When I reach for my favorite pair of jeans, I never stop to think about how they came to be. Mostly I notice how they’re looking worse for the wear lately and that I need to buy a replacement pair—something many of us are gearing up to do these days, especially with the September issues of fashion magazines listing the seasonal must-haves. Just thumbing through the pages and seeing how much space these magazines devote to jeans—how to find the perfect fit, what brands are the hottest, and even how to care for them—it’s amazing that pants of such humble origins could carry that kind of importance. But to this day, no other item has become such a universal wardrobe staple as a good pair of blue jeans.
An American Institution with European Origins
Jeans are widely accepted as one of the most prominent symbols of American culture, but they got their start in Europe and didn’t reach the U.S. until the Gold Rush, when a man named Leob Strauss moved to California to open a branch of his brother’s fabric business in San Francisco. At the time, there was a huge demand among gold miners for work pants that could withstand a lot of wear and tear, so he began producing pants instead and a fashion mainstay was born. Years later, cinematic cowboy culture and idols like James Dean and Elvis made jeans cool and anti-establishment. When they were embraced by hippies in the ’60s and ’70s, it only solidified that status. By the 1990s, a multitude of styles and brands—everything from discount to designer, perfectly tailored to ripped, light blue to the darkest black—were readily available for the masses.
The Biggest Problem: Breaking Them In
Jeans have come a long way in their years, going from a worker’s uniform to the must-have article of clothing worn by the young, old, rich, poor, and everyone in between. But despite numerous brands on the market pumping out hundreds of different designs, none of them have solved the eternal question—how do you properly break in a pair of jeans? Even the “worn out” styles particularly popular these days don’t immediately have that comfortable feeling we all seek. So what’s the secret to making new or freshly-washed jeans feel like they’re made for you?
Many people I know (myself included) prefer the squat method—doing squats and leg bends until the jeans feel less constrictive. One woman I know does lunges back and forth across her room. But according to Real Simple magazine, the best way to break in jeans is to wash them (cold water retains the color), pull them from the dryer when they’re still slightly damp, and wear them. That’s the best way to get the jeans to adapt to your natural shape. If they’re still too stiff, try throwing them in the dryer with a few clean pairs of sneakers to soften the fabric.
Cleanliness Without Destruction
There’s a lot of debate about the proper method for washing jeans. When I told my friend I put them in the dryer, she was aghast, claiming the only way to deal with dirty jeans was to soak them and then line-dry them. Generally, the preferred way to clean jeans is to wash them inside out in cold water, throwing in a little vinegar if you want to make the color last longer. And while letting them complete an entire cycle in the dryer can shrink them (oops!), throwing them in there until they’re only damp is recommended.
Once they’re at that state, hang them up to finish drying. Apparently heat is what destroys jeans, so if you’re planning on ironing them, only do it when they’re still damp. To ensure they look as good as the day you bought them, try dry cleaning or washing them as infrequently as possible. In fact, some believe you should prolong the first wash for as long as possible; one brand even recommends as long as six months!
Putting Them Out to Pasture
As hard as it is to say goodbye to a beloved pair of jeans, there are certain factors—crotch holes and unfortunate stains, for example—that warrant retirement. But that doesn’t automatically mean throwing them out. Denim is a durable, versatile fabric that needn’t be wasted, especially when there are many ways to utilize it. The Internet’s a great resource for fun crafting projects, but here are a few of my favorites.
- Use the material to make a quilt. My friend’s grandmother did this with his childhood jeans and crafted the best beach blanket ever.
- Denim also works great for potholders, purses, book covers, protectors for MP3 players, tote bags, and so forth. These make great gifts, too!
- Create a whole new outfit—turn jeans into skirts, shorts, and aprons, or use the fabric as patchwork for jackets, hoodies, and other clothing pieces.
Even as I’m cursing designers in a department store dressing room because the ten pairs of jeans I brought in with me—all the same size, mind you—all fit drastically differently, I can’t help but marvel at this simple article’s important place in the world. Somehow, what started as one man’s fabric business dream became the essential bottom half of outfits worn around the world. It’s remarkable how a little ingenuity and determination can affect style so dramatically. Now if only they could figure out how to make jeans comfortable right off the rack and make each size standard across all brands. Oh, to dream the impossible dream.