Where would rock & roll be without blue jeans? More specifically, without ripped blue jeans. That is, blue jeans that came by their rips honestly, by long and hard wear. Cases in point: Joey Ramone and Iggy Pop.
By Ingrid Jensen
I am fascinated by blue jeans. I love hearing people wax romantic about their first pair of 501s or Wranglers or the day they discovered the perfectly fitting pair they wore for the next several years. The first rip was always seen as a badge of honor, the slow whitening of the fabric over the kneecaps and thighs, an artistic process.
I knew girls in school who poked holes in their jeans with forks, eventually working the size of the hole bigger until it resembled a bullet hole (or at least a tunnel made by a carpenter bee.) I knew girls who cut their jeans with safety scissors until the fabric looked like it had been sliced by a tiger’s claws, and kids who only bought the holiest jeans they could find. Pants that were more hole than fabric, swags of rough threads holding the gaps closed. I was a confirmed wearer of skirts, but I could see that ripped jeans were the Holy Grail.
Well-worn jeans are the personification of freedom. Katharine Hepburn wore them with a mink coat and pearls, lounging offset between takes. The Ramones wore their Levis 505s constantly, and blue jeans of any variety seemed to comprise Iggy Pop’s entire wardrobe.
It is, in fact, my theory that Iggy Pop was the progenitor of ripped blue jeans as a sartorial standard. While playing a gig with the Stooges in Cincinnati in 1970, he was attired in silver lame gloves, a dog collar, practical brown belt, and snug blue jeans slung almost below his hipbones, dancing in the fantastical, manic way that only the Godfather of Punk can. A girl in the front row sketched him studiously, and I can’t help but think it was because of the way his jeans were molded to his body that she was so utterly fascinated. It was the “lived-in look” so many high-end designers spend their energies on beating into brand-new jeans, only there it was achieved honestly: Iggy had worn those jeans until they had become a second skin.
Iggy Pop was the progenitor of ripped blue jeans as a sartorial standard.
The jeans that stick most in my mind are the pair he wore while fronting the Stooges at the 1970 Goose Lake Music festival in his home state of Michigan.
The jeans were worn away to the point of disintegration, slipping off his legs like chaps. Tears suspiciously similar to razor blade slashes or whip cuts decorated the backs of the knees and buttocks. It seemed as though jean molecules were blowing away in the wind, that they would soon give up the ghost entirely and fall to the stage in a pile of pale blue dust.
In 2014, Pop was asked by Sarah Owen of The Cut how many pairs of jeans (black or blue) he had owned in his entire life. “You know, I don’t go through that many pairs, so I would say, in my whole life: Probably 100 pairs of jeans would cover it…cause that’s how the holes and rips started. I would just keep wearing them, and I’d go, ‘I can’t wear the new jeans, these are the jeans, right?’ And finally they’d be held up by the seams…”
If Punk is all about the do-it-yourself attitude, so are distressed jeans. Rips signaled something very important: the fact that wearer didn’t care at all about opinions public, personal or sartorial. Invisible scars were made obvious in the outer cloth.
In the 1950s, wearing blue jeans was a radical act of freedom for girls pressured to follow their mother’s homemaking careers. The desire to distance themselves from their parents in terms of style and political agenda had never been stronger. Jeans were the rebellious garment of the decade, and then of the next, as the counterculture youth movement emerged in the 1960s and the line between feminine and masculine fashions became a little less distinct.
There was a rare element of equality to the fashion. No matter who you were, no matter how much money you had, the best jeans were Levi’s or Wranglers and within the price range of whoever wanted to wear them. The political demonstrators who brought down the Berlin Wall wore the same jeans as royalty on holiday, and American bikers and cowboys wore the same brands as Hollywood movie stars.
The Levi’s 505 model was introduced in the Summer of Love (1967) and became a symbol of the punk movement in the 1970s. The slim, tight cut packed a visual punch. Undeniably sexy, full of a certain hungry pose and swagger, 505s were jeans for alley cats, rabble rousers, artists willing to challenge the staid conformity of the conventional suburban 9 to 5 working life. Blue jeans were not office attire. The aura of protest and discontent that they emanated was palpable.
Joey Ramone wore Levi’s 505 jeans with rips just below the kneecaps, his lanky height accentuated by the especially slim fit of the cut. Johnny Ramone customized the legs of his 505s for a tighter fit.
Study the jeans on Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee from this New Year’s Eve concert in 1977 at the Rainbow in London (the music is pretty damn good too!:
Debbie Harry wore 505s, as did the model for the Andy Warhol cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers.
Memories are connected to denim, to work-clothes in particular—T-shirts and leather jackets and jeans—that do not attach themselves to other types of clothing. I once slid my hand into the pocket of my grandfather’s denim jacket, in storage for 30 years, and drew out an ancient pack of BlackJack gum, still smelling of spicy licorice. I remember the continental pockets of my first pair of Levi’s, which I wore horseback riding, and how pleased I was to notice the first fades and the white wrinkles etched into the back of the knees. My father’s Levi’s, which he has had for over two decades, are softened to the feel of high-quality flannel, and still going strong.
There will never be any article of clothing that offers a greater degree of comfort than an ancient pair of blue jeans, the knees worn to a threadbare fringe of white, the legs decorated with the rips and tears of adventures past. Yves Saint Laurent bemoaned the fact that he had not invented them: “…they have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity—all I hope for in my clothes.”
A friend of mine once called ripped jeans, “organized messes,” and more eloquent turn of phrase I have not heard on the subject. What are human beings but organized messes, bipeds with more problems than we know how to deal with? If you are what you eat, you are also what you wear. Style reflects mental state, ambition, and attitude far more than test scores or Myers-Briggs quizzes.
Ripped blue jeans could be seen as a symbol of America in 2019: worn and tired, but valiant, still hanging on to life.
May blue jeans continue to be a source of personal expression and rebellion for many years to come.