What’s great as a single but should never be doubled? No, not vodka. Denim.
When one denim item is worn with casual elegance — classic 501s, a faded jeans jacket, an ironic pair of dungarees — it gets labelled ‘iconic’, but double denim is David Hasselhoff. It is Wal Mart. It is stone washed horror.
Who makes up the denim rules? Even Marilyn Monroe, in a classic 1960 Eve Arnold shot, didn’t quite pull off the double denim look.
So how does that work?
Who decided that one denim is cool, but two denims are a fashion crime?
Maybe it’s just a made up fashion editor thing, an attempt to be iconoclastic.
After all, denim is the world’s most popular fabric.
Kate Moss has done double denim, perhaps showing that she can transform an established signifier of naff into that of cool merely by wearing it, then Kate Moss could do double bin liner with similar results.
According to anthropologists, Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward, authors of Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary, “On any given day, nearly half the world’s population is in jeans. In the US, the average citizen owns seven pairs of jeans and 15 items of denim clothing.”
That’s probably too much denim, but then they did invent the stuff.
A new book, Denim: Fashion’s Frontier by New York Fashion Institute of Technology curator Emma McClendon, takes us on a glossy, fascinating trip through the history of the fabric, from its utilitarian origins all the way to the runway — there are few major designers who haven’t had a go at using denim in couture.
Not that denim is glossy. That’s the whole point.
It’s tough, durable, comfortable, no-nonsense, and was therefore the ideal work wear for those heading west for the 19th century California Gold Rush.
This is where Levis came from.
In its youth, denim uniquely embodied the American frontier spirit.
It was about adventure, going forth, exploring, being outdoors, being free spirited.
It was never about sitting around sipping tea in parlours — instead it was central to classic Americana, from an era that gave us, via Hollywood, Converse and Raybans and those great big finned convertibles.
James Dean and Marlon Brando made jeans hot. From Bruce Springsteen to Clint Eastwood, Elvis to Kurt Cobain, they are the great American male democratiser.
Presidents wear them. Rappers wear them falling down.
Nothing signifies being a man of the people like a well worn pair of jeans: I am one of you.
Relaxed, informal, approachable.
Obviously it’s more complicated for women, given that anything women wear gets instantly sexualised.
A 15-year-old Brooke Shields told us in 1980 that nothing came between her and her Calvins (jeans), which even then, in the era of 16-year-old Page Three girls, raised a few eyebrows.
Denim, for all its ordinariness, cannot cover the female form without someone inventing stuff like ‘rear of the year’.
This does not happen to male denim wearers, obviously; Neil Kaman’s 1985 Levis advert, where he stripped off in the launderette, was about showing off, rather than being subjected to the predatory gaze.
Three cheers instead for Rosie the Riveter, whose 1942 wartime poster — “We Can Do It!” — became and remains a classic feminist image, and continues to inspire a million high-street looks, with her red bandana and timeless denim jumpsuit.
Rosie’s look never went out of fashion.
Vintage denim — which is, by definition, knackered — sells at astonishingly high prices.
Remember Bros and their worn, torn, faded 501s?
Tourists flocked to London street markets to pay silly money for old jeans.
Nowadays, when everything is Instagrammed and niche, old denim has its own corner of the vintage market.
Not that denim ever stopped being our go-to fabric.
For almost 200 years, it has been part of the visual landscape — the oldest jeans photographed in McClendon’s book are a handsewn pair of men’s work trousers from 1840, before even zips were invented (they didn’t happen until 1893).
Not that everyone approved of the stuff — for at least the first 100 years of its history, it was not something you wore in polite society, but, according to McClendon, “a stigmatised marker of social class”.
Jeans — and their top-half equivalent, the classic denim jacket, given to us by Levis in the mid 1950s — were strictly for workmen, hobos, and delinquents.
Even today, turning up at formal establishments in denim is a guaranteed no-entry, despite denim uniquely bridging the gap between work wear and fashion; it used to be normal nightclub policy to turn away those who arrived in jeans, for not being dressed smartly enough.
Which, when you consider how adored the fabric is by even the most fastidious fashion designers, seems odd.
“I wish I had invented blue jeans,” said Yves Saint Laurent in 1983.
“The most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed and nonchalant.
“They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity — all I hope for in my clothes.”
More recently, Ralph Lauren sent a preppy looking model down the runway in his 2015 spring collection wearing triple denim — a three-piece business suit, which seemed fine until you looked at it close up and realised what it was made from.
The same season, Chloe remodelled Rosie the Riveter’s jumpsuit to rather better effect. Spring 2015 also saw Dries Van Noten do a dark blue and gold denim shirt, which was quite gorgeously understated.
Many designers have done denim, with varying degrees of success.
The 2007 Fendi ‘Spy’ bag resembles something from a car boot sale, and a Junya Watanabe ‘repurposed’ denim dress from 2002 looks like an industrial sewing machine accident (perhaps I am alone in this, given that it made the cover of Emma McClendon’s book).
Several other misfires include a Roberto Cavalli ensemble of embroidered light blue denim — a frock coat and skirt — and Tom Ford, while still at Gucci, delivered a rare slice of awful in 1999 with his beaded feathered ‘Native American’ jeans.
The normally faultless Jean Paul Gaultier must have been drunk when in 1992 he designed a corset — out of denim.
Imagine being laced into denim. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
The problem with denim — as even Katherine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood must have come to realise, as each designer tried and failed to make a denim creation beyond the jean — is that it is a one trick pony.
It is jeans, or it is jean jackets. At a stretch, it can be cut off shorts or mini-skirts.
Or jumpsuits and dungarees, if worn correctly.
Denim is not waistcoats — not even if you are a member of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers — nor is it frocks, corsets, bra tops, coats, safari jackets (the denim loving Yves Saint Laurent tried it in 1970, with hideous results), clogs, bikinis, pant suits, maxi dresses, bermudas, or shirts. Yes, shirts.
The denim shirt may be a wildly popular item, but that does not make it right.
Today, denim is mass produced across the world.
“There is no such thing as a typical denim fabric,” says Jeffrey Silberman, denim expert at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, meaning that it is produced by differing machinery using varying raw materials.
But for the rest of us, denim remains denim — ordinary, everyday, cool, beloved.