EDITORIAL | History of Skinny Jeans

This past Sunday was the long awaited Season 5 premiere for the series Mad Men, and as an avid TV watcher (couch potato, if you must) I was very excited to see the clothes. Aside from the general eye candy that is Don Draper, there is a buzz around the costumes worn on set. So much so that retailers have created collections featuring the retro 50s style with a modern twist.  To me, it is interesting to see how certain styles and fits are “recycled” in from different eras as the new generations of fashionistas/ers take on their own version.

Applying that idea in mind, I thought it would be an interesting concept to go back in history and learn about how our popular denim fits came to be, how it has evolved and why we can’t seem to get rid of them.

First up to bat – Skinny Jeans!

Drainpipe, Stovepipes, Pegs, Cigarette, Slim-fit, Jeggings….those are just some of the other words to describe the Skinny Jean. It’s all a variation of what tight-fitted denim from waist to leg opening, it’s exactly as what is sounds…skinny. But not all skinny jeans are created equal, having learned and tried on a few different pairs in the store; it really depends on the brand and their definition of a skinny (hello vanity sizing, the bain of my existence). The history of the Skinny Jean also fluctuates in fit and style as certain influences throughout different eras take the style and make it their own. Originally, jeans were meant as work wear as designed by Levi’s (check out their Short History of Denim, HERE) and didn’t really affect the fashion industry until influences by movies, TV shows and music brought it more mainstream and became more of a statement than actual function.

50’s and 60’s

Although Grease wasn’t filmed in the 50’s era (it was filmed in 1978 – thanks IMDb), the 50’s fashion was very prominent throughout the movie. Jeans were not part of the wardrobe in this period of time, as young women generally wore dresses and young men had the modest, uniform look to reflect the military influence of the time. However, there was also a sub-culture that came about to parallel the Preppy look and they were called Greasers:

“Rock and Roll idols including Elvis Presley, Bill Hayley, Jerry Lee Lewis and film stars James Dean and Marlon Brando set fashions almost unwittingly. The main looks for teenagers were greasers and preppies.  Greasers followed the standard black leather and denim jeans look set by Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” (1953) and later emulated in the 1978 film called “Grease”. They raced about town on motorbikes and were consider outrageous.” (www.fashion-era.com)

And so it seems that Skinny Jeans definitely had the bad-boy, rock-and-roll appeal from the start. It was a way to act out from what was the standard norm and there was no hiding about what the message was when you wore them. Case in point, Olivia Newton-John’s character at the end of the movie wearing the skinny, tight pants at the end. So long modesty, Helloo Nurse! Check out a few more style inspirations from this era that enjoyed the skinny jean:


Marilyn Monroe (proof you can be full-figured and still rock a skinny)


Elvis Presley (skinny Elvis, skinny jeans)

70’s and 80’s

Usually when you think of the 70’s, the first thing that pops into mind are “Bellbottoms”. If you’ve ever attended any cheesy theme party, or watched The 70’s show, it’s all about the flares, hippies “flower power” and the disco era. However, similar to the 50’s, there was also a sub-culture that spawned in this time period and again it was all about rebelling with the current norm. I’m talking about punk rock! Punk rock was the anti-disco, and if disco was about flares, well punk rock didn’t want to be associated with it. Forget polyester suits and large lapels, Punks were all against the status quo and wanted their clothing to reflect it, so the Skinny Jean again became the uniform for this type of group “Very tight from the waist to the ankle, safety pins were often used to keep them tight around the body and step-up that bondage appeal. Think of The Sex Pistols and The Ramones as first examples.” (The History of Skinny Jeans)

This trend continues onto the next decade – the 80’s and the rock-and-roll, rebellion was still going strong. If you think the jeans couldn’t get any tighter, well you haven’t met Heavy Metal. Groups like Metallica, Poison and Guns N’ Roses were known for their big hair and their tight pants.

Guns N’ Roses (The secret to Axl Rose’s falsetto is in the jeans)

90’s to early 2000’s

As with any trends, they do come and go (and come back again), and with the end of the 80’s era the Skinny Jean finally came to a bit of a rest. After having been the voice of many rebellious generations, maybe it got a bit too mainstream and the real rebels didn’t like that their “uniforms” were now being sold at mass to consumers. The Grunge movement was the anti-skinny Jean. Clothes were meant to look like you literally rolled out of bed and plaid shirts ran amuck. Depending on the music and “scene” you followed, you either wore ripped up old jeans, or really baggy jeans (like, around your ankles baggy). Skinny jeans were still around, just not as rampant as the last few decades. Actually, the dreaded “Mom” tapered jean, might actually have been born in this era, but that’s something we would rather forget.

Near the end of the 90’s and into the new Millennium, there was definitely a shift back into this shape. As more androgynous models like Kate Moss entered the scene, designers needed to dress up this body type. She unofficially could be credited to the rise in popularity of the Skinny Jean much to the dismay of people who were used to the baggier, looser denim.

(Kate loves her Calvins, just look at her excitement)


Fast forward to present time and the skinny jean is still going strong. Possibly because of all the different options that is now available with this style. You have high-rise, low-rise, slouchy skinny, super skinny, cropped, boyfriend…and the list goes on. It’s also become more widespread crossing all types of groups and demographics partly due to the rise in premium denim with raw materials, lycra/spandex and innovative washes and prints. So next time you’re in the store and trying on a skinny jean, take a moment, reflect and appreciate. The Skinny Jean is here to stay.