A friend called me the other day with a thought-provoking question. Seems his club wants to change the members' dress code to allow men to wear jeans in the clubhouse. So my friend wants to know my thoughts on how to phrase the announcement. Apparently it's been causing some argument. How to tell a guy he can wear blue jeans, but not the dumpy, worn-out kind of blue jeans you might wear to paint a bathroom in. “What should we say? Fitted jeans? Dark wash? (What is that, anyhow?)" he wanted to know. House Committee members were throwing words around without much commitment, or even a good sense of what they mean. What did I think?
Let's start with some background. “Jean” started out as the name of a cloth, the word derived from the old English, “jene fustian,” a name for a heavy cotton twill made in Genoa, Italy (jean-o-a, get it?) “Denim” is a corruption of the French “de Nîmes,” the name the French gave to similar fabric woven in a southern French town. Dungaree? Same deal. The Hindi word for this cloth is “dungri” given an extra syllable by the Brits. But it was Mr. Levi Strauss of San Francisco who made jeans blue. Levi’s originals, quintessential workmen’s pants, are made of heavy, strong, and rigid cloth and designed simply to cover anybody's body, to provide protection in a work environment like a mine or a railroad, and to last forever. He was granted a patent because the stress points were riveted, rather than sewn. They are blue because he favored indigo dye, which is strange because it is very caustic and not particularly color-fast. Anyhow, as a result of being made of dense and inflexible material these original jeans stretch out in places and stay stretched, developing bulges at the knees and a baggy seat – the kind of seat that, above which, you might see a particular type of cleavage. Designed to fit every body, they have no discernible fit whatsoever, made worse by the fact that they’re sold in pre-hemmed inseam lengths, rather than hemmed to size, leaving most guys with a big scrunched-up mess on top of the shoes. Not a pretty sight.
On the other hand, made of lighter weight, more flexible material, nothing can fit a body as well as a jean. The informal way these trousers are made, without interior pockets and linings, make them fit closer to the body, eliminating baggy seats and floppy thighs. Jeans can hug your butt without feeling tight and give a longer, leaner look to your legs. "Premium Denim" generally refers to technologically sophisticated cloth, which is spun, woven and dyed to fit close and yet stretch a little. Most have been washed before you buy them to achieve a soft, lived-in feel. In fact, the wash technique and the resulting color and drape of the legs is the lion’s share of why they cost so much more. “Raw denim” is a throwback to the original; stiff, hard and rough, it has a look all its own.
People are sometimes surprised to hear that any jeans are considered dressy. The dressiness is in the fit, mostly, but the color is important also. Distressed, unevenly faded denim is sportswear material. Faded, sanded, "whiskered", even ripped-up and torn denim may be expensive because of these hand-done finishing techniques some folks favor, but expensive doesn't equal formal. Uniform color, a clean (i.e. un-baggy) fit, and an absence of distressed areas and wrinkle marks are the makings of a dressy jean. (You’ll see really expensive jeans in stores with holes “worn” into them by dollar-a-day laborers with forks and files and stuff. If you want to pay extra for that, I have a bridge we should discuss. Washing them repeatedly so they’re softer before you wear them is one thing, but trying to look like you wore these jeans to Woodstock is just a fake-out.)
Good jeans makers have started making what we call “5-pocket” pants, styled and made like jeans, out of fabrics other than denim, like chino, poplin, and canvas, and in colors other than blue, which have a lot of advantages – better fit, more interesting fabric – than khakis or your conventional chino. A 5-pocket brushed cotton pant is a perfect complement to a tailored jacket in any season.
My friend’s question was thought-provoking because it made me consider how it is that the old stand-by khakis and chinos ever got to be considered appropriate for Clubhouse Attire in the first place. You might look like a house painter in your Army-Navy store jeans, but how about those old, wrinkled, baggy, over-washed tan pants? Will someone get around to writing a modern, up-to-date dress code hand book that debunks the old stereotypes and brings us some new standards of what well-dressed actually means?
“Just say ‘dressy jeans’ are okay,” I told my friend. “They’ll understand.”
“Okay,” he said. And we hung up.