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Raw Power: The Return of Old-Fashioned Jeans

A trend toward retro styles, natural fits and unwashed denim should be welcome news to women over 50


Stick to the classics: That’s the advice from fashion experts on how to dress at age 50 and over. But when it comes to women’s jeans — which are about as basic as any article of clothing can be — finding a classic style poses an uncanny challenge at a time when hundreds of brands and dozens of silhouettes are bombarding the market.
What some consider the age-appropriate choice — elastic-waist Mom jeans — won’t do. Too matronly, too baggy, mercilessly mocked on eBay commercials and Saturday Night Live. Boot-legs and flares? They’ll make you look like you’re trying too hard. The market is also rife with ready-made fading, shredding, “whiskering” and other forms of what’s known in the industry as distressing — not a suitable look for grown-ups. Nor are today’s predominant styles: skinny and super-skinny jeans. Infiltrated with Spandex, they add a slick, air-brushed finish that’s contrary to denim’s rugged heritage. Yes, Spandex is forgiving, but just because it lets you zip up a pair of skinny jeans doesn’t mean you’ll look good in them. Besides, sooner or later Spandex sags.
But here’s the good news. A backlash is setting in, and we’re witnessing the start of two interconnected trends that might initially scandalize female jeans wearers over 50, who have become set in their ways when it comes to stretch denim, but ultimately should delight them. First, we’re seeing the resurgence of straight-from-the-hip, straight-leg, midrise and high-rise midcentury jeans, the kind worn by Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly. And second, these jeans are being fabricated, as in pre-Spandex days, of raw, unwashed selvage denim — woven on old-fashioned shuttle looms, with a traditional non-raveling edge, in 100 percent indigo cotton — guaranteed to acquire a patina of age. Like Slow Cuisine, which emphasizes craft and tradition, this is Slow Denim.
Jeans, after all, are more than classics. They’re archetypes, and when you start meddling with archetypes — with the very fabric jeans are made of — you get into all kinds of style trouble. Thanks to the strong twist in its yarns and its diagonal twill weave, denim has built-in strength and stretch. Adulterating it with elastic additives — or faux-aging it with fading and rips — betrays jeans’ work-wear heritage. Admittedly, Spandex is favored by many with less than perfect older bodies. Yet “women these days have to try on an average of 18 pairs before they find a suitable fit,” says Catherine Moellering, executive vice president at Tobe, a retail trend consultancy.
Traditional jeans, on the other hand, are “the only garment that really does become you, because it gradually fits to your body, wrapping around the butt, down the leg, over the knee,” says Thomas George, owner of E Street Denim in Chicago. “At the same time, denim’s tensile rigidity sucks you in, giving you the shape it was designed with. You’re a bit taller when you button these jeans up.”
Why the return of these classics? Raw denim jeans, with their looser fit, particularly at the thighs, are so far out of fashion that they’re moving back in. Or as David Wolfe, creative director at the Doneger Group, an industry marketing and merchandising firm, puts it: “It’s now hip and cool not to buy into the fashion game.”
Retro jeans in stiff cotton may be a revelation to today’s authenticity-minded Millennials, who are tiring of skinny and boot-leg styles. But it’s those of us who wore them in our youth who are truly going to treasure them — as I did, recently unfolding a pair of reissued Levi’s 701s, rich in inky indigo aroma. A madeleine experience, to be sure.
Of course, after so many seasons of super-skinny jeans, the stiff-to-the-touch, nostalgia-laden raw denim styles I’ve lately fallen for not only require patience and a week or two of breaking in, but they look artless at first. They draw attention to the midriff — a body zone we’re not used to focusing on. Monroe, for one, wearing high-risers in The Misfits, initially looks ungainly to me today, so what hope is there for the rest of us, I had to wonder? But the eye will adjust as fashion embraces the waist and hips — the next body parts of favor, Moellering says. And anyway, aren’t these midcentury jeans our style birthright?
I’ll recommend several raw-denim styles at the end of this article, but first here are tips to help you buy jeans with the right fit — and style them for a look that’s retro yet contemporary.
What’s a Good Fit?
Jeans that stay relatively close to the body are best if you’re out of shape. Larger women often gravitate toward an oversized silhouette. But Menno van Meurs, owner of Tenue de Nîmes, a destination denim store in Amsterdam, advises his customers “not to create more volume than they already have around the legs.”
In the fitting room, raw denim jeans should feel slightly snug, but not too tight. Since they aren’t pre-shrunk, they should be gently hand-washed in cold water (hint: in your bathtub) then air-dried. But don’t wash them until you’ve broken them in. Even then, they can go many months without needing laundering. Any stains are best attended with spot-cleaning.
Rise — the distance from waist to crotch — should be a close but non-binding fit. You don’t want the inside seam to grab the crotch, but it shouldn’t hang loose like a diaper, either. If you’re curvaceous, go for high-risers (over 10 inches). Have a wide waistline and tummy? Choose midrisers (8 to 10 inches). Slim hips? Your rise can be a bit lower. Both high- and midrises avoid the dreaded muffin-top effect of low-rise jeans.
6 Styling Tips
If you’re in shape, tuck in a blouse or sweater over high- or midrisers.If you’ve got the figure for it, a leather belt that’s almost as wide as your belt loops is a smart addition.
To de-emphasize midriff girth, wear your top outside your jeans. The waist may be a fashion focal point, but that doesn’t mean everyone should flaunt it.
Roll — don’t fold — your jeans cuffs. Slow Denim has great selvage — the tightly woven edge at the seams, with distinctive stitching — so here’s a chance to show it off, Moellering says.
Wear clunky, substantial footwear with a straight leg. This applies whether the shoes are flat or high heeled. When it comes to high heels, think platforms or wedges. A tapered leg can handle more delicate shoes — maybe even with a pointy toe.
Found a jeans style you love? Buy two pairs. That way you can have them in two lengths: one for flat shoes, the other for heels.
Have jeans hemmed so they reach the top of the foot, allowing the back to dip a quarter inch off the floor. Hem length should be a quarter-inch. Thread color should match that of the original stitching — usually mustard-colored, advises the New York-based fashion stylist Linda Rodin. “Otherwise, you’ll look like a total nerd,” she says.
A Raw Denim Shopping Guide
Right now, women’s raw denim mid- and high-rise straight-leg and gently tapered jeans are sold mainly at leading-edge boutiques, but mainstream retailers are likely to follow. Here are the neoclassical jeans that have caught my eye — starting with three Levi’s styles, all made of high-quality selvage denim woven in North Carolina on vintage shuttle looms. (After all, any discussion of denim classics quickly turns to Levi Strauss & Co., which patented the first blue jeans in 1873.)
Levi’s Made in the USA Vintage Tapers. Five-button moderate high-risers, these are a contemporary update of Levi’s iconic straight-leg, midcentury 501s, with the same hint of slouch at the top, and large, slanted, figure-flattering back pockets. Here, the leg is more fitted, making them suitable for a wide range of body types — including those that are less than perfect. Kudos, Levi’s. ($178; the ever-popular basic 501s are a more affordable, outsourced alternative, priced under $50, but they’re not available in raw denim. All prices are approximate.)
Levi’s Made in the USA Selvage Non-Stretch Skinny Jeans. These button-fly high-risers have a slim enough leg to wear with tunics and oversize dresses, for a fashion-forward look. Not for the wide-hipped. ($178.)
Levi’s Vintage Clothing 701s (aka Marilyn Jeans). Introduced in the 1950s, these straight-leg, 5-button high-risers are perfect for trim hourglass figures. Sold only at retailers featuring Levi’s Vintage Clothing, a line of classic re-issues. ($200.)
Jeans Shop Midrise Skinny. Despite the name, these zip-fly jeans are slim rather than skinny. Available up to size 34, they’re a natural for those who are not in perfect shape and want a trim look, though they don’t come cheap. Also ideal for purists seeking heavier-than-usual selvage denim — in this case from Japan, famed for its shuttle-loom expertise. The Jeans Shop, in New York, will pre-wash them if you don’t care to break them in yourself. ($260.)
Brooklyn Denim Co. Straight-Leg Non-Stretch. Non-gapping midrisers — a bit less extreme than 701s, they’re slimmer and higher in the rise than the Jeans Shop’s Midrise Skinny, and they come with a stylish selvage waistband. ($195.)
American Apparel Dark Wash High-Waist Jean. Totally unadorned — no rivets, no pocket embroidery — though they do have the all-important key pocket nestled inside the front pocket. These are the only pre-washed jeans I’m recommending here. Made of heavyweight denim, they’ve retained some of their rough texture. As with Levi’s 701s, these are best suited to slim, curvaceous women. American-made. ($80.)

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