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The Era of Ripped Jeans


“In many cases, individuals are exploited by markets. . . .”

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens 


I really enjoy my time tutoring writing at nearby Santa Fe Community College, and especially because of the pleasure of working with young people. However, sometimes I see things that concern me. One of these is going high profile as winter comes on. That is the popularity of ripped jeans among female students.

Now, to put this in perspective, understand that I have been carrying around a quote by the Dalai Lama that has been a beacon of hope in a troubled time. At a speech in 2009, he said “The world will be saved by the Western woman.”

It’s great to see so many women rising to the challenge of providing new leadership. However, at the same time, jeans that look worn, faded, ragged, and torn have become a very successful feminine fashion.”Ripped and distressed” they are called. Is this some kind of conspiracy among markets driven by masculine imperatives?

Everybody is paranoid. I want to be too.

Levi Strauss

But let’s go back to the beginning with the history of jeans, “the quintessential American garment.” The originating company was founded by Levi Strauss. (Alert: He was an immigrant from Bavaria.) The first pair of jeans was produced in 1873 after Strauss and his business partner, Jacob Davis, were granted a patent for pants made with rivets at points of strain. The preferred fabric soon became denim.

At first, jeans were popular with cowboys, miners, and farmers; then movie stars like James Dean ramped up their appeal. In the 60s, hippies wore all sorts of tattered variations. In the 80s, the designer jean was born, modeled by teenager Brooke Shields for Calvin Klein. In the “grunge era” of the 90s, baggy jeans became popular. In the early 2000s, pop stars like Britney Spears made the low-rise (waist below the navel, way below) popular. A few years later, skinny jeans (meaning tight) came in.


So when did the ripped or distressed jean appear in the fashion firmament? Well, it had actually been present in the 60s among hippies; but in 2010, it hit the catwalk with designers selling them for over $1,000 per pair. The price was partially justified by the necessary damaging of fabric, which involved extra labor because the denim was so strong.

The jeans had to be attacked with lasers or ripped by hand by individual workers who might spend hours on a pair. Or holes could be ground with sandpaper then frayed by hand with pickers. Air guns were used to sand for a while until workers began to develop silicosis from dust embedded in their lungs. Many died from this.

Ripped Jean by Levi

If you search ripped jeans, you will see that the style is a free-for-all now. To the left is a classic Levi pair at about $100.  But the more rips the better, it seems. At the right below, the cost is $300. But really, it’s an anything-goes spectrum, and that pertains to price as well.

Extreme Ripped Jean

As I said, I’m noticing this phenomenon at the college more lately, and that’s because with winter coming in, those holes can’t be that comfortable. Maybe suffering for the “hip” look is part of the deal. And in the summer, the effect can be bad sunburns in spots. Not too attractive, I would think, but the whole thing is a bit beyond me.

And is this symptomatic of something larger, the constant “influences” in the media that make it difficult to get our own brains on the front line of our lives? I decided to check on the growth of the advertising industry–which is promoting this fashion, of course–and it is monumental.

According to Statista web site, advertising worldwide is climbing steadily and is expected to reach 550 billion U.S. dollars in 2017. As one might expect, the US is the biggest investor at $190 billion in 2016–more than twice what second-ranking China spends. (Never mind. We’re indirectly advertising for them, since they make so much of our stuff.)

But when you stop and think about it, we are constantly beset by outside voices shaping our values, our thinking, and ultimately our culture. That’s how many of us can get talked into paying a significant amount of money for clothes that look like they belong in the rag bag.


So I feel impatient with the manipulated feminine when larger responsibility looms. Ironically, I took comfort from a man who responded to a blog on this issue. His name is Alex Daquila, formerly of the U.S. Marine Corps. This is what he said:

“At the risk of sounding like my dad, here goes.

Hypothetically. . . .

Suppose I bought a new top-of-the-line car, but prior to delivery, I asked the manufacturer to knock out a headlight, tail light, crack the windshield like a spiderweb, curb-rash the alloy wheels, break two of the windows, and dent most of the body panels.

You’d think I was an idiot.

And suppose I said, ‘Everyone is doing it.’

You’d think I was another sheep in the idiot herd.

When this fashion idiocy is a memory a few years from now, and you’re looking at photos of yourself in distressed jeans, you’ll be asking yourself, “why did we all wear something so idiotic?’

Gives the term ‘fashion victim’ a new meaning. ”


Ah, straight talk from a man. It can be so helpful at times, (and I hope some of his male peers who also buy ragged jeans heard him).  But I feel like saying this to the young women: “Stand up straight and design an ‘I mean business’ wardrobe for yourself. The world needs you to decide many things on your own.”

And here’s something useful that could be made out of all those ragged jeans. A quilt would be very warm and comforting in these troubled times.








4 Responses to “The Era of Ripped Jeans”

  1. Les Fenter

    Thank you, for another astute observation, Ellen. For my two cents, I believe it has to do more with a generally low self-esteem of young women and older as well.
    Younger women appear to want to attract a partner. Sex has worked throughout our species’ evolution. As a male, I cannot help but notice the flesh exposed by the jean cuts. Some are cut so high derrieres show. Then coupled with the low-rider waists, butt cracks appear. When in line at grocery store behind one of these, I want to pick up a bag of Cheetos and tuck it in there and see if she/he notices. If they do notice, I’ll ask them to do me a favor and hold them for me a bit longer as my hands are full.
    Pat says I’m a lech if I comment. So I just look at the adjacent magazine racks. Holy moly! Yup. It’s what Hollywood and Sports celebs are doing. Well, if I wear Nikes, Someone will think I’m a jock! What else can I possibly do to be worthwhile? I think I’ll watch Entertainment Tonight or ??? most other early shows on TV, and see how I fit in. Yikes!!! Better get a push-up bra if I’m gonna be ok. Am I concerned? What do you think. I am concerned that monogamy is threatened. I guess, I”m especially concerned about children growing up with these tattooed cut-jeans moms. Their slumping self-esteems don’t seem to recognize the most important mission in their lives. C’mon, moms, offer your kids a role model that will help them be productive, independent-thinking forces of power.
    Whew! Well I feel better. 🙂
    Is decorum a thing of the past? Wait! Are we just getting old? Hmmmm.

  2. Kate Heath

    Good job. This is a combination of advertising and peer pressure. Remove yourself from both and you get to form your own opinions – and become hopelessly out of fashion! And contribute to a decline in the economy. Oh my!

    • Lynn Peyer

      Perfectly said, Kate and Ellen. I think the term fashion victim is passive as though the purchaser had no will of her own. May I humbly suggest fashion idiot instead?