Origin of the Trend: Skinny Jeans

The question of whether skinny jeans are a form of pants or tights is not clearly answered when looking at the garment’s muddled evolution. Skinny jeans’ history is further confused by the emergence of jeggings, an even more awkward pants-tights hybrid, so I tend to forget that invention exists. Can a piece of clothing fitting that closely to one’s legs possibly be considered pants? Skinny jeans’ great-great-grandmother, breeches, says that it can.

Worn by men serving in royal courts across Europe, breeches “were fitted in the thighs and buttoned or buckled just below the knees”;  breeches’ successor, pantaloons, “were worn exceedingly snug” (WeMakeHistory.com). I’m not sure why men felt tight-fitting pants were a good option for fancy life, but I’m pleased that they eventually led to the origin of tights, the accessory that preceded the hipster-favorite skinny jeans. Emerson just wouldn’t be the same if modern European men hadn’t enjoyed showing off their well-toned legs (from all that horse riding, obviously).

Women were essentially prohibited from wearing pants until the late 1800s, aside from a brief moment when “4th century Persian women [wore] pants[, a] trend [which] did not really catch on or travel to the Western World at that time. The first big rumblings of women wearing pants occurred at the end of the Victorian period” (AssociatedContent.com), when bloomers and knickerbockers were invented to allow women to ride bicycles. These pants were more like long skorts–skants, if you will–which I find slightly offensive: women really just weren’t allowed to wear form-fitting clothing over their legs? Really?

Eventually, women were given trousers to wear in WWI-era factories (AssociatedContent.com), because I suppose skirts–and skants–would have been impractical, paving the way for their embrace of the leotard. The arrival of Audrey Hepburn at the forefront of 1950s popular culture brought the popularization of tight-fitting capris and “leotards [that] signif[ied] a lean, artistic minimalism” (NYMag.com).

Elvis Presley pioneered male skinny jeans in this decade, but anything associated with the musician was obviously deemed inappropriate, terrifying, Satanic, etc., so men across the country didn’t flock to purchase the pants (OrphansShop.BlogSpot.com).

Ten years later enters the hosiery revolution, starring Edie Sedgwick and her black tights. Revealing more of her legs than did Hepburn in her skinny pants, Sedgwick pushed the fashion industry further into a love of barely-there bottoms. The 1960s were characterized, according to NYMag.com, by skinny trousers. and the starving artist. Levi’s has since named a pair of skinnies after Andy Warhol. Jeggings naturally progressed from this era, when jeans grew tighter and tighter, no matter how unfortunate they are. (I am of the Jeggings Are Not Pants school of thought.)

And then the 1970s came along, resulting in a skinny jeans explosion. Rock bands across the world indulged in the trend, which became a punk staple. Skinnies were a favorite of “The Clash, Ramones, The Sex Pistols and were sold by the revolutionary shop Sex, run by Vivienne Westwood” (OrphansShop.BlogSpot.com). Skinny jeans are the epitome of counterculture.

NYMag.com points out the obsession with skinny pants in aerobic exercise classes of the 1980s, as well, but that’s one of those fashion moments, I think, remembering my childhood Jazzercise days, that would be better to forget. The 1990s embraced the stretchy pants, commonly made with stirrups (Why?) and paired them with oversized sweaters, a trend seen again this fall; but it’s better to think of 80′s skinny pants, like those designed by Donna Karan in 1985 (NYMag.com), without the accompanying image of scrunchies.

The 2000s are a demonstration of the cultivated use of skinny jeans, beginning with Balenciaga’s Spring/Summer 2003 collection (NYMag.com). It is now nearly impossible to walk a block without seeing a pair, in a variety of colors and sheen and fabric, in a shop window (especially if you’re near the Harvard Square or Hynes Convention Center T-stops) or on a scrawny hipster (especially if you’re at the intersection of Boylston and Tremont streets).

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on December 1, 2011.


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