In case you hadn’t noticed, we are living in distressed times. That’s distressed as in “to give fabric or furniture the appearance of being older than it is”, according to the dictionary, rather than emotional or financial distress. Although, of course, one can be a sign of the other. Sartorial distress is hard to avoid these days: ripped tights, frayed hems, pre-scuffed shoes, suede with already-bald patches and jeans with such big holes at the knees that they scarcely stay in one piece.
In Japan, for an additional frisson of wildness, one company makes jeans out of denim that’s been pre-mauled by lions and tigers. Mainstream brands such as J. Crew and Diesel have been selling trousers ready-spattered with paint, while Adidas has produced trainers whose white soles were printed with fake mud. And for anyone on a smaller budget – or who is simply alive to the irony of paying a premium for tired-looking clothes – the internet is awash with advice on how to age things yourself: just stock up on razor blades, bleach and sandpaper, and off you go.
All this shabbiness makes the fingers of those of us who took needlework at school itch for their mending kit. But before threading the needle (not the easy task it once was, pass the reading glasses), let’s consider what might lie behind the modern tendency towards dishevelment.
Earlier this year, in an inadvisable, down-with-the-kids moment which I’ll pretend was research, I bought a pair of washed-out, holey jeans. As soon as I put them on, I felt relaxed and off-duty: properly casual, rather than I’m-wearing-casual-clothes casual. Perhaps that’s one function of beaten-up clothes: they say at once that you’re opting out of the polished look, releasing some of the pressures imposed on you by glossy consumer marketing. I’m not playing that game, say these jeans (which are turning out to be quite garrulous): I don’t want to try that hard. Though of course not trying hard requires a certain effort. When it comes to distressed clothing, the ironies pile up like dirty laundry.
For most of history, clothes that looked old were an indication of poverty: if you could afford opulent clothing you wore it, as a badge of superiority and power. It is relatively recently that people have volunteered en masse for looking, rather than simply being, down-at-heel. The studiously unkempt hippies, the rips and safety pins of punks, the ratty grunge moment of the early 1990s – these were counter-cultural choices, protests against the status quo, born in an age that had the luxury of options. Whereas the first time I wore my prematurely aged jeans, I felt compelled to trim the longest of the fraying threads around the knee holes; missing the point, I know, but also a graphic illustration of the shift that has taken place. My post-war generation was raised by parents who associated worn-out clothes with wartime privation and make-do-and-mending: shabbiness was not something to aspire to.
Today’s wave of distressing may be seen as a protest against mass-production, against the sickening acres of new clothes, often costing little more than a sandwich. (Although the distressed look is itself often mass-produced.) Prosperity continues to rise, and material abundance to proliferate, and those are the trends against which fashion is reacting.
Because that is what fashion, evanescent and sinuous as a snake, is always doing: twisting and turning and reinventing itself against both its present context and its historical hinterland. It is often, but not always, a contrary beast: plumpness and paleness were prized when thinness signified malnutrition and a tan meant you laboured in the fields. So it follows that, in a time of extreme plenty, it is fashionable to appear deprived. Who knows, if governments slap a big enough tax on sugar, maybe plumpness will become desirable again? It might at least be fashionable to have a bowl of sugar cubes sitting on your designer table.
The trend for distressed clothing seems to be saying that modern life, with its materialism and homogeneity, is no longer worthy of aspiration. It is a kind of refusal, the visual equivalent of a diet that cuts out junk food. We know that consumerism is strangling the planet and that society’s addiction to the new is not sustainable. So it is hard not to discern in distressed dressing a post-apocalyptic subtext: is it a foretaste of how we’ll look when we’ve used up the Earth’s resources? It would be nice to think that it’s some kind of warning, one that people will listen to. But it could equally well be just another arbitrary and empty fashion trend. And that would be the other kind of distressing.