctor has probably already given you a hard time about the situation.

The drawbacks to the jeans approach are a) that people who do this often use "skinny"-in-the-old-sense-jeans (as in, they used to fit back in the day, if barely) as the barometer, with predictable nuttiness ensuing, and b) that it's not necessary to be precisely the same size for all of adulthood, so just because you're bigger than you used to be doesn't mean this is something that needs to be addressed. But if it's a choice between pants-barometer and scale-obsessiveness, the former seems preferable.

petmom said...

Hi Phoebe,
Have you found any 100% cotton jeans? Stretch is not as warm as 100% cotton, and I'm freezing in Maryland right now. If you ever find all cotton jeans would you please let me know? I'll be happy to leave my email here if you respond and thank you!
Cindy

Cheri Ward said...

I also search, and I do mean SEARCH, for 100 cotton jeans. I am severely allergic to latex(spandex).I have found one fabulous source for jeans that I do love. I hope they fit you all. They are very heavy, I like that. I do have to take tiny sewn pinches in the back of the waste band right next to the loops to make the back close as I have a "booty." Okay, ready, my jeans are Harley Davidson jeans! Old fashioned beautiful, real JEANS!

Anonymous said...

I've given up. It's not just jeans, it's all pants! I don't know if Lycra is meant for the ever-expanding American or simply just cheap and therefore a here-today, gone-tomorrow garment that is meant to be replaced annually. It's just such crap. Have Europeans embraced this crap? God, I hope not as that would mean even skinny French people have embraced cheap clothing that will accommodate a rather too-large dinner and I have no fashion role model to aspire to. we've given up and we're all just wearing sweats at home, the store and work. Sad

Anonymous said...

I can't stand the stretch in jeans! Inevitable the butt bags out! I am excited to find other women looking for that stay-in-place comfort all cotton jeans! Here's the only source I've found: Cruel Girl jeans. They are made for western wear so they are all flared styles, but they have a variety of cute washes and cuts and several in all cotton. Maybe to off-set the weight notion of pure cotton, they seem to run big: I usually wear a size 10 in women's or 9 in junior but seem to wear a 7 in Cruel Girl. Happy hunting!

morels said...

Hello,
I have been climbing a wall looking for non-strech jeans. I like to garden, I do work around the house and plus, heaven forbid I sit cross legged! The inseams fall apart! I'm not that fussy but I liked the days when jeans became old friends as they faded. As I tell by husband "If I wanted to feel like wearing pantyhose I would buy pantyhose." So I am looking at getting some custom made. Has anyone had any good luck with "makeyourownjeans.com"? I would love to hear some feedback

Anonymous said...

Another fan of 100% cotton jeans here:

I went to the Harley Davidson site as one commenter suggested. I bought the women's bootcut jeans and dark bootcut jeans.

I will return here after I receive them, wear and wash them and give a full report.

I did order a pair of MakeYourOwn jeans from India. Here is what think:

Construction is good. The jean material is decent and it is the classic denim weave that we are used to from the 90s and before - not this new stripy stuff that they are peddling. I measured a pair of Levi's 550s and sent them those measurements. After washing, the jeans wouldn't fit, so I have never worn them. So, I recommend going larger if you order from them.

Something else you might try. When I found out that Levi's had ruined my fave 550s with cheap material and changing the cut, I went on eBay and bought 550s in 2 or 3 sizes. I now have a life time supply of the classic 550s in 100% cotton.

The irony is that I quit smoking and hit menopause and gained a bunch of weight so now I can't wear them. But, I am fighting to get back in shape and lose weight and am hoping that within a year I will be able to fit int the largest of the sizes again.

That's all for now.

Anonymous said...

A follow up. I just bought a couple of pairs of these:

http://www.denimexpress.com/wrangler-100.html

They are 100% cotton and cut very similar to the old Levi's 550s. A bit high waisted if you are sensitive about that. But the jean material is great! It's soft but heavy. Also, they do run a bit large.

I am a happy camper. Have not received the Harley's yet, but will return and comment when I do.

Anonymous said...

Last comment:

I received and washed the Harley Davidson's bootcut jeans. The denim is fairly heavy and 100% cotton.

They are true to size although a bit large in the waist. The top of the jean sits at the natural belly button. This is fine when standing but you are gifted in the rear, it makes the jeans ride rather low when sitting.

I would buy these again but prefer the higher waisted Wranger's mentioned above.

Hope this helps someone.

Anonymous said...

Can we just start a campaign, to bring back our 100% cotton jeans. Then whichever company decides to listen will get the business. I always wore Lee and Levi. Jeans are jeans, not dress pants, they are to be functional and comfortable. Once I find 100% cotton, it's NEVER my size, I'm not out of the ordinary, I'm just tall so I need 34". Really they make a ton of them in men's jeans...but not for ladies. Sorry just had to vent....

Anonymous said...

The reason women wear stretch is not because women like to shop or squeeze into too tight jeans. its because women wear their jeans tighter. Seriously, are you trying to be funny, or you really can't figure that out?

Anonymous said...

I am sitting here reading this in my favorite, faded, frayed at the ankle but otherwise amazingly intact jeans made by Faconnable (French company no longer carried at Nordstroms). If only I had known how stupid we women would be about settling for stretch jeans! Faconnable still makes jeans but the skinny type, etc, etc. I did what someone else suggested and bought three used (normally "ick" but I was and am desperate) pair on eBay. I am so glad I did. I have worn those, and the ones I had, to the point that I only wear them around the house and yard they are SO faded. I am going to try the Harley Davidson jeans. Never wanted to ride a motorcycle but, hey, I am happy to try them. Come on Faconnable and everyone else, many women want the real thing!

Anonymous said...

I spent a good part of my day at the mall looking for 100% cotton jeans. None to be found. I can't stand the stretch jeans. They don't fit and are saggy by the end of the day, and they don't last as long as the all cotton. I feel by the end of the day I am always pulling up my pants. I am so frustrated,and I just don't understand why there can't be both options. There are both options in men's jeans, I checked. Seems to me that manufacturers are being prejudices against women in this regard and it really pissed me off!