That Time I Bought 50 Pairs of Jeans. For Science.
Part 1: "Will it Be Trousers For Women?"
Jeans Science Log
I tried Pair 49 early this morning, before the rest of my family was even awake. I think they both know and don’t know that the experiment is still ongoing. I said I would stop at 40 pairs, but then Universal Standard had a sale, and I was ordering Christmas Eve pajamas on super sale from Eddie Bauer and saw these, and here we are.
These don’t even zip up. They are an immediate return. The only surprise is that I still feel a flicker of hope when I take them out of their plastic wrapper. Pair 50 should arrive on Thursday. Can I stop then? Will it ever stop?
Hello, my name is Virginia, and in the past five weeks I have purchased 50 pairs of jeans. I have returned 48 pairs. The two I kept are fine, but also pretty flawed, in ways that make me question why I kept them, why I’ve settled, why, yet again, the best I can expect is a lackluster relationship with denim. On Instagram, I’ve been calling this Jeans Science, because it started as an empirical attempt to answer a practical question: Why is it so hard to find jeans that fit well and last past one season? This is a question that I and millions of other people reckon with every fall, once shorts season ends, and social media is saturated with cable knit sweaters, cute boots, and autumnal leaves, all of which look best against a backdrop of exquisitely faded blue denim. And it’s a question that particularly plagues fat people who wear women’s clothing,2 because the options for high quality, well-fitting, plus size women’s denim are even more limited than the offerings in the straight-sized market. Only 13 percent of the women’s jeans sold in malls fit waists 38 inches or larger, Quartz reported in 2018, even though the median waist size for American women over age 20 is 37.3 inches. Every retailer they studied offered jeans for customers with smaller-than-average waists, but only 50 percent offered at least one option for larger-than-average waists.
In my life, there has been only one autumn where the jeans I pulled out of storage from the year before still fit and felt good enough to wear: Fall 2020. Yes, amazingly/randomly, by September of last year, the jeans I purchased in 2019 still felt fine. But you will not be shocked to hear that by March of 2021, that was no longer the case. I bought a new pair of jeans—okay, three new pairs of jeans—to solve that problem last spring and none of them really did. And then it was fall again, and two out of the three didn’t fit anymore. The third, the Seine High Rise Skinny jean from Universal Standard in size 16, fits great in the morning, but stretches by the late afternoon. If I try to wear them a second day, I find myself hiking them up every time I stand up or move. Because I am a person who does stand and move during daytime hours, this felt unacceptable. Surely, I thought, it must be possible to find a pair of jeans that fits me the same in the morning and evening, and even continues to fit that way through, say, three or four wearings.
Yes. I was a sweet summer child.
We’re going to talk about all the ways that all of these jeans failed. We will also talk about the two pairs I kept and why they’re okay if not great and what I’m actually wearing day to day. There is so much to say that this piece started as one giant 4,000+ word draft that I will be breaking into a three part series (you’ll get parts 2 and 3 after the holidays). But I will also tell you right now: The unicorn does not exist.
American jeans brands are failing American consumers across the board. And they are especially failing fat consumers who want to buy women’s clothing. There are many complicated reasons for this, and quite a few of them are rooted in fatphobia. And yet: we keep buying, and hoping, and returning, and buying more. Because we can’t stop believing in a myth that is ostensibly about the “perfect jean,” but also about the bodies we think we should have.
Jeans Science Log
Subject 6: Good American Good Waist High Waist Raw Hem Ankle Skinny Jean, Size 18
These are the first pair of jeans even worth subjecting to the full Jeans Science experiment: The Wear All Day Long Test. This criteria was suggested by the brilliant personal stylist Dacy Gillespie, who I interviewed here. Dacy pointed out that if my major problem is jeans falling down after a few hours of wear, I shouldn’t take the tags off jeans until they have passed that test.3
I am annoyed that it’s a Good American pair that survives the initial try-on round, because this is the denim brand co-founded by Khloe Kardashian, and I always forget to pay attention to the feminist discourse about the Kardashians and whether we are supposed to love or hate them. If I buy these jeans, will I need to have a considered opinion on Khloe, who does spend most of her time profiting off her ability to reinforce harmful and unrealistic beauty ideals? This sounds exhausting. But the raw hem ankles are so cute.
By dinner, the knees have sagged. In fact, pretty much from the jump, these jeans require constant adjustments. I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I’m wearing them, or noticing how often I pull up the waist. Is this what it’s like to be a Kardashian? Do they accept this as a condition of their jeans because when are they not touching up, perfecting or otherwise adjusting some part of their bodies? The jeans do look very good in Instastories. But: Return.
Let’s start with a history lesson.
I long assumed that American women began wearing pants when Katherine Hepburn made them cool. In 1933, Movie Classic magazine ran a feature called “Will It Be Trousers For Women?” citing the unruly influence of Hepburn, along with Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. In 1934, Levi’s introduced their first pair of women’s jeans, which Elle reports were worn mostly by women who lived on farms or ranches. “We have this perception that women became liberated, got the vote and started wearing pants, says Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, PhD, a fashion historian and author of Worn On This Day and the forthcoming Skirts: Fashioning Modern Femininity. “But pants didn’t come into daily life for women until the mid-1970s.” When Mary Tyler Moore wore pants in the comfort of her own (televised) home in the 1960s, most colleges, offices, restaurants and other public spaces still banned women in pants.
Of course, jeans, as their own category within pants, have a proud working class history, which 99% Invisible’s “Articles Of Interest” series covered in fascinating detail here. But it’s a history that belongs almost exclusively to cis men. This is not to say that people of other genders haven’t also always worked and performed manual labor, because the vast majority have. But women did it in dresses, or maybe their husband’s old farm overalls, until they joined the war effort in the 1940s and started wearing pants for factory work. “We couldn’t wear pants on the floor of Congress until the 1990s,” says Chrisman-Campbell. “The normalization of women in pants happened so much later than people think.”
Let’s be clear that normalization is different from the idealization and even fetishization of women in jeans. What began as a working man’s uniform became a kind of flirty cosplay for celebrities and wealthy women; a “look how normal I am, playing tennis in jeans and espadrilles” moment. And also, very much, “look how thin I am.” Anti-fat bias has been baked into how we talk about women in pants from the start. After all, the pants Katherine Hepburn made famous were a narrow-waisted, wide-legged style that are the great-grandmother of the 1990s JNCO jeans and today’s cropped, wide leg trend. All of these reinforce the thin ideal. We like them because we are responding to the study in contrasts that is a tiny waist floating ethereally above that long wash of denim. Hepburn’s pants were also elitist: “In the pre-war period, the only women wearing pants were wealthy women wearing them on their country estates, who could get them custom-made from their husband’s tailor,” Chrisman-Campbell notes.
When Vogue covered the ladies-in-pants trend in the 1940s, Chrisman-Campell notes, it did so by making clear rules like, “if you’re over a size 6, don’t wear them.” So the women who could publicly wear pants during the 1950s and 1960s were almost uniformly white, wealthy and thin: Mary Tyler Moore, Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, and Joan Collins (who was also quoted saying women shouldn’t wear jeans after 40). And when jeans did finally become a daily uniform—first for hippies, college students, and other counter-culture types, and then for everyone—they were designed not for comfort or functionality, but to emphasize women’s waists, butts, and legs. Levi’s launched a low-rise, pocket-less style for women in 1972. When Brooke Shields made Calvin Klein jeans famous in the 1980s, they were meant to be worn so tight that stores brought in sofas so that customers could lie down while they tried to zip them up.
This is the same message we receive today. “Skinny jeans” are so named because they promise to slim your legs, and when they first became popular in the 2000s and early 2010s, there was extensive discourse about whether they gave larger women “ice cream cone” bodies. Like every fashion trend, we saw them on thin bodies first, since that’s who brands hire to model clothes, and then we had to all work through for ourselves whether we could envision the look on different body types. We did that, Millennials, especially, embraced skinny jeans — and now jeans have changed again. The current backlash to the skinny jean is a shorter jean with either a straight or wide leg, both of which helped launch the conversation: Is it fashion, or is she just skinny? (Required reading on this subject: This viral TikTok, Karina Gomez, and Rayne Fisher-Quann’s viral thread.)
I started reporting this series when I was about 20 pairs into this project and realized it was becoming more of a lifestyle than a shopping expedition. And the more I talked about it, the more I found people who wanted to tell me why they had stopped wearing jeans altogether. Some of that was pandemic fueled, as leggings, sweatpants and yoga pants dominate when we don’t leave our homes. But Chrisman-Campbell, for one, wears only skirts. “I was working at a museum with a very conservative workplace culture, so skirts just made sense there,” she says. “Then I had my kids and none of my pants fit anymore anyway.”
I’m intrigued by this because I don’t think of skirts as particularly comfortable. Too long and you’re constantly tripping over extraneous fabric. Too short and you’re navigating exposure issues. Skirts also require me to manage thigh chafing with bike shorts or balms in the summer and tights in the winter. Skirts feel like work. But—hiking my jeans up every three minutes in the grocery store is also work. So is sitting at my desk to write a book chapter in a too-tight pair that are refusing to stretch out. As I tried and discarded more and more jeans, I found myself wondering if Jeans Science might end in organ compression or a UTI.
In their intensive field study of denim, Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary, anthropologist Daniel Miller and sociologist Sophie Woodward argue that when we say “jeans are comfortable,” we mean “psychologically comfortable,” not physically comfortable. “If you’re out in a crowd, jeans allow you to be anonymous or cool,” Chrisman-Campbell says. The “comfort” we seek from jeans is a kind of reassurance of our in-group status. And this may be another way anti-fatness and ageism manifest in fashion. Seeking physical comfort in clothing is framed as a kind of failure; we are settling, we are letting ourselves go. We want reassurance that we can wear jeans—the right jeans— because that’s what young, thin, beautiful people wear. But how do you find that reassurance when the right jeans aren’t accessible for your body? And why is it so hard to redefine that idea of the right jeans, and just give ourselves permission to seek physical comfort instead?
Jeans Science Log
Subject 12: Torrid Bombshell Skinny Jeans, Premium Stretch, Medium Wash, Size 18
Torrid is the anti-Kardashian of jeans brands. They’ve been bring cool and quirky to fat girls who love Star Wars t-shirts forever (way before trendier brands like Madewell and Anthropologie decided to “embrace” size inclusivity) and are rightfully beloved by a lot of the fat community. So. I want these jeans to work. I appreciate that they have a thick band of elastic sewn into the waist. This feels like a brand who has at least acknowledged that constantly hiking up jeans is not the goal. The wash is also anti-Kardashian; so much softer and more faded, like why would you ever wear spike heels with these. Why wouldn’t you just let yourself feel good.
By the end of the day, the waist is still staying up and yet no organs are compressed. Weeks later, I will look back at photos of me wearing these jeans and wonder why I returned them. But this is early Jeans Science days, when I am still convinced the Very Best Jeans are out there. And these… are not the Very Best. They are a little too long. And the soft, comfy denim seems to sort of melt my body. By dinner the knees have reached that amorphous baggy state somewhere between a skinny and a straight leg. Keeping them feels like settling, like comfort. But now I have to wonder: How much of that was my own biases at work?
Stay Tuned: This issue of “comfort” and wearability is, of course, also massively influenced by the fashion industry’s complicated relationship with the concept of “fit.” So that’s what we’ll talk about in Part 2.
The Gift of Good Email
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I’m linking to the specific jeans I tried throughout these series because I know you’ll want the visual, especially when the way they are portrayed on a brand’s website in no way matches up to my lived experience! But these are not affiliate links; I was not gifted any of these jeans and Burnt Toast is, rather deliberately, nobody’s idea of good sponsored content. I bought and returned every pair with my own credit card hanging in the balance. (And that means I’m also not responsible for whether brands are sold out in these styles or sizes by the time you click a link. Yes, it’s very annoying! As we’ll learn next week, it’s also what they do!)
I’m doing my best with gender-inclusive language here and always welcome your feedback! A major challenge of writing about the fashion industry is the fact that most mainstream brands categorize according to the gender binary. So I have to use terms like “women’s clothing” when describing retail categories, but it’s important to note that not everybody who buys clothes in this category identifies as a woman. As we’ll see in Part 2, this is one of many complicated reasons that “women’s clothing” so often fails to fit our bodies.
I know. Returns are a capitalist, environmental nightmare. Amanda Mull explains it all here. Dacy and I discuss this issue at length in her interview, but suffice to say: Until those stats on the range of sizes offered in brick-and-mortar retail changes, most of us are stuck working within a terrible system.