Cyclic Trends In Denim Jeans

This is a guest post by Sourabh Sharma. He writes about the cyclicality of trends in denim fits in this article.

Jeans are a second skin to many, including myself. For boys and girls, men and women, and dudes and babes, jeans are the epitome of style, comfort, and are often referred to as timeless. However, the varying ‘fit’ combinations of waist rises, leg openings and ankle openings across the several decades since jeans were first made popular have always evoked mixed feelings. On the one hand I am always fascinated, and on the other I frequently cringe looking at the styles of yore (especially on me, in unforgotten photo albums, in the days of glossy photographs kept safely in withering albums). It is a natural phenomenon to want to conceal adolescent fads that seem almost inexplicable today. I am a Generation Y (aka millennial) guy, so I have lived through the straight-leg, boot-cut, and have arrived at the skinny, with waist rises dropping throughout the time period. Along with my passion for collecting and observing jeans and denim styles worldwide, I am curious to see how these styles have evolved over time, in terms of ‘fit’.

Not PhD equivalent research by any means, but enough to get a hold of the way jeans trends have become almost cyclical. Thankfully, the ‘research’ is made possible by the lucrative trend-spotting already conducted by curious Georges like myself, by speaking with numerous first hand designer sources and acquaintances, and by simply having a fashionable set of parents who have lived through many more denim variations than I have my slightly-over-two-decades span of life. I was curious to learn primarily about the evolution of the ‘fit’ element of jeans, not so much the embellishments, garnishings you might say, and distress factor, which can all combine nicely into an investigation of its own.

The history of denim is fascinating, right from its unfashionable roots of the 1500s, to the patenting of its rivets in 1873 (to think these actually have  a purpose!), to the various taboos and associations of jeans with cultural elements. I have looked primarily at the last six decades, as these have been the years that have escalated the demand and popularity of jeans, and have had the most impact on today’s jeans culture. Moreover, for practical purposes, these are the decades in which I still have mortal sources to recount their experiences, who are always the best and wisest resource (with the most terrific of personalities and storytelling abilities, too).

‘Knowns’ regarding Trends in Denim Fashion

As is the case with any experiment, I have laid out a few ‘knowns’ in my background clause. The first of these ‘knowns’ is that this is a unisexual study, looking at denim influences amongst the trendy, psychographically youthful, metropolitan and internationally well traveled crowd (this is my target market, or my sample space, in marketing and statistical terms, respectively).  Despite having not lived around for many years, I have definitely kept my eyes on trends, and have noticed that although men’s fashion may be slightly behind women’s fashion, it does follow the same path, especially when it comes to jeans. So, I feel that I can rightfully assume no gender barriers to denim fashion over time. Secondly, having lived and traveled in the Americas, Europe, Asias and Africas of the world, the second ‘known’ is that fashion moves westwards, an ironic twist to the fact that Easterners often want to behave in an unorthodox of Western way. I find Asia to be on top of the trend tier, with the most creative ideas for any outfits, especially jeans. Europe tends to also lead with its prowess in fashion shows and the elite aura that it exudes Northern America, for its business savvy mindset and lack of work life balance, seems to lag behind in accepting trends as they surface. Many women in my life have complained about this fact; for if they are American, they find themselves looking a little plain in Europe and especially in Asia, whereas if they are European or Asian, they see themselves looking a little too glam, or at least overdressed, in the Americas. Add this time delay to the natural slowness of men in accepting cultural trends (my first ‘known’), and you find men like myself buying outfits in Asia in 2005 and wearing them in the US in 2010 when they are just becoming a rage. I guess David Zinzenko’s detailed fitness and nutrition tips for maintaining body sizes really do come in handy to still enable one to fit into the styles over the years! (yes, guys do care and do need to work out too).

Variables of Jeans ‘Fit’

Returning to my ‘research’, if one may call it that, I have broken jeans into three identifiable parts that characterize the evolution of the ‘fit’ over time:

Waist rise: Defined as the length measurement between the crotch and waist, it is interesting to see the variations in rise from sitting at the hips and barely there to tummy tucking and belly covering.

Leg openings: This includes everything from below the butt-area to halfway down the calf, so basically what covers the knee area and its surroundings. The variations range from balloon-wide opening to the unbreathably clingy.

Ankle openings: This mainly focuses on at the lower leg, and more specifically around the ankle area, ranging from shoe-tripping flared to choking skinny.

Although I have sources and data on exact centimeters and inches that the rise is, or the diameter of the ankle, etcetera, I will leave the statistical analysis for a private study. For the purposes of trend spotting in a more perceptual and diagrammatic way, I have instead come up with hypothetical but relatively comprehensive extreme ranges for each of the three jeans arenas, and have classified trends in the last six decades accordingly, with the middle/median line symbolizing the ‘standard’ acceptable norm.  These can be noticed as follows.

Evidently, what my findings show are the definite cyclicality in denim jeans trends over the years, along with a divergence of simultaneously existing trends in the past few years. This is probably in virtue of rising populations, the wholehearted acceptance of denim jeans as a convenient must-have, the inevitably diversifying tastes, and the increasing resources for multiple designs.

Combining the trends yields an interesting pattern that correlates with historical and cultural influences, indicating how denim jeans are indeed a second skin to the populations of the world. The evolving trend is not merely created, but seems to be more a reflection of the perception of the society and its culture at various points in time. So, an interesting insight will arise from a more historical and perceptual element of analyzing denim trends.

On trying to better grasp the evolution and cyclical trends of the ‘fit’ of jeans, clearly identified above ,I have chosen to proceed as follows. I have split the decades into culturally influential time periods, aptly defined as eras, which do not necessarily correlate with the decade spillovers. This is exhibited as follows. Bear in mind that the collective trend diagram is for visual purposes; the vertical axis is slightly skewed as it is conceptual, not numerical, which is done for simplicity (i.e. smaller in terms of rise indicates extremes lower than the average 30 cm/12 inch rise in denim jeans, as low as sometimes 2.5 cm / 1 inch; while large in terms of leg openings could be as high as 20 or 26 inches for wide leg jeans; etc. Nevertheless, the trends are readily apparent) .

The last few years have been the most interesting, exhibiting not only the prominent trend is made popular by the millenials and fashionistas, but how an almost opposite trend lurks forward and prevails. Perhaps this is due to the fact that in these years, jeans have gotten smaller, lower, skinnier and overall require a more fit lifestyle and body, contrary to increasing obesity rates in many nations. The alternative trend (in a lighter shade in the figures) is perhaps in the mindsets of those seeking solace, comfort, alternative fashion, or are perhaps just a large chunk of late adapters.

Era A: Star Stuck Jeans

The likes of Marilyn Monroe left guys lusting with modestly slim jeans, whilst Elvis rocked the world with the dude’s version, as did James Dean, making it unisex at a time when gender fashion separation was quite prominent. The waist rise wasn’t given as much dominance, and the classic fit was at the waist, as it supposedly should be. At this point in time, jeans were not a fashionable item, but just a casual addition to a wardrobe, akin to its roots of being used for comfort during laborious work.

Era B: Party Time Jeans

The Beatles proceeded with the slim jeans trend, but the introduction of what our parents and grandparents call ‘hip hugger‘ jeans were a rage, popularized by rock icons, and were almost a precursor to the present day low rise trend. In retrospect, clearly this was the start of a rebellious and party centric trend that would eventually push the envelope in years to come, and bring jeans out of the casual closet and into the fashionable one. Interestingly, the newly positioned denim jeans were actually harder to get!

Era C: Hippie Disco Jeans

In this era, the disco scene became popular as the hippie culture took over the entire world, which, contrary to the tail of fashion following, wanted to be more ‘Western’.  ‘Hip huggers’ turned into low waist jeans, with wider and wider flares being christened as visually accurate ‘bell bottoms’. As is the case with any fashion fad, diversification is inevitable to occur, and the likes of elephant bell jeans also popped up, with flares so large they covered the shoes in entirety! Talk about tripping hazards.

Era D: Breathable and Workable Jeans

With the disco backlash, a derogatory term to something so culturally influential, flared bottoms reached an end as straighter jeans were demanded, in a modestly slim fit, thus marking a comeback of narrower ankles. However, baggy jeans came back in style with the hip hop and rap culture. These were also times of heightened global warming awareness, so perhaps people felt the need to breathe in their jeans. Waistlines also crept back up due to the more ‘straight leg’ feel (which I personally think is the least flattering of all fits). For practical purposes, including a rise in women joining the workforce, high waists and straight legs were in style, with baggy ruling the youthful boy’s nest. Designers jumped on the band wagon to capitalize on the increasingly popular goldmine of fashion.

Era E: Provocative Jeans

I call this era provocative since this marks a prominent rise in underwear exposition. If jeans were a fad on the framework of products, then this was the time when the low respect came into play, as jeans lost their fashionable and must-have position to other fabrics. Yet, a king never lies low for long, and the low rise ‘bumster’ jeans made a comeback, thus marking a repetition point in this cycle, as a successor to the earlier ‘hip hugger’. The credit belongs to designer Alexander McQueen who changed the face, or the derriere, of denim jeans. Initially these were paired with baggy jeans and made popular by the oddly popular concept of ‘sagging’, thus revealing men’s boxers and underwear (giving these a reason to become a raging trend of their own, for both men and women). Gradually, the jeans themselves began to slim down, too, particularly for women. The low rise was still a taboo, and restricted amongst the boldest of populations: the uber fashionable and extremely elite, or simply followers of Kate Moss’s strategic first move at Alexander McQueen’s show.

Era F: The Joyous Enjoyous Jeans

This is when laws got liberal, and the world became more united as if saluting entering a new century together. This was indeed the case, as celebrations became viral with joy, worldwide were shared via emerging social media forms and are still recalled today. The feelings seemed to have reciprocated on the world’s most loved attire. The low rise jeans became more acceptable and less of a taboo, thanks to the acceptance of starry characters like Britney Spears.  The next comeback, and thus a mark of cyclicality once again, was the widening ankles. Fashion enthusiasts thankfully glossed over the term ‘bell bottom’ replaced it with flared bottoms and the popularly called ‘boot cut jeans‘, thus lending to a visual image of being less dramatic than their bell bottom parent. The difference was the slimness of the fit at the leg and knee. Freedom and breathability was thus the main association with denim of this era.

Era G: The Split-Personality Jeans

With the low rise style at its peak, the skinny, drainpipe style of jeans returned, marking a repeat in this element of the cycle too. This was to the critiqued dismay of populations worldwide, as it went beyond the slimness of the 80s and into a skin clinging skinny style, with the notion that its wearer had to fall into its size reference.

The strange thing about the mid 2000s onwards has been the dual nature of fashion. Whilst it is apparent that trends are leaning towards lower, skinnier, slimmer, it is almost as if the bulk of the population is starting to feel discomforted by the aspirational aspect, and is clinging onto what we may call fashion of the yore. This explains why boot cut and moderately flared jeans have not disappearing entirely. High rise jeans, such as the Not Your Daughter’s Jeans brand, are also in style for their tummy tucking marketing to trendy baby boomer women. Men of hip cities, and particularly those of non-metropolitan areas, are completely averse to low rise and skinny fit, explaining their lack of adaption to the new styles of denim. The point was emphasized by Dockers’ sexist advertisement which blatantly mocked the skinny jeans trend for men, albeit its archaic undertones probably encouraged a higher trial rate!

Remarks about Cyclicality

The most apparent finding here is the cyclicality of the trends, and how the three main fit elements, namely waist, leg and ankle, always recombine to form the next trend. The cycles of all three do not necessarily correlate, else things would be too predictable.

The low rise trend of Period B made a comeback in Periods F and G.

The slim leg trend of Period C made a comeback in Period G.

The skinny ankle of Period B made a quick comeback in Period D, and a more prominent one in Period G.

Jeans trends seem to return every 3 to 4 of my defined eras. So, the upcoming fashions may not be too difficult to foresee (albeit trends like diversification, along with the importance of fabric type, embellishments, etc., can cause significant differentiation; these require yet another insightful exploration!).

What’s Next?

Naturally one may wish to anticipate what is next in terms of ‘fit’, obviously without ignoring the possibility of diversifying the current ‘fit’ elements via garnishing jeans with embellishments, destroying them via various strategic techniques, etc.  The unveiled trends give prominent hints that the duality will continue, at least for some time, despite Kate Moss’s influential prowess in sporting the high rise jean, marking an end to the popular and beloved (personal votes here, too) low rise. Ironically, she modeled Alexander McQueen’s ‘bumster’ jeans too, so things indeed do come into a complete cycle. So, here is some basic yet strategic advice for both consumers and designers.

As a consumer, one must invest in both flared, lose and high waist denim, alongside low slung skinny jeans. Both are likely to remain for a while, but the more extreme a trend gets, the less it is lauded in the long run, and the more repulsive it looks in retrospect. The indication hear is of the way we laugh at bell bottoms, or laugh at whale tails. This does not mean that people should look identical, like packs of cards; individuality should and always will be praised, and one should not shy away from displaying a quirky or crazed streak. But with few likes, limited closet space and few resources and options at hand, invest smartly, as you would in stocks.

As a designer, the waters turn murkier. A designer must first look to see what their designs are relaying: comfort or fashion, or the tiptoe friendly bridge joining both. Also, one must check to see who the target market is: those following trends to the tee, or the late adapters of the cycle. Bearing these elements in mind, designers should go for either the risky niche jeans strategy for the fashionable and conscious, or the universally embracive denim for the evergreen comfort huggers. Again, this depends on their positioning, appetite for risk and differentiation, and forward thinking strategy.

At the end of the day, nothing is predictable, but seeking trends in the most random aspects of the past is a rewarding exercise, particularly if it indicates that some things will remain around forever… like jeans!

About Sourabh:
sourabhSourabh Sharma is  professionally a marketer, a strategist and an engineer, has worked in corporate arenas for cosmetics and consumer products, but has flexibly crossed paths with the fashion arena, both via work and through perpetual passion. He has worked with brands that sponsor fashion weeks worldwide, yet the inclination towards fashion has been more inevitable. With denim being his favorite conversation piece, it is only natural that he chooses to investigate denim throughout the tides of time, cutting through barriers of trends, culture and creativity. He runs the blog – Food, Fashion and Frameworks

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