Jeans in Suburbia -- A Personal History

White Levi’s to 5-pocket Chinos


 I bought my first pair of blue jeans at the Hill School campus store. They were white. Off-white, really. The company called them “White Levi’s.” It was printed right on the tag, though they really were a beige color. Southern kids called them Wheat Jeans. I wore them home to Rumson for Christmas vacation, and to a RHS basketball game. People – girls – asked, “Where’d you get those pants!” White Levi’s hadn’t made it to Red Bank. The experience! My first sartorial thrill, wearing something new, totally cool! An antidote for teen-age angst.

 I picked up Louise Winters, my date, and her old man answered the door, Martini in one hand, Marlboro in the other; asked with a withering look, “Where’d you get those pants?” and that completely sealed it. Nasty old drunk, icon of a generation, embarrassing his daughter. His disdain was my merit badge. This guy, in his Hunter green blazer with the golf-club crest, white turtleneck and corduroy pants with the duck embroidery! If this old fogy had a problem with what I was wearing, it meant something. Gave me confidence in my own style. Still have it.

 So it was in the 60s, between The Beach Boys and Dylan that the jean made it to suburbia. No longer the attire of beatniks, cowboys and coal miners, it was only a matter of time – thirty-five years or so – until fathers – like me – answering the doors for their daughters’ dates, were wearing jeans. But the ones we’re wearing, “designed” by Europeans and hand-sanded to look worn-out, cost ten times what we paid for our White Levi’s. We may be gullible, but we’re way kinder. 

I can’t think of anything that has evolved to such an extent without looking much different. The tricky is how to know what makes the difference between hog-slopping pants and good jeans. Like wines, all jeans kind of look the same; but the more exposed and educated you become the more skill you’ll have in differentiating one from another. You have to know about fabric and fit to appreciate the differences between Army-Navy dungarees and what they call Premium Denim.

 Workmen’s pants are made of heavy, strong, and rigid cloth because they are designed to simply to cover the body, to provide protection in a work environment, and to last forever. They are blue simply because Levi Strauss, who invented them, favored indigo dye, which is strange because it is very caustic and not particularly color-fast. Anyhow, as a result of being made of dense and inflexible material they stretch out in places and stay stretched, developing bulges at the knees and a baggy seat – the kind of seat that, above which, you might see a particular type of cleavage. Old fashioned dungarees are designed to fit everybody’s body; (i.e., to have no discernable fit whatsoever.)        


Premium Denims are made of technologically sophisticated cloth, spun, woven and dyed to be made into pants that fit in a way that conventional trousers never can. (“Can” is the operative word here.) If you’re going to buy a pair of jeans for two hundred and fifty dollars you can have pretty high expectations. These pants should change your life (or at least your sex life.) No conventional trouser design can hug your butt as much as possible without feeling tight and give a longer, leaner look to your legs and lower body. Unfortunately, however, if you have a waist that measures more than 38 inches around, or if your thighs are unusually big, you may have to give premium denim a pass. In your case the conventional design, longer-rise trouser is most likely more flattering.

Naturally the distressed, unevenly faded variety will never stand in for a dress trouser, but straight leg jeans (or “5-pocket” pants, as they are known) in the dark, rich colors, from blue, black and gray all the way over to brown, can be a perfect complement to a tailored jacket in any season. It may be hard to actually get the necktie thing right with jeans, the rise being lower.  

 Better jeans may stretch a little, and they will certainly have been washed before you buy them to achieve a soft, lived-in feel. In fact, the wash technique and the resulting color and drape of the legs is the lion’s share of why they cost so much more.

You’ll see really expensive jeans in stores with holes “worn” into them by dollar-a-day laborers with forks and files and stuff. If you want to pay extra for that, I have a bridge we should discuss. Washing them repeatedly so they’re softer before you wear them is one thing, but trying to look like you wore these jeans to Woodstock is just a fake-out.

FYI     “Jean” is the name of a cloth for making sturdy, durable pants, derived from the old English, “jene fustian,” a name for a heavy cotton twill typical of Genoa, Italy (jean-o-a, get it?). And in case that’s not enough information, denim is a modern-day corruption of the French “de Nîmes,” the name they gave to the same fabric the Genoese thought they’d invented. Coke and Pepsi all over again. 

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