Feeling comfortable in our own skin when it comes to clothes is more complicated than just “being yourself”. Image: Flickr, Maria Morri
By Rosie Findlay, University of Sydney.Here’s a phrase that strikes terror into my heart: boyfriend jeans. I came of age in the era of the skinny jean, which started out like a low-slung pair of denim stovepipes and ended up, in recent years, as “jeggings” (also known as denim spray-painted onto the wearer’s legs). So perhaps it’s not surprising that my initial denim “comfort zone” is slim and fitted from hip to ankle.*
Of course, we all know the denim market exploded from the moment it became a luxury item in the late 90s and early noughties, with local labels such as Ksubi and sass+bide skyrocketing into the Australian market on the back of their custom denim, and international labels selling pairs for as much as AU$800.
It is little wonder, then, that multiple styles have proliferated, with many different cuts being championed as the “new essential” by fashion magazines at various points: right now, it is flared jeans (fashion is very much having a 70s moment), taking the baton passed forward from Levis 501s, the “hot” jeans of last summer. But always hanging around like a louche, cool friend is the boyfriend jean: a low-slung cut with wide, cropped legs.
This is a style that looks great on women with slim hips and long legs, making it very desirable for yours truly when spotted on other people with these characteristics. Unfortunately, being decidedly more of an hourglass shape, I would periodically try them on throughout my late teens and early 20s, go scarlet with mortification upon catching sight of myself in the mirror, and get them off and away from me as fast as humanly possible.
The other day, the shop where I casually work received a shipment of new jeans. In the interests of “getting to know the fit in order to help customers” (did I mention I also need new jeans?), I tried the three styles on, including a pair of boyfriend jeans, which were the style I had liked the best on the hanger. My shape has changed quite a bit in the ten or so years since I last gave boyfriend jeans a red-hot go, so I thought that now might be the time to embrace them. I don’t look the same now as I did then, so that makes sense, right?
I stepped in front of the mirror … horror. All I could see were my huge thighs, my stumpy shins: I looked exactly the same in them as I had before. I turned to my colleague and said something to the effect of “don’t these look awful?” but she looked at me in surprise. She thought I looked cool. But the thighs, just look at them!
She didn’t know what I was talking about. (Perhaps worth mentioning here that she’s also a close friend, and we are brutally honest with each other if something we’ve tried on is not working, so she would have confirmed if they were unflattering.)
I’ve written before about women’s misconceptions when it comes to their own bodies, something I have observed on the shop floor and which was discussed in a pair of fascinating papers on women, aging and dress presented at a conference I attended last year.
The jist was that as they age, women tend to dress to hide the “flaws” of their bodies, and blaming/ shaming their own corporeal selves for “failing” if they do not fit into something, rather than blaming the cut of the garment.
Likewise, when I would try on boyfriend jeans, what I would see in the mirror confirmed my own shame at my “wrong” body: my thighs didn’t have a “gap” (they still don’t, but I don’t think that’s how I’m “supposed” to look any more), they weren’t toned, they weren’t long enough.
To wear those jeans would be to admit that this was the reality, so instead I would reach for black opaque tights (slimming) worn under full skirts (hiding) to feel better. “More myself” is how I described it, but that was a euphemism for “a me I can accept”.
How I see myself now has changed, but when I put those jeans on last weekend, I was my 19-year-old self again. It was like nothing had changed. And in that moment I understood the feelings of customers who hide their necks or won’t bare their arms, even if a sleeveless top looks fantastic on them. In that moment, they’re not seeing their actual reflection, but their prior perception of self: how they are supposed to look, what they will and will not allow themselves to wear (this often takes shape in language of “can” and “can’t”: “I can’t wear that with these arms”).
Incredible that we don’t see how we actually look, that this exaggerated self haunts us from the glass. I’ve always thought people should dress in whatever manner they feel most themselves, most comfortable. But if we’re cutting ourselves off unnecessarily from things that we might otherwise want to wear, because of an apparition in the mirror, maybe it’s worth giving those jeans another go.
- Perhaps appropriately, considering my last column was about fashion words, the word “jeggings” (I’m sorry to have to use it twice when we all wish it didn’t even exist at all) gives me the horrors. There’s something uncomfortably over-familiar about it, something daggy and naff. But then, these connotations probably suit the garment, which has always looked incredibly ungainly to me, regardless of who is wearing them. Surely better to have bare legs, or opaque tights under an enormous jumper, a la Edie Sedgwick, than to wear something that doesn’t know what it is? And here endeth the message.
Rosie Findlay, Teaching Fellow at University of Sydney, does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.