A guest post by Dr. Sonya Abrego

We’ve all seen it: the rounded-edge rectangular shape that smart phones leave on the front or back pockets of jeans. Maybe you’re wearing phone-faded jeans right now. Denim has a singular history when it comes to wear and fading- fade patterns and distressing, the kind of “flaws” typically shied away from, can actually enhance its desirability. The five-pocket denim jean is one of, if not the most, tenacious designs and the phone-pocket fade is a new phenomenon affecting this old and familiar garment. This distinctive fade pattern works as a historical marker locating today’s jeans and their wearers in the ongoing dialogue between the personalisation of clothing, changing technology, and labor.

Image: Heddels Fades

So how can something as contemporary as a smart phone, and the marks they leave, engage with denim’s history? Let’s go back to the familiar origin story – in 1873 a tailor named Jacob Davis partnered with a San Francisco merchant named Levi Strauss to patent a durable denim work pant with characteristic riveted pockets. It’s a narrative repeated in a manner that has more in common with American industrial invention like Henry Ford than it does with narratives from fashion’s history.  Jeans do have a particular connection to industry, in terms of manufacture, materiality, and labor. They were constructed along Taylorist principles where a different worker completed a different step in assembly. Copper rivets, initially used in saddlery and leather craft, were punched through at pocket stress points and heavy cutting and sewing machines were required to work the rigid denim. Cheap, durable factory produced cotton indigo twill and metal rivets, themselves products of nineteenth century industrialisation, were assembled in garment factories, a sector that grew to become one of the nation’s largest employers. Jeans were a product of industrial manufacture for industrial labourers. 

Image: True Fit – A Collected History of Denim

Because jeans were workwear, often worn until they wore out, they bore the scars of rough treatment in the form of rips, fraying, tears, and of course fading. There’s a simple elegance to the fading process. Blue indigo molecules only bind to the surface of cotton, meaning that over time these molecules chip away, exposing the un-dyed textile underneath. The fade pattern on a pair of jeans was an index of the wearers’s body and lifestyle, how often did they wear the jeans and how hard did they wear them?

Image: Second Sunrise, the reconstruction of a pair of 1870s miner jeans.

By the late 1960s and into the 1970s denim was already ubiquitous for men women and children.

With more popularity came more variety and greater differences between denim designs and diversity among consumers. The humble blue jean was a global product available in a variety of cuts, colors and fits, and ranged dramatically in price point. The specific origins of prewashing or stone washing on a large industrial scale is still up for debate we know design entrepreneurs such as Marithe and Francois Geribauld began pre-washing and hand-distressing new American jeans that they sold in their Paris flea market booth in the late 1960s. Manufacturers ranging from Canada’s Great Western Garments, Lee, form Kansas, and  Evisu of Japan all claim to have been among the first to prewash or stone wash jeans to soften the denim and accelerate the aging process.

Fading technologies like stone washing, bleaching, acid washing, and sandblasting along with bleached out butts and thighs, or aggressively contrasting whiskers have been ubiquitous since the 1980s and 90s. These treatments offer a range of textile effects that depart significantly from the idea of recreating a simply worn or vintage look. As technologies for pre-distressing became more mainstream, fade became just another element of style, essentially another decorative option with little or nothing to do with the lifecycle of the garment. 

However a parallel market, spearheaded by the Japanese industry, embraced the opposite. When brands like Levi’s Japan and Studio D’Artisan started fabricating vintage reproductions in the 1980s it was down to the level of the fiber, rope-dyed cotton made into raw denim, and raw denim can only fade through wear. The contrast of whiskers and honeycombs became sought after whether you were buying vintage originals or fading your own.

Image: Heddels Fades

So, a faded denim look can be obtained one of three ways: purchasing vintage jeans that are pre-worn and therefore likely already faded, buying new jeans and fading them through wear yourself, or buying pre-distressed stone washed, or otherwise treated, denim that looks faded when new. Fade can therefore either be personal or collective. It exists as evidence of one’s own wear pattern and physical habits, or conversely, whatever feels fresh for a given season. It can read as either evidence of the past, an indexical trace of activity in the textile itself, or as engaging with what’s fashionable and up-to-date. Pre-washed or naturally faded jeans are just two branches of what is a very large and tangled tree of contemporary denim design and consumption.

But it’s the notion of being up to date spurs a deeper look into the phone fade phenomenon. Because smart phones are, for much of the population, essential for communication and employment they need to be accessible which usually means being carried in pockets. Even though phone fade is everywhere, there’s still a marked ambivalence about whether it’s desirable or attractive. No one seems to want to enhance the phone fade, and a lot of people actively try diminish it by switching pockets or using a slimmer phone case.

Image: Raleigh Denim showing marks from iPhone 4, 5, and 6

The crux of the issue seems less about aesthetics and more about what raw denim and fading is supposed to represent. The discourse of the denim community, specific to raw denim, is highly subjective and treats the fading process as a kind of personal roadmap or a marker of authenticity. With this line of thinking you are supposed to shape your raw denim, not let it shape you. If we ascribe to the notion that the fading is a kind of personal history through wear, a record of one’s lifestyle, then the phone is a part of that and the fade marks should be left to emerge naturally and remain. Yet, on the other hand the phone’s shape is a relatively new encroachment into the established fade lexicon, which still has its roots in, and sets its standards by, vintage jeans. Maybe the phone fade is a little too specific and too much of the present moment to cohere with a section of the market that continuously makes recourse to notions of timelessness and tradition to promote its products?

Even if you’re not a devoted vintage, or vintage inspired purist, there is something a little incongruous in the juxtaposition of the obviously contemporary smart phone shape alongside the watch pocket, a detail designed to house a nineteenth century timepiece that has remained like a vestigial tail on the 5-pocket jean. The watch pocket is an artifact of another time and place. The least functional detail in the design of what is almost universally considered a functional garment. In the late nineteenth century, when jeans were invented, time was being understood and managed in new ways. Growing capitalist markets and the first modern corporations could more quickly turn labor to profit. Nineteenth century thinkers, from Emerson to Marx described the technological advancements surrounding them as evidence of the annihilation of space and time. Industrialization and the mechanized control that it entailed meant that societies were liberated from the speeds and rhythms of nature. Factory production, the kind that ushered in denim twills by the yard and piecework assembly, sub-divided labor into its most efficient components through sequences of simple repetitive gestures. As Rebecca Solnit surmised: capitalism shrinks space and speeds up time. The labor of workers and the materials of the world were transformed into the abstraction of profit. Workers adapted to man-made schedules to optimize production and pocket watches, kept close at hand, allowed them to keep closer track of time. The watch pocket on jeans is a reminder of this historical moment. 

Today’s communications technology and our instant access via portable devices surpasses anything nineteenth century thinkers could have imagined. Indeed, the annihilation of space and acceleration of time described in the 1850s has more completely come to fruition and expanded in all dimensions. Yet, the material evidence offers a parallel between the world that invented blue jeans and our own. The pocket watch and smart phone, two technologies carried on the body centuries apart, but equally essential for managing one’s place in relation to the world and the economy. The watch pocket was a deliberate design detail that is no longer useful, the smart phone fade pattern is an accidental consequence of carrying a device that is largely essential.

Image: Second Sunrise, the reconstruction of a pair of 1870s miner jeans.

The connection between fade, wear, and labor hasn’t completely vanished. People still work in their jeans, fade them, and tear them as they always have. Patched knees, shredded pockets, and oxidized rivets told of the conditions of industrial or agricultural labor in the last century. Today the smart phone is indicative of lifestyle and labor, connecting worker to email, office, or jobsite. The irony here, of course, is that the kind of white-collar work that has many of us dependent on our phones does not inflict the kind of stress and strain on our bodies, let alone our clothing, the way work did for those wearing jeans in the past.

Fashion is pluralistic and hasn’t operated in terms of macro trends for some time. The phone pocket fade results from natural wear but is still effectively an early twenty first century trend, albeit an unintentional one, and it adds another dimension to denim’s relationship with work. We can trace phone fade alongside the development of and access to portable technology, making it one of the few outwardly visible markers in the sartorial landscape connected specifically to our present cultural moment.