As blue jeans fade, so does individuality

KAREN STABINER is the author of "My Girl: Adventures With a Teen in Training."

LISTEN, THE CAR dealer in my neighborhood has a great deal on a new Mercedes. It’s got everything -- a ding in the left rear bumper, a little crumple in the front grill, a paint scrape on the driver’s door, a missing hubcap -- and he’s only going to charge an extra $4,000 for all those custom touches.

Think that’s crazy? I bet you’re reading the newspaper wearing your $180 whiskered, feathered, frayed, ripped designer blue jeans, when a pair of undamaged Levi’s 501s costs less than 50 bucks -- which leads to the question: Who’s really nuts here?

It’s time to address the tyranny of designer blue jeans, whose price seems to rise in direct proportion to the amount of artificial damage incurred before they’re even shipped to the stores. High-end blue jeans are not just pants; they’re a cultural imperative for everyone from society matrons to hipsters who otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead in anything that reeked of the establishment. And while fashion week styles ran from skimpy little dresses to layered wool at last month’s fall shows in New York, off the runway the models tucked their very expensive, very broken-in jeans into very expensive boots, as they have since time immemorial.

There’s a slightly demented reverse snobbery at work here, a bipolar attitude about wealth that boils down to this: I have enough money to spend way too much on blue jeans, but I’m not hung up on money, so I buy jeans that look like the dog sleeps on them to prove that I really don’t care about it. My soul is even larger than my fashion budget.


But achieving this kind of status requires that there be someone to snub, and these days anyone who can locate a discount designer site online can lay claim to grungy jeans with fancy stitching on the back pockets, even if they’re last season’s. Exclusivity is a thing of the past. All you need is a credit card and a mouse to prove that you’re just as gullible as the women who bought the same pair at full price.

And has anyone considered the politics of conformity recently? Mobs of women attired in the same kind of clothes should be of particular concern to those of us who remember the late ‘60s and ‘70s. When we first stormed the workplace, we thought that a good wool suit, a foulard silk tie and a plain blouse would buy us credibility -- but once we started to feel more confident, we gave up the security blanket. Have we worked so hard, and come so far, to be held hostage again, this time by the imperative of a pair of strategically tattered, brand-new jeans?

The feminine mystique, this time around, revolves around the question of why otherwise intelligent women would allow themselves to be herded like so many sheep into pants that look like everyone else’s pants and cost way too much. And if blue jeans are the only pants you can think of in the $150-and-up price range, they may have cut off the blood flow to your imagination.

The sad victim in all of this is the antiquated notion of dressing up. I know a recent college graduate whose closet, by her own admission, contains a ball gown and jeans and nothing in between. My generation seems to have forgotten the swagger of a great pair of wool pants or the slither of a velvet skirt -- and the next generation may never discover them. Talk about a vast waistland. There’s no cultural or creative payoff here -- only a very limited notion of sex appeal, as evidenced by the amount of ink devoted to the prolonged shot of Scarlett Johannson’s back pockets in the film “Match Point.”


Not that there’s anything wrong with sex appeal; it’s just that we used to have more options about how we conveyed it. The real question is whether we want to keep paying way too much for the sartorial equivalent of a fast-food burger -- a product that’s anonymous, ubiquitous and a triumph of marketing over taste.