Two Score and Seven Jeans Ago

By Robin Allen

The people who calculate such statistics say the average American owns seven pairs of jeans. I was wearing one of my pairs recently at a family celebration of my forty-first birthday. After cake, gifts and good wishes, my über-hip nieces, Nicole and Madalyn, started whispering and giggling at the kitchen table. “Who’s a Poindexter?” I asked, ready to admonish them for making fun of their little brother again. “Uh, you are, Aunt Robin.”

When they pay enough attention to other people to make a comment, it’s usually about hair, makeup, jewelry, clothes, or choice of ring tone. My hair was as straight as theirs, I wore no jewelry or even mascara that day. I was dressed in a plain white T-shirt, and no one had called my cell phone.

Turns out it was my jeans. It’s okay to wear them ripped, faded, too long, wrinkled, ragged, stained, embroidered, or even rhinestoned. It’s not okay, apparently, to wear the waistband near your waist, the hem close to your ankles, or the pockets loose enough to hold anything thicker than a folded dollar bill. “But, I’ve been wearing these for years,” I said. “Uh, yeah,” said Nicole in her eye-roll tone of voice, “that’s the problem.” I looked to their mother for help. “Tell them adults are exempt from wearing bikini jeans.” My sister shook her head as if I’d asked her to tell them I was a natural blonde, and then she lifted her shirt to reveal a crescent-moon of skin between her belt and belly button.

Outnumbered and out-cooled – and because my sister had been right about thong underwear – I agreed to switch jeans with Madalyn. Alone in the bathroom, I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable. Nothing covered my belly, which needed support rather than exposure, and I looked better inhaling than exhaling. Still, I was secretly thrilled I could fit into a high school freshman’s jeans. I took a deep breath and emerged, like an extreme makeover hopeful, into the living room. But no one paid attention to me; they were watching Madalyn. Wearing my jeans, she was gingerly walking around the room as if she had something bulky and unpleasant in her drawers. “I do not look like that!” I yelled over their laughter. When everyone wiped enough tears from their eyes to see me, they agreed that I looked “much cooler” in Madalyn’s skin-tight flare-leg hip huggers and made me swear on their flip-flops to buy some.

My nieces had let me off easy, but now that they had educated me – now that I knew better – a zero-tolerance policy would be in effect. I was faced with the choice of either heeding their advice and exposing my waxing-moon stomach to an innocent public or ignoring it and being branded a dork for life. I decided I’d show them and stop wearing jeans altogether.

At the time, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. In the past few years, I had made much bigger decisions – to start my own business, to move to the country, to pay off a five-figure credit card debt, to punt a manipulative loser out of my life. How hard could it be to exclude one category of clothing from my wardrobe?

On my first “jeans-free” day, I wore a pair to the grocery store. It wasn’t until I shoved change into my front pocket that I realized what I’d done. As soon as I got home, I moved every pair to the back of my closet. But, out of sight doesn’t mean out of reach, and when it was time for a trip to the library, I reached into the darkness. Later, after skimming the book on impulse control I had checked out, I put the denim devils in a bag and set them by my bedroom door. A couple of days later, after folding up my favorite pair, still warm from my body, and shoving it back into the bag, I hauled the bag to my car and locked it in the trunk.

Outside in my bathrobe the next morning, I hung my head in shame. Clearly I had underestimated the average American living inside me.

Half my closet was full of skirts and pants I bought because of their style, color, comfort, and go-togetherability with the sweaters, shirts, and jackets in the other half. Yet, I routinely pushed aside these hand-picked, flattering clothes to wear predictable, androgynous, heavy cotton pants that made my butt look big. I didn’t ignore my beautiful clothes on purpose; it’s just that it was easier to throw on a pair of jeans. In a word, I was lazy.

Standing in front of the open trunk, I began to reason with myself. I hadn’t told anyone of my decision. I could put on a pair right there and forget about my vow to break denim’s hold over me. They were clothes, not crack, for Pete’s sake! But, then I remembered that after I moved to the country I kicked myself for not doing it sooner. And, my life had immediately improved after I became my own boss, climbed out of debt and lost the liar. I slammed shut the trunk, changed clothes, and drove my bag of blue burden to a thrift store.

At first, I tried to wear other blue pants like they were jeans, substituting one for the other, but soon discovered that there is no substitute. Jeans have their own look and feel, their own point of view, their own attitude. The paradox is that while jeans themselves are distinctive, the person wearing them is not. In the fifties, they were a symbol of protest against conformity; half a century later, they’re the very definition of it.

I had started wearing jeans in grade school because they helped me blend in with the rest of the world, and later, because they were effortless. But now, in my forties, I’ve learned to value myself as an individual. I no longer want to fit in or be predictable. I have my own style – I’ve had it for years – but the jeans in my closet were preventing me from expressing it.

I now wear my black T-shirts with white linen capris. And I’ve found I can just as easily throw on brown cigarette pants with a sage turtleneck, or take an extra five seconds to pair a red merino sweater with a plaid miniskirt. Each time I get dressed, I’m reminded of my individuality. I feel comfortable in these clothes because I am me, not an average American version of me.

My nieces still think I’m a Poindexter, and as teenagers, it’s their job to think that. But my job as their aunt is to show them that even the smallest decision, followed through, can change their lives.

About this writer

    Both comments and pings are currently closed.