The Secret Language of Jeans

Why some people are willing to shell out for designer denim.

That is one expensively clad butt

“Is it bad that I make snap judgments about girls based on what jeans they wear?” a male friend asked recently in an e-mail. “When I see a girl in Sevens, I dismiss her. If she’s wearing Citizens, I’m skeptical, especially in recent months. If she’s in Diesels, that’s legit, as that’s an enduring brand. But right now, I’m looking for girls in Hudsons.” A girl in regular jeans was, apparently, off the map.

My friend was kidding, but there are those who would take him seriously. For the past five years, the premium denim market—that is, jeans costing at least $100, with some priced at more than $1,000—has exercised a kind of tyranny over a small but visible segment of the population: upwardly mobile, status-conscious young women (and the celebrities who provide the cues for them). Brand names are always tribal markings of a sort, indicating the identity (real or aspirational) of the wearer, but when it comes to jeans, these signals have become increasingly coded and, for those who wear designer jeans, imperative. While it would seem that blue jeans should suggest a kind of populist casualness—they’re worn by everyone from toddlers to electricians to computer programmers, everywhere from barbecues to offices to cocktail parties—to those who can read the language of the back pocket, jeans are anything but democratic. Jeans have become fashion’s equivalent of a secret handshake.

Jeans are, of course, an unlikely status symbol. Denim, made of twilled cotton fabric, is not exactly a luxury material; it does not require the harvest of thousands of silkworms’ secretions or the careful shearing of a Kashmir goat. And jeans do not obviously signify wealth: The average price of a pair of blue jeans—say, a pair of Lee Jeans from Sears—is around 25 dollars, and a typical American owns, on average, seven pairs.

The pants also have humble origins. The industry dates to 1873, when a dry-goods storeowner named Levi Strauss and a tailor named Jacob Davis were granted a patent for pants with rivets reinforcing the seams. But despite the efforts of Levi Strauss & Co. to expand its clientele—in 1935, the company took out an ad in Vogue, claiming that Levi’s were “worn by the knowing, not merely on dude ranches, but at the more exclusive resorts, beaches, and camps, throughout the country”—blue jeans would remain working-class garb for several more decades. Their association with manual labor made them too déclassé for a society that equated status with leisure, even as dress codes were relaxing.

Yet that association would also eventually make jeans the perfect badge of nonconformity. In the 1950s, denim became synonymous with a sexy rebelliousness when Marlon Brando and James Dean wore jeans in The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause. A decade later, hippies donned jeans in their protest against the establishment, as an easy way of publicly identifying with the underprivileged and dispossessed. But as society loosened up, progressive values became more mainstream—and so, too, did jeans.

It wasn’t until the end of the 1970s, when jeans had become widespread enough to be socially acceptable yet were still subversive enough to be cool, that the first crop of designer jeans sprang up. Gloria Vanderbilt slapped her name across the back pocket of skintight jeans, and in advertisements a sultry (and 15-year-old) Brooke Shields purred, “You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” During the next two decades, the occasional pair of jeans appeared on the red carpet, and the denim market continued to expand—there were Chic, Jordache, Guess, among others—but designer jeans weren’t commonplace, even among the fashion vanguard.

Then, in 2000, the brand Seven for All Mankind (“Seven”) appeared on the scene, and everything changed. These jeans’ long, lean cut and vintage wash gave them a sexy, laid-back vibe, and they cost enough to seem special. Suddenly everyone from socialites and celebrities to college students, receptionists, and starving artists were convinced that $130 (and up) was an acceptable price to pay for a pair of jeans. Within five years, the premium denim market went from a blip to a billion-dollar business. (“We say thank you every day to Seven for All Mankind for creating basically the category,” the CFO of True Religion reportedly gushed at an industry conference this summer.) Department stores started hiring “denim specialists” to help shoppers find jeans with perfect pocket placement. Gwyneth Paltrow was spotted in a pair of Blue Cult jeans in 2002, and demand for the cargo-pocket style she wore became so great that the company christened the jeans “the Gwyneth” and hired a PR director to deal with requests. (The company now also carries “the Angelina,” which somehow signifies “boot leg”; “the Cameron,” which is “straight leg”; and the flare-leg “Kate,” which the PR director told me stands for “all the celebrity Kates.”)

Still, celebrity sanction is only part of the attraction. So is fit: Blue Cult also sells a style called “Butt Lifter,” and it’s true that designer jeans tend to be more flattering than their cheaper cousins. They’re generally made with finely woven denim, cut in a way that elongates the leg, and with pockets perfectly positioned to flatter the bum. But the realappeal of designer jeans may be that they are at once egalitarian and exclusive, lowbrow and high-end. They transform their wearer into a social chameleon of sorts, allowing her to look like any other American while signaling her status-consciousness to those in the know. Celebrities can thus wear $675 Dolce & Gabbana jeans and project a down-to-earth image. College freshmen can emulate celebrities without seeming like they’re trying—and without worry about fitting in, since everybody’s wearing the same thing. Indeed, jeans have become the staple item, acceptable almost anywhere, day and night. This is true in part because dress has generally become less formal, but also because the thinking seems to be: If jeans cost as much as a Vera Wang dress, shouldn’t they be good enough for a movie premiere? And anyone who pays this much for jeans can trust that the price won’t go unnoticed. Like a Mercedes medallion or the print of a Louis Vuitton bag, the symbol on the back pocket sends a signal to those versed in identifying labels. This is consumption conspicuous only to those whom conspicuous consumption doesn’t offend.

So what, exactly, are these labels saying? Each designer projects a slightly different, if necessarily ephemeral, image. Seven is still the Titanic of jeans, but like all blockbusters, the brand has become so mainstream it’s no longer hip. Citizens of Humanity, from the designer of Seven, are the new Sevens—a safe, wildly popular choice that flatters many body types. The LA-based Hudson jeans put a Union Jack on the pocket to evoke a venerable “tradition” of hand craftsmanship—though since Angelina Jolie showed off her back tattoo and, inadvertently, her Union Jack-emblazoned pockets on national television, the brand’s London chic is more Sex Pistols than Princess Di. There are dozens of other premium brands (True Religion, Rock & Republic, Earnest Sewn, to name a few). The scramble to become the new “It” jean is almost impossible to sort out, as brands cycle in and out of favor and fashion with dizzying speed. Regardless of the particular designer, though, the message of the back pocket is clear: The wearer is someone with disposable capital, who cares about her image, and who knows that other women will be surreptitiously checking out her butt.

When it comes to fashion trends, it’s difficult to say what is fleeting and what will endure. There are already signs that the premium jeans market has peaked. With too many cognoscenti, too many who speak the language of the back pocket, it is bound to lose its appeal. Perhaps we’ll even see a return to a conspicuous consumption of a more conspicuous nature. I recently saw a Seven for All Mankind cropped jean cuffed with real rabbit fur, for $295.