Mom jeans, however, are an exception—or at least, they are now. Although the 2003 Saturday Night Live sketch that popularized the phrase mom jeans did so as a pejorative (and the jeans did languish in uncoolness for more than a decade afterward), they’ve enjoyed a recent renaissance. Today, the silhouette—thick, nonstretchy denim with a high waist, straight legs, and a moderately loose, or “relaxed,” fit—can regularly be seen on models, influencers, and “VSCO girl” types on Instagram. Mom jeans, profoundly uncool and then suddenly very cool, got their revenge: The cyclical nature of fashion (and a mid-2010s shift in the national mood) helped rescue and revive a style that was long overshadowed by reductive stereotypes about moms and motherhood.
Read: The terrible stereotypes of Mother’s and Father’s Day cards
In the beginning, the mom prefix did to jeans what it does to everything else. Calling a pair of pants “mom jeans” implied that they were frumpy or dowdy—“the absolute antithesis of cool,” according to Emma McClendon, the author of Denim: Fashion’s Frontier and a curator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In the 2003 SNL sketch, a fake commercial voiceover describes a “nine-inch zipper” and says the pants are “cut generously, to fit a mom’s body.” The pants, the voiceover adds, are a garment that says, “I’m not a woman anymore. I’m a mom.”
As McClendon points out, in 2003, the trendiest jeans sat low on the hips and tight around the thighs, resulting in a body-hugging, skin-baring look (think Britney Spears’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” video). At the time, high-rise, nonstretchy, loose-fitting denim could not have been more out of vogue—and yet, as the SNL sketch writers astutely observed, moms were wearing it anyway.
As it turns out, moms were wearing mom jeans not because they were moms, but because they’d always worn mom jeans. “In the history of jeans as a garment, that high-rise, straight-leg, no-stretch-denim [template] is actually very typical,” both for men and women, McClendon told me. “The very first jeans that were really made for women—ladies’ Levi’s, from the 1930s—you could arguably call them mom jeans. They were basically 501 jeans [the classic Levi’s cut] but with a higher rise.” Those Levi’s were also the first pair of women’s jeans to be mentioned in Vogue, McClendon added, in a spread about what to wear on vacation if you were visiting a dude ranch. Jeans retained that silhouette into the ’50s and early ’60s, and according to McClendon, they remained popular among women, especially moms, as apparel for gardening or outdoor work at home.
In the late ’60s, young people popularized flare-leg jeans with lower waists. But by the late ’70s, high-end brands had started to push back against the suddenly passé hippie look, bringing back high waistlines and straight legs. “Gloria Vanderbilt, Calvin Klein, they start selling these sophisticated jeans. They’re not faded, they’re not ripped, they’re super high-rise,” McClendon said. The ’90s then brought a grungier look to the trendiest jeans, but they maintained their high waists and got looser in fit.