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Torn Jeans and the Phases of the Damaged/Distressed Jeans: How We Got to Rocking Ripped Jeans


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From the mines of the 1800s, to the 90s grunge-rock scene, to the heinies of the honeys on a high-fashion photo shoot, blue jeans have been through a lot. Jeans may be any closet's most resilient pair of pants, but sooner or later, they're going to show some wear and tear. But the thing about the riveted, indigo-saturated, built-to-not-be-taken-lightly fabric of denim is that the way they display the evidence of a rough-and-tumble lifestyle is actually what blue jeans have going for them. 

Originating as the uniform for some of America's hardest and meanest forms of laborers—the work pants of the workhorse—denim soon became, quite literally, the very fabric of American counterculture. Jeans may have already become emblematic of American subcultures—the tough pants worn by tough kids—but when you have pants as cool as these, it would only be a matter of time before everyone became hip to them, which would mean America's rebels would have to up their anti-fashion game. These accidental fashionistas from wrong sides of the tracks weren't going down as the denizens of denim without a rumble. America's punkers, rockers, street kids and street skaters clung to their threads, and began rocking them with their holes wherever they frayed, making torn jeans the ultimate in brash fashion statements of edginess. Torn jeans are thus the ultimate clothing expression of individuality—no two pairs of distressed jeans will get damaged exactly the same way. These are the pants of the American individual. Plus, they can be pretty dang sexy. Nothing like a beat-up pair of Fierce Berries.

Jean Washes and the Distressed Jeans Phenomenon
It would be some time before damaged jeans and torn jeans would mean the same thing, at least in terms of something you'd purchase ready-to-wear that way. How would it come to be that buying a pair of pants pre-ripped and damaged would ever become sough out in the first place? Hey, many people may like a worn-in pair of sneakers, but you don't see too many pairs of holey sneakers on the runway. So what is the deal with distressed jeans? The fabric of denim just happens to perform beautifully under stress.

Breaking in the Concept of Damaged Goods as a Good Thing
The thing with denim being so durable, is that they were made so tough, that they actually had to be broken in to be comfortable. In this way, not unlike a pair of rancher's riding boots or a newly captured wild stallion. In fact, preshrunk jeans (as opposed to "shrink to fit") were one of the first advances in pre-made wear-and-tear denim. Blue jeans were so inherently sturdy, it was hard to even fill them out properly until they'd been around the block a few times. But what if you didn't have to wait until several good wearings? Plus, there's something else that designers became privy to: the snowflake-degree of individuality in the fading of denim colors, not to mention the variations of thinning fabric, which made for a built-in fashion statement. It's like your pants could tell your story. You, and the many shades of your denim.

Stonewashed Jeans, the Original Distressed Denim 
By the 1980s, it became clear that people in blue jeans might be throwing stones— right into the washing machine. Perhaps discovered initially by accident, someone figured out that if you throw a pair of  jeans into the washing machine along with pumice stones, not only will the fabric soften nicely, but the result is a highly individualized expression of distressed denim. Apart from a brilliant lottery of indigo's dance with damage that made for cool-looking clothes, there's nothing wrong with shortcutting the rough, unfitted quality of the old-school shrink-to-fit variety of jeans. Everyone knows that jeans, in some ways, are like wine—they get better over time. However the wine analogy falls short at the stonewashing process, because nobody wants to be rocking any gravel in their grigio! Jeans designer, Rifle Jeans, would put the patent on stonewashing in 1986. 

 All About Acid 
It seems that the 80s would come to set a lot of standards for the torn-jeans movement. During this era, someone also figured out what happens when you give your jeans a wash with the chemical treatment. What you get is highly individualized variations in color that would become an iconic image of 80s fashion—acid-washed jeans. Acid washed denim is an interesting display, where the resulting lightened fabric creeps through where the dye has been stripped during this process—a power play on would-be imperfection. Weren't around in the 80s? Here's a modern interpretation of acid wash done to this denim dress by Aphrodite:

 

Pants Torn? Don't Get Distressed About It!
Washing accidental patterns or a relaxed fit into your pants is one thing, but at what point did actual damaged jeans or distressed jeans not only become fashionable, but acceptable at all? That's the whole thing. For a long time, they weren't. Nowadays, a bulk of the Fierce Berry favorites are highly distressed, totally torn jeans. But how did that even get to be commonly accepted? 

Those Jeans Are so Punk Rock!
While there were probably plenty of hippies lounging in Golden Gate Park lounging around with patches at the knees during the heyday of the 60s, it wasn't until the in-your-face anti-fashion of the punk-rock movement of the 70s and 80s that a brazenly torn, ripped, shredded pair of jeans took on a whole new meaning. There was a special edge or resentment toward mainstream practices during this era that flipped off anything even remotely clean-cut or proper. God bless the jeans of the fascist regime, so to speak—by thrashing them. By the 80s, if you were punk rock, you might even dump a bottle of bleach on your jeans, throw your seriously dirty pants into the wash, and then just wear whatever resulted, perhaps held together by safety pins and paired with combat boots.

Kurt Cobain in Torn Jeans
But it was the 90s that would ingrain torn jeans into mainstream consciousness, permanently, with the grunge-rock movement. Tshirts, old holey jeans and flannels were the uniform of an era. And while torn jeans may have momentarily waned in the headlines of fashion, they'd also never go away again completely. 

Torn Jeans and the Red Carpet
Nowadays, you see the likes of Kim Kardashian or Jennifer Lopez just crushing it in their totally distressed, hubba-hubba ripped-up jeans. Totally acceptable, and often encouraged, torn jeans are embraced everywhere with the possible exception of the office or a wedding. Looking to show a little skin and stay a lot comfortable? Shop our many takes on the possible tears of good distressed jeans

 

And if you think that's a lot of options, let's not even get started, at least not this time, on torn cutoffs . . . 

 

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