It’s in our jeans

Preeti Zachariah traces the evolution of jeans from 19th Century Californian mines to everyday Indian wardrobes.

November 28, 2014 08:39 pm | Updated 08:39 pm IST

CHENNAI, 27/11/2014: Story on Jeans. Photo: R. Ravindran.

CHENNAI, 27/11/2014: Story on Jeans. Photo: R. Ravindran.

It is Saturday evening and you have somewhere to go. You step out of the shower, wrapped in a robe and open your cupboard. You shove aside the little black dress, the flowing chiffon skirt, the parrot-green, embroidered kurta, the piles of lingerie and boring work clothes before you finally unearth it — your favourite pair of jeans.

Forget diamonds, it’s jeans that are a girl’s best friend. It is every woman’s (or man’s) go-to garment, the one thing that just doesn’t let you down. Pair it with a plaid shirt and look all laid-back and casual. Or opt to go ethnic by wearing it with a pretty kurti and coloured bangles. Floor your date in a pair of dark skinnies, a slinky chiffon or lace top and stilettos. Or embrace your inner biker chick, donning jeans, a plain white T-shirt and a leather jacket.

“Jeans are versatile, durable, comfortable and stylish, while being low maintenance,” says Anshul Chaturvedi, marketing head, Wrangler. “The Indian denim market has seen a steady growth over the years, as there has been a robust demand for it here.

Paradoxically, what is, today, a must-have fashionable garment, started off as being purely a functional one. The first pair of jeans can be traced back to the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, when a Jewish immigrant named Levi Strauss responded to the miners’ needs for more sturdy trousers. Hollywood, World War II, the hippy movement and pop culture changed the way jeans were perceived — from being a garment worn primarily by blue-collar workers, to becoming a universal one. Everyone owned or wanted to own a pair of jeans. “Denim allows people to better express their individuality,” says Anshul.

However, India’s rock-and-roll generation admits to having found it difficult to procure jeans, even though indigo, the dye used to make denim fabric, came from a plant indigenous to India ( Indigofera tinctoria ). “Jeans weren’t available off-the-shelf when I was in college,” says Ria Kulkarni, 58. “I got my first pair at 19 from a relative abroad. I waited so long to get it but when I tried it on, it didn’t fit. I had to lose 10 kilos to get into it!”

Jugaad is after all a quintessential way of Indian life, and other ways were found to get around the issue. Enter the friendly neighbourhood tailor — the sort who makes cholis and maxis with equal aplomb.

K.S. Anand of K. Shanker Ladies Dress Makers, a 60-year-old tailoring establishment, recalls having made jeans for the who’s-who of Chennai’s populace. “Jeans weren’t easily available in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it was fashionable then, and everyone wanted one. People would buy denim cloth and give it to us, and we would stitch a perfect pair for them.”

Not just stitching — even those who had access to foreign-made jeans, needed tailors for alteration. “My boys used to be so good. They would carefully remove the thread and use the same thread to stitch back the fabric after altering it. We stopped making jeans a few years ago as the demand for it came down a lot. Now, everyone is opting for readymade garments; going to a tailor works out more expensive, and takes more time,” says Anand.

And why not? The Indian consumer today is flooded with choices. Mohammad Osman of Nice Casual in T. Nagar, which retails Western garments, including jeans, says, “I have been part of this industry since the early ‘80s and watched it grow from strength to strength. Till the ‘90s, getting branded jeans wasn’t easy, but today, there are over a hundred brands available. Arvind Mills (flagship brands include Excalibur, Flying Machine, Ruff & Tuff, New Port, and Cherokee) is one of the largest denim manufacturers in the country.”

Admittedly, the large brands are far from inexpensive, but there are plenty of options available for people who aren’t prepared to shell out atleast a couple of thousands for a pair. Rishi Shah of Shahenshah, a readymade garment and textile store located in the busy shopping hub of Purasaiwalkam, says, “We source a lot of Indian brands like Bravo, Antira and Triple XL from suppliers in Mumbai. They are priced between Rs. 600 and Rs. 1,350. Most households have limited incomes and can’t afford to spend a lot on a piece of clothing, but everyone wants to look fashionable. These jeans are available in the latest fashions, and are normally made of a lycra-denim mix. They are suited for people across age-groups, with different body shapes and income levels,” he says.

Jeans, like most clothes, goes through cycles. Boot-cut, skinny jeans, ripped jeans, pop-coloured jeans, relaxed fits — the list goes on.

“The current style is the slim, straight fit, which I think is the most democratic. Skinny jeans look better on slimmer people; while boot-cut flatters a more robust frame but the slim, straight suits everyone,” says Osman.

It is apparent that the formerly all-American garment is firmly entrenched globally, but now, Indian designers have gone a step further — adding a desi twist to it. Enter the new line of khadi jeans offered by large brands like Levis and Arvind, that merge the best of both worlds, and how! “I think it’s a fantastic idea to find different ways to adapt khadi and this is a really innovative one. There is a larger audience that wouldn’t opt for khadi, but almost everyone loves and wears jeans,” says Anaka Narayanan, of Brass Tacks, a city-based designer who creates Western silhouettes out of Indian weaves.

So go ahead, what’s stopping you? Embrace your blues.

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