EARLIER this month, a friend sheepishly admitted to buying her first pair of skinny jeans. This fiercely intelligent, freakishly young financial news editor regarded her purchase as a moment of weakness, as though she’d been duped by a fad instead of finally following a near decade-long trend. I tried to lift her spirits by recalling another friend who’d blown her student grant on a single pair back in 2005, leaving her so little money for food that the jeans were soon too big. A thriftier classmate tapered her flares with ski-socks and boots through that spring. Those were true fashion victims (and I write that with sympathy) but she’d bought a wardrobe staple. These days, you can buy skinny jeans at any price point.
Skin-tight jeans are survivors at a time when trends rarely last beyond two seasons. They began their current reign back when Brad loved Jen, Lehman Brothers existed and George Bush was celebrating re-election. It was the best of times (the words “economic boom” didn’t make us leery), it was the worst of times (they probably should have). In 2004, the thong-flashing, pubic bone-baring flares that Alexander McQueen designed and Britney, Christina et al popularised looked horribly trashy next to this skinny silhouette the new boy at Dior Homme was working.
“As creative director of Dior Homme, Hedi Slimane pioneered a lean, mean, louche aesthetic that revolutionised men’s fashion,” W magazine’s Karin Nelson wrote in 2011. In an interview with Prestige magazine that year, Slimane claimed sole responsibility for the resurgence of skinny jeans, a garment previously associated with the long-haired rockers of the Seventies and Eighties. He took their scruffy drainpipes and priapic posing to new extremes. In interviews, he described David Bowie as “butch” and Mick Jagger as “like a trucker to me”.
His “new skinny” meant male models needed teeny waists. The super-buff model Dave Gandy, a long-time favourite of Dolce and Gabbana, has complained of finding it hard to get work during Slimane’s time at Dior Homme. Karl Lagerfeld developed a strict, low-carbohydrate diet (outlined in his best-seller, The Karl Lagerfeld Diet) and shed over six stone in order to wear Slimane’s clothes. The prolific designer turns 80 this year and is still wearing skinny jeans.
As if Karl’s seal of approval weren’t enough, Slimane’s aesthetic gained an influential following in the music world. He didn’t take inspiration from modern rockers but handed the skinny look back to them, ready-made. Hedi Slimane: Anthology of a Decade features pictures he took at Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys and The Libertines gigs, where he supplied clothes to the trend-setting bands.
In fashion as in life, what’s good for the gander the goose wants for herself. The women’s shows were soon replete with pants that highlighted concave thighs and tiny ankles. Kate Moss was an early adopter of then-boyfriend Pete Doherty’s favourite style and wore super-skinny jeans from Superfine — the premium denim label created by stylist Lucy Pinter and photographer Flora Evans — religiously through 2006. Moss has a well-documented impact on the clothes high-street stores choose to translate from the catwalk (her decisions exert what Vogue calls “the Kate effect” on sales). Nascent, similarly spindly-legged fashionistas like Alexa Chung and Sienna Miller bolstered demand. Celebrities began wearing them on the red carpet. The jeans were a dress-up or dress-down item this time around, and no longer synonymous with rock-and-roll chic. In music videos, you are just as likely to spot Girls Aloud or Rihanna in skinnies as Alison Mosshart and Meg White.
Skinny jeans haven’t been the only cut in town all this time. Trends for cargo jeans, maharishi jeans, denim jodhpurs, boyfriend jeans and wide-legged, high-waist styles have all come and gone. The number of available styles fluctuates but skinnies remain ubiquitous.
What’s really kept skinny jeans on the street is their appeal for women who don’t see Alexa as a style icon.
No brand is going to go broke selling a product with “skinny” in the title, no matter how many headlines encourage women to “celebrate” their curves or blame eating disorders on fashion designers. Indeed, the bad press that associates skinny jeans with anorexia is made ridiculous by the droves of full-bodied women wearing them. Ingeniously, post-millennium skinny jeans aren’t just for this slim. Innovative stretch-yarns and suck-you-in, lycra-blend denims mean they forgive a multitude of sins. The mercifully-brief trend for “jeggings,” a hideous, jeans-leggings hybrid, meant the truly lazy didn’t even need to struggle with a zipper for a bit.
Fat is no challenge to the modern skinny jean and neither is age. It is entirely appropriate for women old enough to have yanked them on the last time they were in fashion to sport this trend. LA label Not Your Daughter’s Jeans offers high-waist skinnies with “Lift-Tuck Technology” that flatten and elevate where you’d imagine but a toned (not skinny), woman over 40 really needs no such help. Michelle Obama attended the 2012 Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards in unforgiving silver skinnies by Helmut Lang, no tummy-support required.