One Friday night on Henderson avenue, a friend started playing a game. “Watch how many of the girls we pass have white pants,” she said, and I laughed, but then I stopped laughing. Skinny white jeans here, crisp white slacks there. It was like a spy movie in which the protagonist realizes she is surrounded by secret operatives, shadowy figures on every corner squinting into binoculars.
“When did this happen?” I asked her, something near panic in my voice.
My friend shrugged. “It’s been going on for a while.”
Gap introduced white jeans to its line in 2005, and they’ve made a steady march into the Dallas glamour girl’s closet ever since. Once a sign of ’80s bad taste (see: Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video), white pants have turned into something of a fashion brag. Wearing them means you are thin enough, or fancy enough, for the least practical pants on the market. It’s the equivalent of white carpet. If denim once suggested you were the kind of girl who didn’t mind getting dirty, white jeans suggest you are the kind of girl who never will.
This year, J Brand and Citizens of Humanity are including white denim in their fall and winter lines, a stiff arm to that silly old “never wear white after Labor Day” tradition. No less a cultural critic than Ryan Lochte, Olympian and scholar, told a women’s magazine he found them very sexy. Perhaps it makes sense that such high-maintenance jeans should rise to prominence during the same years that yoga pants and hoodies became a national uniform; they’re a spectrum opposite to our country’s love affair with sloth.
But they’re not cheap. (Not the ones that look good, anyway.) Premium brands run $150 to $200. And though they are theoretically an alternative look, they have become so popular in certain quarters that women in white pants can appear like an approaching armada, which raises the question that hovers over the entire fashion world, really: why do women pay so much to all look the same?
I have never worn white jeans. For many years, I did not wear jeans, period, and even the word “jeans” can be a trapdoor to a shame tunnel of adolescent angst. I went to middle school in Highland Park, island of privileged children with stick-straight bangs, and on the first Friday of sixth grade, I made the mistake of wearing Lee jeans at a very Guess jeans time. Here is what actually happened: some snotty girl made a snide remark. Here is what it felt like: hundreds of faces mocking me. Do you remember the final scene of Carrie? Kind of like that. Pig’s blood dripping down my face, a tidal wave of carnage running down the hallway, flames licking the walls.
So I took a pass on jeans for a while. I am short and curvy, which makes jeans a tricky business. My friend Mary jokes that we have peasant builds. Potato-picking thighs, low to the ground. Putting on the wrong pair of jeans can be like taking a Sharpie and circling body parts I feel most vulnerable about. Which doesn’t mean I don’t like jeans or admire the graceful and long-legged among my gender who can slip into heels and a snug pair of 7 For All Mankind and look like Jessica Biel. At 38, I find most denim pretty forgiving, but white jeans forgive nothing. They spill all your secrets. (A common sentiment expressed during my research was that white jeans should not be worn above size 6.)
It was 2006 when I saw my first pair of white pants in Dallas. This was right before I moved to New York, and my friend Pia showed up to a pool party wearing pants that fit her trim frame like surgical gloves. They were so striking, so cool in the Texas cauldron of July that I thought about them for years. They meant more to me than they did to Pia. They had that taunting quality of a toy I did not get to play with, a high shelf forever out of reach.
In New York, women don’t wear white pants. You might as well cover yourself in flypaper and roll in trash. The subway will ravage a pair of white jeans. But Dallas is removed from such grimy realities. We have manicured lawns and valets and hand sanitizer at every entrance. And so a woman can strut around in white pants without worrying about the sludge of the world.
But some realities can never be escaped. A friend of mine wore white pants for a time. She is a naturally thin runner type who can handily pull off such a feat. She had dinner at a fancy restaurant, and on her way out, a guy ran after her in the parking lot. He wanted to politely point out she’d just gotten her period.
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