Do you have some jeans that you really love,
Ones that you feel so groovy in ?
You don’t even mind if they start to fray
That only makes them nicer still
I don’t have a lot in common with Donovan Leitch, but I can agree with him on this one. I wore the jeans that I really love last weekend, briefly – they were £5 from Dunne’s Stores and worth every penny – but I had to change out of them later; the fraying certainly makes them nicer still in my eyes, but it’s reached a point where few other people are likely to share this view.
In short, they’re now my decorating jeans. For wearing outside the house, they had to be replaced some time ago, even at the cost of another fiver. (It’s a good five years since I stopped paying proper money for jeans. Not having a permanent job will do that.) On that occasion Dunne’s Stores came up with a bit of a curate’s egg: a pair of jeans whose cloth is a pleasure to behold in both weight and texture, but whose cut features a high waist and what I believe professional tailors refer to as a huge baggy arse. I tried to persuade myself I’d get used to the style, but it was no good – I had to haul the waistband up to my navel, which left me feeling as if I was auditioning for the Drifters.
So it was back to the mostly-reliable Dunne’s Stores, where a “20% off” promotion gave me a third pair of jeans for a mere £3.20. (I know, but I wasn’t going to argue.) The cloth isn’t as nice this time round, but at least the waist is where it ought to be. The cut of this pair does have one disconcerting feature, though: the leg’s got a slight flare.
I haven’t worn flares since 1977. For the benefit of readers who don’t immediately understand that statement (I know that some will), 1977 was when everything changed: music changed (both what it sounded like and who could make it); politics changed (what mattered and who could say so); and, perhaps most enduringly, trousers changed. Robert Elms said once that punk was first and foremost a trouser revolution, and I have to admit that the slimy little soulboy has a point. I was wearing flares in 1972 (and the kids I looked up to were wearing big flares). I was wearing flares in 1975; at my sister’s wedding in that year I wore a brushed denim suit with aircraft-carrier lapels and, yes, big flares. I was forcibly reminded of that suit this summer – the evidence is preserved in my sister’s wedding photographs, a set of which we found when we were sorting out my mother’s things. (Not visible in the picture is a pair of fudge-brown platform shoes with chocolate-brown piping, of which I was enormously proud. Those were different times.)
Come 1977, I was still wearing flares – at least at the beginning of the year. And, if you were around at the time, so were you. The flares, the wide lapels, even the platform soles became mainstream after a while; the soberest ‘business suit’ would have broad lapels and a discreet flare. One of the less obvious changes made by punk was to banish the flare and return jacket lapels to their previous modest, Graham Parker-ish proportions. Punk, in short, didn’t just change what the kids wore; it changed what the next generation of kids wore, and even what the kids’ parents wore. By 1979, if you were wearing flares, you were by definition still wearing flares. It’s hard to imagine any subsequent wave of musical fashion – the cocktails and zoot suits of the early 1980s, say, or the tatty jeans and lumberjack shirts of grunge – having effects as far-reaching as this.
The 1970s, it seems to me, really were different times. Looking through my mother’s old photographs – and there were plenty of them; even the ones taken by my father go back to 1950 – I was suddenly struck by how different the clothes didn’t look. Show me a flared trouserleg and an acre of lapel, and I immediately know we’re in the early 1970s – but where were the blatantly obvious fashion statements which signalled the 1960s, the 1950s, even the 1980s? Before and after the 1970s, people just seemed to be wearing stuff.
There’s a school of fashion writing, associated in particular with men’s tailoring, which I find unutterably boring; I just don’t understand how Elms (among many others) can get excited about the presence of four cuff-buttons instead of three, or about a chalk stripe being 1/12th of an inch across instead of 1/16th. A set of those tiny differences adds up to a whole different style, I realise that – and consequently much of the history of fashion is ultimately about these tiny differences. I realise that, but it doesn’t move me. Why should I choose between white and pale blue when I’d rather choose turquoise? Why should I agonise over switching from dove-grey to battleship-grey, when I could be wearing jet black with a purple lining? And if I couldn’t, why not?
The history of counter-cultural fashion (hippie, punk, goth) is the history of sweeping challenges like these, just as the history of mainstream fashion isn’t. Perhaps what happened in the 1970s – something that may never have happened before or since – was that the boldness of a particular counter-cultural fashion went so unchallenged for so long that it actually permeated the mainstream. (It’s only a shame it had to be that particular fashion.)
Or perhaps I’m just more conscious of fashions that were around when I was a teenager.