The skinny on pants, drugs and rock n’ roll

I’ve been to a lot of concerts around town in recent months, ranging from the hip twin duo Tegan and Sara (pictured below) and the gangly, quirky Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman to the melodramatic, post-punk British duo The Kills and TRL-friendly pop-punkers The Medic Droid. Despite the clear differences in musical genre, if I had to isolate one common thread between all of the shows it would be the skinny jeans. As far as the eye could see, in all cases, the thought process behind the pants of choice for performers and concertgoers alike seemed to be “the tighter the better.”

Tegan and Sara, skinny jean enthusiasts.

Although tight pants are often associated with the fashions of hipster culture — along with ironic t-shirts, disheveled hair and classic shoes — I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was more to it. Surely, the overwhelming spread of the Gospel According to Tight Pants could be attributed to more than just a few influential hipster rockers in Brooklyn sitting around and deciding to borrow their girlfriends’ jeans for a gig. I went to investigate to who or what could be owed the credit (or blame?) for getting the ball rolling.

As it turns out, according to an article from Kitsch Magazine, the mid-1950s breeded what we now call the “skinny jean” as actresses like Audrey Hepburn wore the fitted looks in her films. As New York Magazine put it, “[s]kinny trousers are the uniform of the hard-edged and underfed.” As rock/rebel types like Elvis Presley, James Dean and Marlon Brando also gained prominence through the fifties into the the sixties, they too were known not just for their anti-establishment attitude, but also for their tight-fitting jeans.

From the late sixties into the seventies, fashion trends steered away from skinnier fits, as bellbottoms and larger fit pants emerged through time. In the decades that followed, skinny jeans continued to have their hold within the punk and rock subcultures, while mainstream designers moved toward bootcuts. Designers like Nicholas Ghesquiere, Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney borrowed heavily from music subcultures in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when skinny jeans began to hit the runway in prominent fashion shows.

All of this led up to today, where the skinny jean has made its mark, thanks to the decades of musicians that maintained their zeal for the skin-tight aesthetic. The trend has reached all corners of the globe, leaving some, including medical researchers, to wonder what potential costs may exist with the fad’s spread. In January 2003, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a letter detailing the cases of three women “who had developed a nerve condition similar to carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of regularly wearing hip-hugging jeans.” The letter went on to warn that tight-fitting hipster jeans can “squeeze a sensory nerve under the hip bone, causing a tingling, burning sensation called paresthesia.”

Researchers in Australia have also examined the issue, wondering if men wearing tighter jeans might be risking infertility, stemming from a 1986 scientific study that suggested that tight pants and underwear lower sperm count (subsequently sparking the trend of baggier jeans in the mainstream). Sydney andrologist Dr. Rick Gordon asked members of the band Avant Garde to wear tight pants for a period of six weeks. Following the test, measures of the band members’ fertility were re-evaluated. The results? The band members’ sperm counts were unchanged. Hipsters 1, Science 0.

So, why does this all matter? My point is not to say that all indie music fans need to stop wearing their skinnies and bring back hammer pants — I certainly won’t be. I simply encourage readers to take a look around at the next show you’re out at, and take note of the trends around you. It is seemingly trivial things like the tightness of jeans that remind us of the potential societal impact of popular musicians. Whether they like it or not, so-called “rock stars” are, and always will be, at the forefront of fashion trends, supporting the creation of product lines that can profit millions for corporations of many sorts — some socially responsible, and others not. It all comes with the territory of being part of an American subculture.

– Joe Erbentraut, True Endeavors Communications and Public Relations Intern