How Jeans Got Weird

Leggings could never.

Two women with pink hair dressed in matching denim outfits
Kirstin Sinclair / Getty

It’s hard to imagine how a person could be better at wearing jeans than Rihanna. While the pop star is practically worshipped in fashion circles for her wardrobe’s endless variety, the one thing she clothes herself in nearly constantly is denim. Her repertoire includes every permutation of jeans imaginable, but also extends to denim jackets, denim dresses, denim shorts, denim skirts, denim thigh-high boots, and, on at least one occasion, a carpet-dusting denim train.

Rihanna is one of the most photographed people alive, so her appreciation for denim has made her a walking billboard for the fabric—especially its abundance. Daily paparazzi photos of her entering airports or leaving hotels have proved that virtually every type of clothing, at every price, can now be made of denim. Jeans themselves have never been more varied: cropped, skinny, wide, straight, kick-flared, light, dark, distressed, embellished.

For denim purveyors, Rihanna’s favor years couldn’t be more opportune. Before 2018, the American jeans market had been in decline for half a decade. Consumers turned to stretchy pants and leggings, spurring many nervous whispers in the fashion industry about denim’s demise. Now, thanks to a confluence of factors, it’s clear that the death of denim was largely exaggerated. Not only is America getting a little bored of its black leggings, but jeans are back and, in many ways, bigger—and wider, skinnier, shorter, and more varied—than ever.

If you want to sell clothes in America, it helps a lot if buyers think your product is cool. Jeans have a backstory that any marketer would kill for. “Denim first became popular in the 1920s and 1930s in tandem with the rise of Hollywood,” explains Emma McClendon, an associate curator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who orchestrated a denim retrospective at the museum in 2015. “That positioned jeans as the uniform of the lone cowboy, synonymous with the romance and promise of the American West.”

Over the years, the cuts and washes changed, but denim’s position as a relatively democratic element of the wardrobes of stylish, influential people didn’t. Bell-bottoms ruled the late ’60s and ’70s. Acid wash and tapered legs took over in the 1980s. Looser, higher-rise mom and dad jeans were part of millions of outfits in the ’90s, a decade capped by several years of angsty skater teens embracing enormous JNCOs. In the 2000s, celebrities took “low rise” and “skinny” to their logical extremes.

Then, for a moment, denim fell off. The jeans popular during the 2000s were uncomfortable and difficult to wear for the hundreds of millions of Americans without pop-star bodies. Cool jeans also suddenly became quite expensive. New designer brands such as Seven for All Mankind and Citizens of Humanity boosted prices well over $150, which made it harder than ever for people to feel like they could be on equal fashion footing with the celebrities whose looks they wanted to emulate.

By the end of the decade, people were ready for something different, and “athleisure”—leggings, joggers, and yoga pants—swooped in. Leggings were far more comfortable than the super-tight jeans of the previous decade. They arrived as much of America was casualizing quickly enough to accommodate stretchy pants in social life and some workplaces. People began searching for yoga pants in earnest in late 2011, and American denim sales began to decline within a year or so.

But the singular reign of leggings was short-lived. After a few years, people seemed to realize that maybe thin elastic pants aren’t perfect for all occasions. Usually clothing trends as big as athleisure maintain their dominance for at least a decade, but black leggings only allow for so many looks. Jeans were poised to strike back. “The increased popularity of denim is a reaction to the dominance of the leggings and yoga pants of athleisure,” McClendon says. Last year, for the first time in half a decade, sales of denim increased.

Leggings are a perfectly reasonable way to clothe the lower half of your body, but in situations where you want to wear an outfit instead of just put on some clothes, they don’t provide much personality. That’s where jeans excel. Jonathan Cheung, Levi’s senior vice president of design innovation, credits Rihanna, along with other mega-famous creatives including Beyoncé, Kanye West, and the Off-White founder and Louis Vuitton designer Virgil Abloh, with helping turn the attention of fashion’s early adopters back toward denim. They did it by mixing often-inexpensive vintage jeans with luxury goods.

“It gives authenticity to an outfit,” Cheung says. “You look less pretentious when you offset your wardrobe with something so democratic.” That’s a power leggings don’t have. A pair of Christian Louboutin stilettos won’t work with Lululemons, but heels look just as great with the right jeans as a pair of fresh Nike Air Maxes do.

In the past, only one or two styles of jeans were “cool” at a given time. “Pre-internet, when you just had a store, you probably just had a little section in the store that was your denim table. Your denim table could only hold so many things,” Cheung says. “And you had traditional media, so you only had so many pages in a magazine that would talk about denim.” Designers had to go all-in on just a couple of cuts or washes and try to please as many people as possible.

Now denim inventory is as infinite as the internet itself. Fast-fashion retailers update their selections constantly, which means that nearly every type of denim is available simultaneously. Depending on whom you ask, the big thing right now might be mom jeans. It might be wide-legged cropped jeans. It might be skinny cropped flares. It might not be jeans at all, but denim jackets or overalls. Even skinny jeans have gotten easier to wear, as textile technology has found ways to make stretchier denim look more like the real thing. Cheung says that Levi’s only expects the market to become more splintered, right down to individual preference. Earlier this year, the brand launched a program called Future Finish, which lets online shoppers customize the detailing on their jeans with lasers.

For a lot of people, the desire for a unique look means going vintage. Straight-cut Levi’s 501s and trucker jackets have been around so long that they’re abundant in secondhand stores, and the aesthetic has found particular favor with young shoppers who obsess over online-only clothing-swap markets such as Depop. It’s those shoppers, now in their teens and early 20s, that brands will need to impress in order to keep themselves relevant going forward. Luckily for them, “vintage tights” just doesn’t have a great ring to it.

Jeans brands have a clear stake in selling the narrative of their own immortality, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Jeans’ cool past will seemingly protect denim from new trends, at least for the foreseeable future. As Cheung notes, humans are obsessed with stories. “We’re creatures who love meaning,” he says. When it comes to jeans, the stories we tell ourselves are just too good to pass up—even for the pleasures of stretchy pants.