“Did you pay extra for the rips in those jeans?” Your boomer family member jokes with an I-know-I’m- witty smile. You laugh and muster the ability to participate in this predictable banter. Sound familiar?

At some point in your life, it is likely that someone has poked fun at you for purchasing purposefully distressed clothing. Why do we keep buying pre-distressed clothing if we all joke about it anyway? We all understand it is impractical, and likely that it’s costing us more money. The images below showcase this cost disparity to a tee. Granted, it is likely also a comparison of polyester to cashmere, but the argument stands. We know how it feels when the icy Kingston air cruelly licks that one exposed part of your kneecap through your jeans. You know your Golden Goose sneakers had their optimal amount of visible dirt on them when they came home from the mall, and they will only look worse as time goes on. The mild annoyance distressed clothing presents is widely ignored by the young and stylish population, but why?

The bottom line is that the prominent fashion industry people lead, and we, the masses, follow. If it’s on Bella Hadid’s instagram, it’s sold out the next day. If Kanye puts a stamp of approval on it, people sleep on the streets overnight to get it. When we see celebrities wear these oh-so-perfectly ‘damaged’ clothes, we strive to emulate them. Finally, we have reached the core question of this phenomenon— why do designers create distressed clothing in the first place?

To create an item made to fail at its only purpose is a rather radical concept. If we think of clothes as tools to cover us, then putting holes in them is to make them fail at their one job. If shoes are meant to sustain us over long walks, distressing them lessens their ability to do so. It’s the same idea as the trendy Jaquemus micro bag of 2019– creating an item that does not perform what it’s made to do, as a rebellion. If you’ve wondered why distressed clothing makes you feel instantly cooler, here’s why: the item is a protest to its own purpose.

Pre-distressed clothing is a symbol of access to disposable income and ability to regularly purchase new goods. By no means is it reasonable to make the claim that people wear intentionally ripped and dirtied clothing to flaunt their wealth, but that is the subliminal message trendsetters have encouraged us to send. It’s the same because-I-can attitude as a Louis Vuitton dog collar, or a Chanel sleep mask— only to a lesser degree.

Whether we mean it or not, pre-distressed clothes reflect a level of privilege that is extremely rare. The original instance of distressed clothing was on people who couldn’t afford multiple items of the same type. A homeless person who is forced to wear that one item of clothing until it is falling to bits, a kid who wore that one pair of shoes until the rubber peeled back and looked like a tongue sticking out from under it. Essentially, designers appropriated this idea from those less fortunate. It was massively controversial when Japanese brand N. Hollywood debuted their collection inspired by the homeless (2017, NYFW), but aren’t we just continuing to do this without saying it?

Overall, distressed clothing is a subtle way to add en edge to any outfit. It’s cute, it’s trendy, it’s fun. We could spend all day talking about the ethical ‘issues’ at play, but I just don’t think anyone is offended by the perceived privilege involved in sporting ripped jeans. The bottom line is that this cultural phenomenon is born from unlikely origins. So keep dragging scissors over the pocket of those thrifted LEVI’S jeans until they’re the perfect find. Keep accepting your destroyed Stan Smiths as having ‘been through it’. There are a lot of ethical issues in fashion, and this is one we ignore with a clear conscience.

Carly White is an Online Contributor for MUSE.

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