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Boomers and Torn Jeans: The Evolution from Time-to-Replace to High Fashion

While riding public transportation this week, Mister Boomer had a flashback when he spied a teenage girl sitting across from him. She was wearing blue jeans that tapered down her legs to her shoes, but what stood out was, in winter weather no less, her right knee protruded through a lateral cut in the garment’s leg.

Denim had a reputation for being a strong and durable fabric that made it popular for work clothes for people doing manual labor in the late 1800s, especially farming and mining. After WW II, suburbs were created to house the growing Baby Boom and some men brought their denim farm wear with them. Denim jeans began to be manufactured for women in the late 1950s as the wearing of jeans as casual wear slowly increased. But it was the movies of the 1950s that caught the eye of Baby Boomers and started the ball rolling for jeans to become the ultimate fabric of our lives. [Read Mister B’s take on the history: Tangled Up in Blue (Jeans)].

Mister Boomer recalls getting his first jeans as a pre-teen in the early 1960s. He remembers that jeans were reserved for play wear, as there were definite differences between work, play and Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes that were reserved for church, weddings, funerals and important business meetings. Yet even at play, should extra wear or a tear appear in our jeans, our mothers would see to it that the clothes were repaired or replaced, lest they be thought of as unfit mothers. The idea that a girl or boy with a tear in their jeans that extended the width of a knee could leave the house without their mother stopping them was unheard of. A tear in a pocket could result in darning the offending hole with matching thread. A tear in a knee might require a patch, which could be a scrap of older jean fabric sewn over the tear, or, since our moms wanted to keep up with the time-saving inventions of the modern age, an iron-on patch. These patches were rounded-corner rectangles consisting of a thin blue fabric that was made stiff by a coating on the back. The patch was placed over a tear or hole and a hot iron was pressed on it to heat the coating — an adhesive — that would attach to the jeans as it cooled.

Mister Boomer hated those patches for several reasons. First, it marked the wearer’s family as poorer than other families who could afford new jeans; second, the patches were almost always darker than the pants fabric, making the patch stick out like a sore thumb; and third, it was immensely annoying to Mister B that the patch corners — even though rounded — tended to break free and curl after a few wearings and washings.

Mister B thinks it was The Summer of Love –1967– that marked the unofficial coronation of blue jeans as the chosen garment of a new generation. Slowly but surely jeans — bell bottom styles by that time — were worn more often and accepted in more places. Inevitably, wear and tear started to appear. Boomers solved the dilemma by covering tears and holes with embroidered fabric patches. American flags, oval peace symbols, flowers, butterflies, psychedelic op art, marijuana imagery, motorcycle and rock band circle and square patches could not only extend the life of their jeans, but up the cool factor. The patches were an individualization that often represented a statement against the Establishment or a solidarity with the working class.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that large groups of young people started intentionally wearing torn or ripped jeans as the fashion culture borrowed a Bohemian style. Jeans that had a lived in, distressed and even torn look became high-priced fashion items in their own right. The trend faded slightly in the 1990s, but resurfaced in the 2000s, now becoming a regular part of young people’s wardrobes as “artistically” and “strategically” cut, ripped and torn jeans are worn by fashion models, celebrities and high school students alike.

So here we are, back to the girl with the knee sticking out of her torn jeans and Mister Boomer’s flashback. He couldn’t help but wonder how much she had paid for that expert tear, and what her mother thought of them.

Did you personalize your jeans with patches, boomers? Were you covering up holes or making a statement?

posted by Mister B in Fashion,Pop Culture History and have Comments (2)

2 Responses to “Boomers and Torn Jeans: The Evolution from Time-to-Replace to High Fashion”

  1. arjay says:

    A few years ago I decided to replace one of my pairs of jeans with a newer pair. I postponed said purchase when the local stores were selling as ‘new’ jeans which were” ‘holier’ than mine”!

  2. bobbyjay says:

    I remember when real young i.e. about 1965 or ’66 blue jeans were not in style, white Levis were the rage. In about a year no one wore the white ones, brushed denim or regular denim became the style.