Gen Z recently started a social media campaign to cancel skinny jeans, urging millennials—the style’s seemingly biggest fans—to stop wearing them if they want to appear younger. As a denim editor, I am relieved that this influential generation echoes the news and trends that I’ve been reporting for the past couple of years. Gen Z is the consumer group behind the growing demand for looser styles, rigid fabrics and vintage denim and fits.
I’m also a skinny jean-wearing millennial who sees one major flaw in Gen Z’s mission to overthrow the fit.
For millennials, pivoting from skinny to relaxed, loose or wide-leg isn’t as simple as just trying on a new style of jeans. We see you in your effortlessly cool 501s and perfectly laidback, slouchy jeans. We see how you are reclaiming boot-cut jeans from Karens and making retro silhouettes feel fresh and new. We know it looks good. We want in, but we have some issues to work through first.
What you’re asking of us is to undo years of being low-key brainwashed from Us Weekly, Perez Hilton, MTV’s “Total Request Live”—let me give you a moment to Google these references—and basically every reality television show and pop star from 1996 to 2015 that has led millennial women into believing that the desired feminine silhouette in jeans is sleek, taut and leggy. Our most impressionable years were scarred by paparazzi shots of eternal ‘It’ girls like Kate Moss, Sienna Miller and Gisele Bündchen strutting around London and New York clad in blue jeans, tanks and ankle boots. That’s why our closets are also essentially museums of booties—black, glittery, Western, you name it.
I knew then, as I know now, that chasing the denim style of unattainably stunning supermodels was unhealthy and an unrealistic ideal of size, beauty and shape, and yet I have allowed it to live in my mind, relatively dormant, until any time I try on a pair of jeans. For most of my fashion choices, I march to my own beat. Give me an oversized men’s shirt or a muumuu any day, but jeans? Well, they have to be smooth, stretchy, elongating and give me a shape. They have to defy gravity by holding in my gut while creating minimal muffin top. They also need to perform miracles by faking a thigh gap.
Let me tell you, my skinny jeans walked so today’s shapewear could run.
Millennials are new to body positivity. Embracing all types of curves and inclusivity wasn’t celebrated for most of our lives as it (thankfully) is now. There were no “girl gangs” and “future is female” mottos to uplift one another. We witnessed the media’s obsession with the body of then-teenage Britney Spears and joined the negative chorus. The reason why there are so many millennial-era films about giving the outsider or so-called “weird girl” a fashionable makeover is because the cohort has been really good at shunning people from their social groups based on their appearance and clothing. The generation spawned films like “Mean Girls” because we were, in fact, mean to one another for really superficial reasons, including personal denim preferences.
By the mid-2000s, skinny jeans were a well-established part of the beauty standard. They became the de facto jean for the packs of trendy girls that went out on Friday nights and stumbled to brunch the next day, and they became a benchmark of what millennial men deemed attractive. I have a vivid memory of a male colleague naming skinny jeans, a blazer and a pair of Christian Louboutin heels as (cue the eye roll) their ideal work wardrobe for women—a look that, until the pandemic, was the quintessential uniform of women working in fashion in New York City. I allowed that one stupid comment to momentarily make myself doubt if I will ever look the part.
But it’s not skinny jeans’ fault for why millennials are the way they are. Like contouring and wavy yet controlled hair, they just became a symbol of a generation’s aspirational vision of beauty. It’s their effect on physical health that I’m not so sure about. My Google search history definitely includes “symptoms of deep vein thrombosis” from days when I’ve worn skinny jeans and sat cross-legged for too long at my desk or on a flight. Your legs are supposed to tingle, right?
Still, I wear my skinny jeans because it was a long road to get myself back in denim, lest we forget the options that millennials had before the skinny arrived on the scene.
It was rough out there.
The denim gods did not help us get through our most awkward years. I began middle school with knee-grazing jean shorts ordered from J. C. Penney’s behemoth of a catalog because the department store’s Arizona brand was one of the few at the time to offer age- and school-appropriate denim for girls sizing out of standard girls’ sizes. I didn’t help my cause by ordering the jorts in two of the fugliest colors imaginable: goldenrod yellow and maroon.
By the eighth grade, my math teacher was “writing me up” because my jean shorts were just shy of being “fingertip length.” It was a phone call from the school office that my parents found wildly entertaining, especially when they arrived at the school to deliver different bottoms and saw that I was wearing the same fuddy-duddy Faded Glory denim shorts from Wal-Mart that I left home in.
From then, apart from one attempt at wide-leg jeans with a hammer loop that I would dig out on mornings when frost was on the ground, I stayed clear of jeans until I was out of college. For years I survived on a wardrobe of dresses, skirts and leggings, dodging one cringe-y denim fad after another. The raver-style JNCO jean phase? No. The itty-bitty denim shorts phase provoked by Abercrombie & Fitch’s salacious advertising campaigns? No way. The midriff baring, low-rise boot-cut jean phase popularized by the holy trinity of millennial girl pop stars: Britney, Christina and Jessica? Negative.
I was ready to bypass the skinny phase, too, sure that being encased into denim must be some kind of modern-day version of coresetry. Alas, I succumbed to the style circa 2010-2011. It wasn’t a premeditated move, but as they say, when you find “the one,” you know.
My “one” arrived in a sweet swag bag from the apparel trade show, Coterie, that included a pair of Mother’s The Looker skinny jeans in the Here Kitty Kitty wash. A novice to denim at the time, I questioned how a pair of size 28 jeans, by what I wrongly assumed were from a maternity brand because of their name, could be so slim and narrow, but I tried them on anyway and fell in love. The soft, premium hand, the ease of movement, the wash that miraculously added two inches of leg, not to mention the vanity sizing that comes with stretchy skinny jeans—so this was what all the rage was about.
My Mother skinny jeans and I became inseparable. They were my partner in crime until one day after innumerable wears and washes, the crotch blew out. I couldn’t justify spending $200-plus on my editor salary for a replacement, but the experience prepared me to give other skinny jeans a chance, and I remain a loyal devotee to this day.
So, Gen Z, behind our so-called obsession with skinny jeans lies a lot of baggage to unpack, but please don’t write us off yet. Living in baggy sweats for the past 11 months is bound to trickle down into how we dress in the future, including our denim style. Give us some time to retrain our eye, get used to what our bodies looks like in non-skinny fits and adjust to the footwear and tops that looser-fitting jeans call for.
And remember this: You have a good thing going on, Gen Z. While every generation has their own set of pain points, trust me when I say that most millennials would trade in their Y2K years for a chance to grow up among peers who judge less, accept more and are unafraid to stand up for one another and fight for individuality. As a result, you’re sending fashion, and denim fits, in a more positive and healthier direction.