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The Abridged Story of Distressed Denim

Artfully frayed jeans have long outpriced their intact brethren, but this spring, both the fraying and the price tag have hit a new extreme.


French denim enthusiast François Girbaud adds stones to his washing machine; his jeans emerge feeling softer and lighter. He later claims to have been the first to stonewash denim.

Ronald Reagan often sports a cowboy hat and broken-in jeans at Camp David. His technique for softening crispy new pairs: wearing them while swimming a few laps in the pool, followed by an air-dry.

Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. hits No. 1. The album’s cover zooms in on the singer’s tattered denim backside, which is simultaneously patriotic and hot.

Before filming a video for the song “Heartbreaker,” Mariah Carey cuts the waistband off her denim so that the pants fit more comfortably. The increased midriff exposure is, of course, just a side benefit.

The world’s oldest known pair of jeans—made by Levi’s in the 1880s and discovered in a Nevada mining town in 1998—are bought at auction (by Levi Strauss & Co.) for $46,530.

Junya Watanabe devotes his spring 2002 collection to denim’s re-creation, torturing hundreds of yards of fabric and then sewing them into ragged dresses.

Jean Shop in New York offers shoppers customized distressing for the first time.

January 3, 2004
In Las Vegas, Britney Spears marries her first husband, Jason Alexander. She wears frayed jeans, accented with a white garter.

In Brokeback Mountain, Ennis del Mar’s repressed love has one outlet: one of his lover Jack Twist’s denim shirts, hidden inside one of his own.

Bright Eyes releases Cassadaga, in which singer Conor Oberst moans, “Now the sky is a torn-up denim,” on the song “Classic Cars.”

Spring 2008
Diesel produces Viker 8RD, its most distressed look to date. The jeans are slashed and then sewn back together. They retail for $390.


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