Friday, 4 December 2009

Distressed About Jeans

I've just spent three days touring Sri Lanka's state-of-the-art factories dedicated to making cheap clothes for the West. All the big labels seem to be here in one form or another: Next, Victoria's Secret, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and, above all, Tesco and M&S (so much so in the case of the last that this island could be renamed Marksland - or maybe Roseland, given that the image of Sir Stuart is everywhere and his name is spoken with the awe that, in different circles, is accorded to Mother Theresa alone). It is all very caring and benevolent, I am sure, but I fear that a lot of land and rural livelihoods have been swallowed up to make it possible.

One of the processes that struck me as being a paradigm for the ludicrous situation that fashion labels are now in is found in every Sri Lankan factory making jeans for the West. Which seems to be just about all of them. It takes the form of distressing brand-new, perfect denim in order to age it so that it looks as if the wearer has had his or her jeans for years. Infra-red beams are used to make creases at crotch and knee; paint is stippled through pieces of cardboard with pre-ordained patterns to imitate the messy jeans of the house painter from hell; razor blades and sandpaper slash, distress and destroy the surface… you get the picture.

The result is thousands of pairs of identically 'personalised' jeans leaving the factories everyday. How sad that the character marks that made jeans such a graphic map of an individual's lifestyle and even social status – the frayed edges, spilled paint and worn-through knees – are now presented to the buyer with a sterile and mass-produced identikit identity. This is sick manipulation, no matter what gloss is put on it. It always was, even when it was first begun by the Italians, always in awe of Hollywood and its kitsch idea of the Wild West. It didn't have much credibility even then for anyone who knew anything about the history of America, and today it is about as convincing as Simon Cowell's TV personality.

Imagine a brand-new car being sold with artificially created marks of ageing such as scratches and dents and you realise how sick the jeans trade is. Buy them new and unmanipulated, like the cowboys and the blue-collar workers of America did, and make them grow old on your body with your own history in the surface and shape. As with your car, if there are any blemishes, they should belong to you alone.


  1. There must be so many pairs of jeans in circulation, and even more tucked away in the drawers and closets of almost every household around the world - why do we need to make new ones at all? Curious to know your views on the blemishes of others inherited via the eco-friendly vintage and recycled variety...

  2. Amen! The origin of jeans as an honest piece of workwear has all but disappeared. The "fashion jean" to me is almost sacrilegious and also somehow pointless. Madame x

  3. my 2 pairs of untreated (shrink-to-fit) levis are made in mexico and the dominican republic.
    i would be so pleased if they said hecho en U.S.A.