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Trouser Math

Cotton inflation means more skinny jeans.

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To be sure, direr consequences will follow from record-high commodities prices. (Bread riots come to mind.) But way down the list, there’s this: Jeans are going to have to stay skinny at least a while longer.

We think of fashion as driven by fancy; even in “hemline theory,” which states that skirt lengths track economic health, it’s the ephemeral public mood that’s said to usher in minis with frisky stock prices and maxis with dropping indexes. But at the mass-market level, every garment is as much a product of a spreadsheet as the muse, and right now the former is showing cotton prices up 126 percent from last July. That translates to about a dollar more per raw pound—a jump of approximately $2.12 for a pair of dungarees. And prices are climbing so fast that factories in China are giving quotes valid for only three days. So even though some designers and magazine editors have been pushing for an antidote to skinny jeans—which were shrink-wrapping trend-conscious legs even before designer Nicolas Ghesquière sent models down the Balenciaga runway in veritable scuba gear in 2003—there’s an economic disincentive to adopt a wider-legged look. Denim manufacturers, able to pass on only so much of the cost to skittish shoppers, find themselves in the position of needing to maintain trends rather than prescribe them.

Indeed, in her factory, Aileen Dong of Advance Apparel International has noticed that jeans are getting even more svelte, and cotton pants more fitted. Kathleen Fasanella, a pattern-maker and the author of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing—considered a kind of industry “blue book”—has also noticed the phenomenon. “Not only will the ratios of fabric blends change, but less material will be used in general,” she says. Fasanella compares the situation to the forties, when wartime rationing limited the fabric for women’s dresses, yielding leaner silhouettes. Even the bikini, the original middle finger to modesty, can be traced to ­economy-driven design; with the U.S. government stipulating that the material used for women’s beachwear be reduced by 10 percent, manufacturers produced predecessors to the modern two-piece, coming out with swimsuits that for the first time revealed a peek of midriff. When the war ended and commodity restrictions were lifted, designers then gave us the quintessential corrective: the ostentatiously voluminous poodle skirt.

This time around, as the economy continues to wobble, “the skinny is definitely here to stay,” says James Chung, the owner and founder of James Jeans. “Because of smaller fabric usage, higher synthetic-fiber content, and lighter fabric weight, the argument is that skinny styles will have a longer contract extension.” The aesthetic, of course, has its detractors (including but not limited to Jay-Z, he who “can’t wear skinny jeans ’cause [his] knots don’t fit”). But if the fabric of our lives continues to get more costly, perhaps baggy clothing is to be the next status symbol, with those who can afford it flaunting their wealth through folds both figurative and literal.

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