I hate ripped jeans. I hate what they represent; that pouty fashion statement that says, “I may look rich, but underneath it all I’m just a poor waif.” Poverty is so cool!

It’s just another example of how the rich take the cultural symbols of the impoverished and repurpose them for their own benefit. But that’s another story. The story of why I hate ripped jeans all goes back to my childhood…when I was the first girl to ever wear blue jeans to my grammar school. I didn’t wear them as a fashion statement, I wore them because we were poor and I had nothing else to wear. As the second child of four, hand-me-downs were the natural order of things. If I’d had an older sister, I would have worn her outgrown skirts and blouses. But I had only an older brother, Richard, a mere seventeen months older than I. He was in one of those growth spurts that happen around the age of twelve and the jeans he grew out of “overnight” were still in good condition. Poor families don’t throw anything away, especially if it’s in good condition.

It was the 1940’s and Rosie the Riveter had given women permission to wear men’s clothing so it wasn’t a stretch of the imagination for my mother to say “Here, see if these jeans fit you.” At first, I was repulsed at the idea of wearing my brother’s cast offs. He and I were already in the throes of a sibling rivalry that would last the rest of our lives. Plus, I thought those heavy blue denim pants would be uncomfortable and constricting. But I had no choice. It was either that or the purple corduroy pants with the ripped inner seam that my mother had already sewed up three times. She may not have been the best seamstress; but in truth, the fabric had become so threadbare it no longer cooperated with any attempts to hold it together.

I tried on the denim pants. I was a lot smaller than my brother but with the aid of a belt and rolled up cuffs the pants were tamed into service. Much to my surprise I found a certain comfort in their basic design; the little brass rivets that defied ripping and the sturdiness of the fabric that gave a kind of resolve to my lower body. These were pants that could hold you up, give you strength…pants that could elevate a little ten-year-old girl to a level of equality with the boys. These pants had magic.

I wore them around the house for two days and on Monday when my mother suggested I wear them to school I didn’t hesitate for a minute. When I arrived at my fifth-grade class the tall, stern teacher Mrs. Bateman, who intimidated her students by merely looking at them, jerked her head back and raised both eyebrows. I squared my shoulders, stuck out my chest and walked straight to my desk, leaving a wake of confused classmates behind me. There was no rule against wearing your brother’s blue jeans, but I knew it would be a topic of conversation at all the lunch tables that afternoon.

The rest of the day went by in a blur as I contemplated the change that resulted from my wearing the pants. Even the boys were treating me differently, as if by donning their garb I had become one of them. It was okay for them to be seen talking with me as if we were pals, equals. I saw the other girls eyeing me enviously and for the first time I was the center of attention.

Who knew that a piece of clothing could be so life-changing? I was no longer just the shortest girl in my class, or the bossiest one, or the smartest one, I was a fashion icon, a trend-setter and long before there even was such a thing, an “influencer.” Within a month, other girls in my class were wearing their brother’s blue jeans; and within a year, it was commonplace for women to be seen wearing the jeans that were now being manufactured specifically for the growing tide of females, who like me, had discovered the power of a sturdy pair of blue jeans. The rest, as they say, is history.

So now when I see a pair of ripped jeans selling for somewhere around $200, I want to take a pair of scissors to the designer and manufacturer and give them a little taste of their own medicine just to let them know that the poor don’t take pride in ripped clothing, that there’s nothing chic in looking shabby. Our hand-me-downs were used, but they were not tattered and when they wore through, we didn’t flaunt the embarrassing rips that exposed our naked skin; we patched them so that we looked decent and our next of kin might get some use out of them. We didn’t casually abandon our clothes after a season or use them to make any statement other than, “This is what poor people do to clothe their children.”

Those manufacturers who are now spending big bucks to destroy a pair of jeans to the point where they are practically falling apart, might want to consider this option; give that decent pair of jeans to a needy person who will wear them until they’re truly falling apart. Then you can take them back and put them on your overpriced sales rack as honest-to-goodness, genuinely distressed clothing. It’s the perfect socialist/capitalist solution. The poor person gets to enjoy a new pair of jeans, the rich person gets to enjoy the extravagance of pretending to be poor…which as we all know, is a lot more fun than actually being poor.


Judy Chaikin has enjoyed a kaleidoscopic career as an actress, dancer, theater, TV, and film director (2 Emmy Nominations) and writer of short stories, documentary films and most recently as a ghostwriter for personal memoir ghostwriting service WRITE WISDOM. She has just completed her fourth book.