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Denim makes the cut with one leg in the past

Cyclists are wearing their jeans with extreme turn-ups that expose half the calf. It’s a fresh look with a practical purpose: to keep their denim off the bike chain.

Partly this is cycling reaching critical mass. But it’s also a mini evolution in style. If you’re serious about cycling in denim, the jeans can’t be low-rise or anyone behind gets a ‘rear view’, and the legs can’t be bootcut or too skinny to roll up. These are crucial issues. Solving similar sartorial riddles transformed a riveted miner’s pant into the defining garment of the modern age.

The archetypes of denim were created to answer a need: working on a car, riding a horse, and the mould was pretty much set by 1971. There was the 501, Lee 101Z and Wrangler’s 13MWZ; the iconic jackets of Levi’s 507 and 557 Trucker, Lee’s slim 101J and Storm Rider, Wrangler’s 11MJ and zippered 8MZ.

Denim is enjoying some kind of golden age, yet the whole vocabulary of jeans - the fabrics, construction, and details - were fixed nearly 40 years ago.

I put this point to Donwan Harrell, founder of upscale denim label PRPS, who bases his creations on vintage jeans. His response? Stretch denim. And he’s right, of course. Combining denim with 2% spandex, a 1970s initiative, has been revolutionary. Today’s jeans-wearing man likes selvage and his girlfriend wants stretch. Another post-1971 shift came in washes, which brought a softness to denim, and gave it new character. And there’s styling, with ripped denim, pioneered by proto-punk band Television, and subsequently designed by Katharine Hamnett, Vivienne Westwood and recently Balmain, an undeniably influential twist.

If jeans today are better than they’ve ever been - and they are - it’s because designers aren’t competing with the past, they’re building on history.

  • Oliver Horton is a freelance fashion writer and commentator

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