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27 August 2001

Tatty or tarty, jeans got our vote this year

The fashion gurus promised miniskirts. Annalisa Barbieri on why it didn't happen

By Annalisa Barbieri

Earlier this year, we were promised a trend – a trend not particularly new, more rediscovered: miniskirts. This summer, the pundits said, the mini would release women’s knees from the peekaboo they had been forced to play for the past few seasons with the on-the-knee skirt. Once again, we would see thigh and maybe even catch a glimpse of bottom. What jolliness there would be – after all, it’s difficult to take life seriously when the miniskirt is around. Conrad Black, the proprietor of the Telegraph Group, which supported the mini over the maxi a decade ago, would have been cheering.

But, like so much of what is promised – fashion is so like politics – that isn’t what we got. Instead of flesh, we got denim. We got jeans. Dark jeans, light jeans, very tight jeans, very flared jeans, jeans not so much low on the hips as skimming the pubis, snow-washed jeans, marble-washed jeans.

Jeans with graffiti are particularly hot, as are jeans by Lucky, Mavi or Juicy, which have replaced Earl, which replaced Evisu, which replaced Levis, which are now so yesterday’s jeans that they are almost on the revival circuit. What happened?

Those designers – Celine, Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Sonia Rykiel et al – may have wanted us to buy their very short skirts, and women in Italy, France and Russia did. But British girls don’t like wearing minis in the summer. Miniskirts won’t really be evident in this country until the winter.

Then, girls in the south of England can wear theirs with woolly tights and boots so that they don’t have to show yards of flesh, thus largely desexing it. And women in the north will use the precious extra inches minis provide, compared to their summer wardrobes, to combat the cold of winter frosts.

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It is not such a surprise that, instead of minis, we (I say “we”, but neither minis nor jeans were a viable option for me after 1984) turned to jeans. Although they seem total opposites, they are actually very similar. Both show leg, albeit one by tight cladding and the other by honest exposure. Both are seen as sartorially subversive – even if they don’t piss off your mum and dad, they rub society up the wrong way.

In most situations where denim is not acceptable, very short skirts also would be frowned upon. But, with jeans, this has caused a modern-day dilemma. Is it acceptable to wear a pair of jeans to an event if they cost more than £1,000 and are made by Gucci?

When do they stop being jeans and start being posh pants made of denim?

Despite the designer jean offerings – and there are plenty, from Helmut Lang to Stella McCartney, Dolce e Gabbana and Versace – both minis and jeans are still the uniform of the disaffected. And they both usually have two hits in a person’s life: as a teenager (rebelling against the parents) and again when the person is trying to recapture his or her youth (rebelling against a society that considers them too old). Jeans and minis are seldom for those with proper jobs and pensions, and certainly not for politicians.

In his book Cleavage: essays on sex, stars and aesthetics, Wayne Koestenbaum writes that politicians in casual clothes (of which jeans are king) come across as “fake and arrogant” because the normal person wears such things off duty: “They wear play clothes when they’re not being seen . . . To wear play clothes to be seen is at the level of a charade.” Certainly, we flinch when we see Tony Blair in his saggy- bottomed jeans – we do not like to think of our Prime Minister as being off duty. During the US presidential campaign last year, Al Gore got a lot of stick for appearing in jeans, while his competition, the man who finally won the presidency, was always in tailor-made suits. Don’t forget, though, that Gore actually notched up more votes.

Last summer, after 28 years of trying, Swaziland finally managed to ban miniskirts from schools – they spread HIV, don’t you know? Four years ago, the first thing the president of Congo did when he came to power was to ban the mini. Clearly, it was worth overthrowing a government for that.

We should take note of this current fashion for jeans and the mini – the two most contentious items in a wardrobe – in the same year. Perhaps it is time to rethink what we regard as acceptable and respectable. We think we can read meanings in the unconscious metaphors people signal with their clothes (so, for example, we prefer our authority figures in suits, not “tatty” denim or “tarty” minis). But in so doing, we are fools. Our nemesis could come wearing jeans, or a mini, but just as easily a tailor-made suit.

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