Jo Ashmead gets her head round her denim collection to find out whether there’s room for individuality in conformity.
A recent wardrobe inspection reveals what I suppose to be true of most: blue denim is the prevailing look in the trouser compartment. All sorts of styles for all manner of occasions, but are jeans a failsafe to fit in, or can we celebrate our differences by wearing the same?
As a child of the 80s, I grew up in jeans, but it wasn’t until my teenage years that I became curator of my own chest-of-drawers. And as such, I have a lot to answer for. First up, and because I liked to think of myself as quirky, I stepped out in a cherry red pair. Contrasted with a green ribbed wooly jumper from Gap, I earned myself the nickname ‘Christmas Tree’. Evidently not such a great look, but one I embraced wholeheartedly… until those Levi’s ads.
What teenager could resist the allure of a brand that promised instant fashion credibility? Certainly not one that bought Wrigley’s Spearmint, on the off chance a doe-eyed surfer dude hopped on the same bus. Christmas Tree felled, I donned the compulsory 501s like the rest of them. Hideously unflattering on my small frame, but I was delighted to fit in with the fashion flock.
Enter boys into the equation, and I opt for a pair of 1970s well-worn indigo-blue denim flares – hand-me-downs from my father. My motivation for wearing them was to stand out from the crowd and impress the boys with my vintage look. But then again, blue jeans from any era will hardly garner kudos for their uniqueness. And as all my friends strove for the same ends, our fashion statements were lost in the clamour.
It’s clear that my choice of denim aligns with that of my peers, influenced by popular culture – like the Levi’s ads – and stage of life. University years saw me in low-waisted Fornarina – casually sexy; first magazine job: Earl Jean – smart and understated; first home: Uniqlo – super skinny, super cheap; pregnancy: Gap Maternity – comfortable but saggy bottomed (the jeans, not me, thankfully); new baby: James Jeans – oldies but goodies, and hooray, they fit again!
There’s no denying that jeans represent the practical choice for so many situations. First invented for factory workers in the nineteenth century, then popularised in the States a century later, we’ve put them to work ever since. Which other garment can you wear day after day, night after night, without the visible need of a wash in between? Imagine treating your hair to the same routine… I wouldn’t leave the house.
On one particularly late morning-after-the-night-before, I crawled out of bed only to discover that I was hard pressed to make a lunch arrangement. I stepped back into the jeans I’d handily left splayed on the bedroom floor and rushed into town. It was only when I got up from the table at the end of the meal that I realised just how hasty I’d been in leaving the house, when a waiter tapped me on the shoulder and handed me last night’s knickers, which had popped out of the end of my trouser leg. For shame!
A moment of realisation of the ubiquity of blue denim hit me nine years ago. Red Hot Chili Peppers played live in Hyde Park to a crowd of 80,000. As I sat down on the grass after James Brown finished his supporting set, I was submersed in a ‘Sea of Jeans’. Varying hues of blue, this denim ocean was at once the sum of its uniform parts: independent individuals clad for comfort and conformity. Each of us unique, but all dressed the same – same time, same place, same purpose. A homogenised society, which for those few hours spelled nirvana, disappeared as quickly as the crowd dispersed afterwards.
But it’s not as though all blue jeans are alike, with the multitude of shapes, shades and styles available, entirely different looks are achievable. For example, two girls turning up to a party in blue jeans wouldn’t be cause for comment. But put these two girls in the same dress and it’s a different story. Depending on how friendly they were to begin with, reactions will range from hilarity (good friends) to embarrassment (acquaintances) to scorn (frenemies).
Even my other half doesn’t complain about the number of jeans in my collection, understanding that different styles are appropriate for different occasions. His own collection works on the basis that when his smart ‘going out’ jeans become too faded / ripped / misshapen (delete as appropriate), they become his ‘staying in jeans’, which in turn become his ‘in the garden’ jeans relegating those to ‘cleaning the bike’ jeans. And it doesn’t stop there – the final pair get cut up into patches to join his old toothbrushes in the bike-cleaning box (read graveyard for OH’s defunct possessions, with which his sentimental soul can’t bear to part).
That most of us wear jeans on a daily basis, or would when dress code allows, doesn’t quash our individuality. Jeans are practical, stylish and versatile. And yes, conformist to a degree: to wear jeans is not to raise your head above the fashion parapet. But the fact that we choose jeans for different stages and occasions in our lives renders them as diverse as each other’s experiences. More often than not when I get dressed in the morning, I’ll reach for trousers that are comfortable, practical and (hopefully) flattering. And if they happen to be denim, and just happen to be blue… don’t mind if I do.