It’s been seven days since the new pair of black skinny jeans arrived in the mail. Seven days of stretchable denim vacuum-sealed around my shins, thighs and the area of my body most sensitive to pressure. Seven days wearing what was once part of the hipster uniform, and is now the standard-style of pants for men of all stripes, according to no less august a source than the Wall Street Journal.
According to that report, Levi Strauss, Gap and other manufacturers of men’s skinny jeans are now making them bigger and stretchier to accommodate the average chicken-wings-and-Corona consuming American male. The brand True Religion has apparently incorporated a whole new “four-way stretch” spandex technology, aiming to democratize skinny jeans for those over 110 pounds.
Such efforts are directed at men just like me. I’m not skinny. Tight clothes do not flatter me. But if the jean-makers want to squeeze my thick thighs into a pair of impossibly tight pants, who am I to stop them? For one week recently, I donned a pair of skin-tight, crotch-assaulting skinny jeans to see how it could change my life.
My skinny jeans arrive in white poly envelope. They arrive in the mail, you see, because I had to special-order them. My 38-inch waist size is unavailable at the local mall’s H&M—apparently, most Swedes can slide into a pair of skinny jeans no problem. Instead, I buy American, purchasing online a pair of black Levis 510 Stratus jeans from the Red Tab Collection, cut super-skinny through the leg with a medium rise. They have a 32-inch inseam and 6.25" leg opening. Leave it to the U.S. to have supersized skinny jeans on offer for home delivery.
As I tug them on in the living room, I feel the material grab hold of every individual hair on my legs. Just as I am about to pull the low rise up by the belt loops, I lose balance and fall on the floor.
I look at myself in a full-length mirror. Fuck. I look like Robin Hood—or, better put, Hood’s outsized sidekick, Little John. I walk around the house all day like I had bucked a bronco. Let’s rephrase that: I walk as if the offensive line of the Denver Broncos stomped on my ball sac and wrapped black denim around it. When I sit down on the couch, I can’t cross my legs. I look over to the TV: CNN airs footage of the late Michael Jackson dancing in tight black pants on a lit-up sidewalk. It looks so easy.
I wear my skinny jeans to work. Thankfully, there’s not much going on at the Albany college where I teach. The giveaway that I am wearing skinny jeans, I’ve noticed already, is my ass. In physics, the displacement of one mass means it must go somewhere else. In my case, my ass is displaced outward.
The secretaries generally don’t give me the time of day as I rush in to pick up and drop off forms. Today, though, my Kardashian-scale booty causes them to look up from their monitors, puzzled.
“You look… different,” one tells me. She scans down to my black leggings. I tell her about my immersion journalism experiment, and she looks at me with pity. “The week will be over soon enough,” she says.
As I walk across campus, I notice my usual long stride length has been cut in half. Wearing skinnies forces me to think about my body all the time. I don’t want to think about my body all the time. In high school, I wore an ace bandage around my waist to hide what I thought were love handles. I weighed 145 pounds. Now, at 225, as I feel each displaced ass cheek move up and down, I’m just another obese American in tight pants.
“If you’re going to buy a pair of pants,” the great New York School poet Frank O’Hara wrote in 1959, “you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.” Forty years later, another New York poet, Shawn Corey Carter, better known as Jay-Z, took a different tack. “No one on the corner/got a bop like this/Don’t wear skinny jeans/’cause my knots won’t fit.”
I have always fallen in the Jay-Z camp. My knots, too, need air to breathe. But it’s not just my crotch area: it’s the top, middle and especially bottom. The baggy jeans boom of the 1990s marked a boon for those with plumber-like figures everywhere. As a pear-shaped white person who listens to hip hop, I rocked the baggy jeans. For years, I passed as a with-it, albeit husky, person.
I started seeing the writing on the wall around 2001. The jeans on the racks of trendy stores in New York were getting subtly skinnier. What happened? I asked my friend Kaya Oakes, author of Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, for an explanation. Back in 2001, downtown bands like The Strokes had started to take retro indie fashion to the world—skinny pants (also called “drainpipes”), windbreakers, man scarves, and the now ubiquitous ironic t-shirt.
Ah, that’s what happened. By 2006, skinny jeans ranked as the main indicator of someone who’s indie/hipster/Vice/Look At This Fucking Hipster.
And, in this author’s estimation, it sucks.
Oakes agrees. “They're really just a style some bands brought back a few years ago that's stuck around for a mysteriously long time,” she says. “Skinny jeans represent the worst of the co-opting of indie by marketers. While they did look cool on various heroin addicts in the 70s punk scene, today they're just a dumb fashion item that only looks good on a handful of people. Yet marketers keep pushing them on consumers, trying to make us believe they’ll make you fit right in at the Pitchfork Festival.”
My indie historian friend’s words are cold comfort as I walk inside Last Vestige, the local indie record store. Besides the clerk, no one else wears skinny jeans. The true record nerd, I think to myself, doesn’t wear constrictive clothing: how would you squat to flip through the stacks? Thing is, I haven’t been able to squat clothed in the past 72 hours and it’s taking its toll. I’d really like to take a gander at the newly arrived garage rock vinyl reissues, and I can’t.
I waddle around another record nerd in the aisle. He is dressed in the record nerd uniform: glorified pajamas, really a mixture of athleisure and homeless gear. He glances sidelong at me; he must think that I am a musician, I think. Fat chance.
I think it’s ironic that the people who listen to the indie music inspired by skinny jeans-wearing musicians invariably do not wear skinny jeans themselves. I’ve never dressed the part, sure. But I always thought I could. I buy a promo CD near the register to save face and go home.
In the 1992 comedy classic Wayne’s World, Rob Lowe’s character, Benjamin Kane, asks Dana Carvey’s Garth Algar how he likes new set for their show. “It’s like a new pair of underwear,” Garth says to blank stares. “At first it’s constrictive, but after a while it becomes a part of you.”
You could say my skinny jeans have started to become a part of me. Not! They have loosened up, around my muffin-top waist. My ass has grown accustomed to being presented out in public. But then there’s the pain.
Perhaps it’s psychosomatic, but I have begun to feel a slight tingle in my inner thigh. This, I fear, could be an early symptom of Tingling Thigh Syndrome, which is not a joke, but rather a real ailment that doctors have reported can potentially be caused by the wearing of skinny jeans, the extreme pressure of which can constrict the femoral nerves that run from groin to outer thigh to knee, leading to a condition known as meralgia paresthetica, Latin for “tragically hip with your balls in a vice.”
Toss Frisbees in back yard with friends and their two boys. My thigh-tingle is getting worse, and is especially noticeable as I dive into the bushes while jumping for the disc. I don’t want to talk about it.
I decide to take the train to New York City, the heart of the skinny jeans universe, for inspiration. Out in the suburbs, why would anyone wear skinnies? I need to step up the experiment. Plus I need to go on a bender and listen to indie rock.
My friend and I go for drinks at the Spotted Pig, where every male leg in the restaurant is sealed in skinny jeans.
I approach three attractive young women sitting down with drinks to ask for an evaluation of my new look, which has since been complemented with a vintage Member’s Only jacket and a pair of Saucony sneakers that I wear when I mow the lawn. Usually, when I wear my Member’s Only jacket people mistake me for a Gatlin Brother, but here, in my ridiculous costume, I’m a member of the semi-demimonde.
“You look good, actually,” Anastasia, 23, a blonde in a minidress who works in an art gallery in Chelsea, tells me. “If I saw you on the street I’d give you a second look.” I can tell she’s just being nice, but her comment speaks to the power of the skinny jeans.
But then she adds a caveat: “If I see someone who is not wearing skinny jeans now, I just assume that person is a tourist.”
“Plebian, if you will,” chimes in Alexandra, 23, who interns at a lifestyle magazine.
If I could stop blushing from the compliments thrown my way, I’d remind myself that skinny jeans are already passé with a certain early-adopter crowd in New York (thus confirming the truism that once a trend appears in a newspaper, it’s in its death throes). The girls talk amongst themselves.
“If I see one more woman in acid wash skinny jeans with ripped-out holes,” Anastasia says, “I’ll tell her she’s got to go back to L.A.”
Then Gloria, 22, the brunette of the bunch, who runs her own clothing line, drops this little Zen koan: “Skinny jeans don’t have to be tight,” she declares as a hush falls over the table. “Just fitted.”
I take out my usual jeans from my backpack: faded Levis 569s, loose fit, straight leg. There’s a collective gasp.
“Burn those,” Alexandra says.
The next morning I set out to my old neighborhood: Williamsburg. The most hipster neighborhood in the most hipster borough of what is arguably the most hipster city on the planet. Everybody—literally, every single person—is wearing skinny jeans. I’m at a dive bar and I look up at the television: Iranian protesters are throwing rocks at soldiers; they’re wearing headscarves, handkerchiefs across their faces, and on their legs: skinny jeans.
The same skinny jeans that appeared on stage at CBGB, the East Village club infamous for its own brand of nightly uprising, three decades ago. I stop by the old club, which has since been turned into a high-end John Varvatos boutique. There’s rock memorabilia all around: photography books, posters, belt buckles. There are t-shirts for 98 bucks, a jacket that will set you back $1,200. The walls are filled with portraits from the club’s heyday: Patti Smith, Blondie, Richard Hell and the Voivods, and the Ramones. I go to the back of the store, the former site of the stage, hallowed ground. With my thighs a-tingling and the denim cutting off circulation to my shins, I try to summon the spirit of Joey Ramone.
I look around. Two stylish German guys model shirts in front of the mirror. Browsers sift through four-figure couture. Most of the men are wearing skinny jeans.
As I walk out, I remember the one time I saw the Ramones. It was November 22, 1987 at Glassboro State College, now Rowan University. Patti Smith went to college there. It was a Sunday night, and I was a sophomore in college. The Ramones had seen much better days. I remember how sad the concert seemed, how the sound in the gym made every chord echo and mush together, how kids started a perfunctory mosh pit out of punk rock obligation.
I also remember that I went because I wanted to get the concert under my belt, to check off of the list of bands I needed to see live. I’m a collector of experiences, you see, as opposed to an experiencer of experiences. I listen to records rather than record them. The promise of the skinny jean is that everyone can not only be skinny, but look the part of the tortured artiste. Perhaps the lamest part of buying and wearing a pair of skinny jeans is realizing that I can’t fake it. As I realized this, I felt that familiar tingle along my thigh, I asked to use the fitting room to change back to my usual frumpy jeans, and got on the train home.