The XX Factor

Malia Obama in Mom Jeans, a Conundrum for These Fraught Times

Malia Obama smiles as she serves food during a lunch at the United States military base in Vicenza, Italy, on June 19, 2015.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

In the flood of political news from last week, you may have missed this important nugget: Malia Obama wore mom jeans to her internship in New York City. Though Malia’s official reign as first teen ended last month with her father’s term in the White House, she continues to hold, along with her sister Sasha, the unofficial distinction of coolest teen in the land. With these fateful mom jeans, though, she seems to have ascended to a fashion plane not comprehensible to mere mortals. Because if it wasn’t blasphemy to even think such a thing, I might venture to say that … I don’t … get … these jeans?

The Huffington Post pronounced that Malia “looks awesome” in them, and Vogue had her channeling Rihanna. (“Someone’s got to work!” the Daily Mail blared in its headline, a sly reference to her recently deposed father.) Woke lil’ sis Teen Vogue said Malia “slayed the first day of work outfit.”

Interesting. Because from my view, she looked great not because of but in spite of these very ill-fitting, cutting-her-off-at-the-wrong-place jeans. She looked great the way a poised, 6-foot-1 18-year-old would look even if she were wearing a burlap sack. I picture Michelle looking on somewhere, having lived through the ’90s the first time, and biting her tongue. But such things are not for me to say. For I am not fashion; Malia Obama is fashion. If the choice is between Malia and her do-they-look-bad-on-purpose-or-is-this-what-good-looks-like-now mom jeans and the sleeveless anodyne newscaster looks of the Trump women, I know where my loyalties lie. And if these are the jeans that Malia has chosen to wear, well then I look forward to getting myself a pair in approximately three years when she has moved onto an even more confusing hipster look.

Among the several important issues Malia’s jeans have illuminated, certainly one is that no one really understands what’s happening with jeans right now. Maybe Malia and Malia alone understands jeans, but the rest of us are fumbling in the dark. Are we still doing skinny jeans? Are bootlegs really coming back, or are clothing stores just trying to break the cycle of monotony? Should we be abandoning jeans altogether for athleisure, or are we off that? Clothes, like rock music, have always been a site of intergenerational clashes and misunderstanding, and no item of clothing is more controversial than mom jeans. As both sides dig in—“make jeans great again!” “Wearing high-waisted jeans is voting against your own interests!”—it becomes ever harder for one side to understand the other’s point of view. It’s almost like this conversation needs a heavy dose of empathy. Empathy, and/or some subtle tailoring.