Last week, I was watching the latest episode of my favourite “scripted reality” TV show, Made in Chelsea. The show follows the social exploits of a group of young, posh 20-something Brits as they trip from one dating scandal to another. Faces are slapped, drinks are tossed, tears are shed and it’s all shot through the haze of an Instagram-like soft-focus filter so everyone looks a bit ethereal while they gossip and bar hop. Personal dramas fuel the storylines, but as anyone who watches Chelsea will tell you, the fashion sported by the cast is also a big draw.
It’s fun to see each week what everyone is wearing, and for the most part it’s tasteful and very “on-trend.” And then in the latest episode, Rosie (she of the big eyes and big floppy hats) stepped out in a pair of disaster denims that at once made me cringe and remember what the ripped jeans phenomenon was like the first time around, in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Rosie was wearing precisely the kind of jeans that made me cringe then and still now, as I discovered. Methodically torn in even rips, purposefully frayed and super-expensive — these were the ripped jeans of poseurs and hardly the style of true street fashionistas.
There were strict rules regarding ripped jeans. Well, my friends and I decided there were rules and that we, as the makers of the rules, had the power to bestow the seal of approval to those donning worthy pairs of torn denims, just as we were entitled to sneer and snicker that those whose were not.
I owned one pair of ripped jeans. I had them for years, the tears getting just a bit bigger and a little more frayed with each wear and wash. It started when I was 15, in 1986. I bleached a pair of old Levi’s 501s in the bathtub at my parents’ house until they were almost white, but really a very, very pale blue. The bleach, as my mother had warned, weakened the fibers and it wasn’t long before small tears at stress points like the knees started to surface. I couldn’t have been more delighted.
By the time two years passed, my prized 501s were perfection, and my mother’s most-hated item in my wardrobe. By this time, manufacturers were producing pre-ripped jeans and selling them for what we thought were exorbitant prices for a pair of jeans (little did we know that by the early 2000s, $100 for a pair of jeans would be considered cheap, and $300-plus the norm among the fashionable set). But it wasn’t so much the price that put us off, it was the principle. Ripped jeans were like a plant that you had to nurture and take careful care of, not something you just walked into a boutique and bought. They needed patience and respect. You couldn’t rush the rips, they had to come naturally.
We were such purists that to this day I still recall the outrage we felt listening to this guy we knew, Ron, explain in great detail to a girl he was hitting on while riding the train home after school one day the method he used to rip his jeans. He used a nail file, he said, to wear away calculated spots, then rip those spots manually and fray the edges with his fingers. We were aghast. Manually tearing your jeans was a big no-no, this nail file business was sacrilege.
Ron was definitely not invited to any party we may or may not have any time soon or ever in the future. His story provoked such an extreme response, when I ran into Ron many years later, my first thought was back to that day on the train listening to him talk about his ripped jeans. It’s ridiculous and surely only a knee-jerk response, but I’m ashamed to admit that the word poseur was the word that immediately sprang to mind upon the sight of him.
My ripped jeans, my perfect 501s, lived a long and happy life for at least four years after that initial bleaching and tearing. They died a sudden and unexpected death at the hands of a girl called Liese on whom they were slightly too-tight and she split them across the entire bum, proving another of my teenage ripped jeans rules true: real ripped jeans are a personal thing and really only made for that one person to wear.
Image: JoDean, Details magazine, November 1987. Photograph by Cathryn Millan Hood.