Let me go on record as thanking God that my daughters outgrew their teenage desire to shop for new clothes at a certain pretentious mall chain store. You know the one I mean: When you walk by the store, the music is at the exact decibel level that gives parents a headache, as does the reeking scent level of the corporation's latest fragrance. The store's posters and bags feature black-and-white photos of fit, shirtless, unsmiling young men whose blue jeans are about to fall down and leave nothing to the imagination, near-nudity apparently being an ironic way to advertise clothing. The clothes themselves are skimpy and overpriced. Worst of all, the faded jeans that my daughters longed for were already full of holes. Holes! They looked as though they'd already lived a much more interesting life than the one that their adolescent customers would lead in them.
When I was little, my mother had special iron-on patches that she used to mend the jeans that we ripped while playing. This was before she discovered Sears Toughskin jeans, with reinforced knees. It was simply not done, to go around with skin showing through holes in your clothes. My grandmother believed that you should never leave the house wearing ripped or stained underwear, because if you were hit by a car and rushed to the hospital, the emergency room personnel would see your shameful undergarments. Clothing that was frayed said something about the wearer, and my grandmother did not want that said about any of us.
Despite her warnings, my friends and I, wannabe-hippies, wore our surplus 501 Levis to death and then patched the holes with colorful squares of fabric remnants. Our jeans were badges of frugality, if not exactly the nonconformity for which we strove. We would have ridiculed the idea of purchasing pre-worn-out jeans. How conformist, we would have scoffed. How bourgeois!
But the brand-new-yet-grungy, destroyed look is now high fashion. Wealthy people seem especially fond of looking like ragamuffins, spending substantial amounts of money for clothes that would be rejected by Goodwill. Celebrities strutting for the paparazzi often sport the "distressed" look, wearing jeans that are riddled with holes and artfully spattered with bleach stains. Kardashian thighs show through rips in jeans, advertising the pose of a pauper, and sending the masses to the mall to snap up the same, albeit off-the-rack, look.
As I was inflating this little rant about the shabby state of designer blue jeans, my husband reminded me that, in our house, we display "distressed" furniture. Yikes, I thought, he's right: We took a perfectly serviceable wooden hutch and messed it up with a crackly paint finish, to make it look like it had spent the last decade weathering on the beach. It's one of my favorite pieces of furniture, but it looks beat up and ready for a garage sale, if I regard it objectively. Why do I find it beautiful?
It occurred to me that maybe we Americans like things to look old because our national history is comparatively short. Not only that, we are a mobile society. We often live far from our roots and from the neighborhoods where we grew up, so we are less likely to keep furniture or other belongings in the family for generations. Maybe stuff that looks old gives us a sense of permanence that is otherwise elusive. We create antiques because we have few real ones.
My rant was also deflated by a zoo story. I'd heard a snippet of news about people spending a fortune on jeans made from denim that had been pre-destroyed by wild animals. This sounded so decadent to me, practically decline-of-the-Roman-Empire-worthy. A little research, however, threw cold water on my initial disdain. The zookeepers in Tokyo covered old tires and big rubber balls in yards of denim, and then let lions, tigers, and bears play with the new toys. The animals were not harmed by this; on the contrary, animals in captivity benefit from any novel and stimulating challenge thrown into their static environment. The rough play mauled and marred the fabric, which was then made into three pairs of jeans -- one model for each kind of wild-thing designer -- and auctioned to raise funds for the zoo's wildlife preservation efforts and the World Wildlife Fund. In this case, at least, the ridiculous sums spent for torn clothing will go to a worthy cause.
But don't think for a moment that this lets the naked-man chain store in the mall off the hook. I'm still thanking God that I no longer have to dissuade my daughters from that particular brand of pretension. My grandmother can rest easy: This also says something good about each one of them and the smart yet fashionable adults they have become.