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Why everybody loves jeans

Since the liberalisation in 1991, the humble denim trouser or 'jeans' has become a marker for style, comfort, independence, class, freedom and choice for many women in India

Written by Ankita Dwivedi Johri |
Updated: April 18, 2021 7:10:00 am
jeansPhoto credit: Getty Images

Till 2015, says Veena Soni, she had never worn jeans, “not even before my marriage”. But that year, when she visited her daughter in Australia, she nervously tried on her first pair. “I was immediately comfortable and it was so easy to carry! The hassle of getting a matching blouse, petticoat, sandals, bindi, that came with a sari, was not there. I was ready in two minutes,” says the 58-year-old Jaipur-based homemaker, with a laugh, admitting that the presence of her “damaad (son-in-law)” did make her feel awkward initially, “but it was only for a few minutes. All my inhibitions were soon gone.”

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Over 300 km away in Khurja in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr district, 21-year-old Gauri Kumar had to fight the inhibitions of her husband’s family when she decided to pair her kurtas with jeans. “I was born and raised in Noida. My husband works at a factory there. I had never worn saris ever. Every time I visited my husband’s family, I felt uncomfortable in the clothes. Two years ago, I just wore jeans under my kurta… Sab kaafi gussa huye (Everyone got upset), but my husband and father-in-law supported me. Now, I wear it all the time,” says Kumar, who has been married for three years.

Over the years, especially since liberalisation in 1991, the humble denim trouser or “jeans”, has become a marker for style, comfort, independence, class, freedom and choice for many women in India. The cotton-synthetic pants have also spooked political leaders, khap panchayats, government offices, colleges and religious institutions, who often see it as a symbol of indecency.

Last month, when Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat questioned the “values” of a woman who wore ripped jeans while travelling with her two children, the comment triggered a storm on social media, with both women and men posting pictures of themselves in distressed jeans under the hashtag #FatiHuiJeans. The chief minister eventually apologised, but what was left unacknowledged was the enormous size of India’s denim market and its growing consumption in the country. “India boasts of a denim manufacturing capacity of around 1.1 billion metre per annum with utilisation levels of 80-85 per cent. The denimwear market is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 12 per cent and be worth Rs 91,894 crore by 2028,” says Gayatri Khanna, creative director of the ready-to-wear fashion label GAYA.

Denim has always had an element of expression, of personality, and, even of rebellion, says Manish Kapoor, chief executive officer, Pepe Jeans London. It emerged as a transition garment for the Indian woman in the ’90s, eventually paving the way for shorts and dresses in the 2000s. “In the last decade, the penetration of denimwear into smaller towns and cities, including tier-IV centres has been rapid. In the last five years, the sales in tier-II centres have crossed that of big cities. The segment has also got democratised, transitioning from casual wear to office wear and being available to all age groups,” he says.

For Varsha Malvi in Indore, jeans was part of the “transition” that Kapoor mentions, when after years of staying at home, the 25-year-old took up the offer of a full-time job with an NGO. “I bought a pair of white capri (ankle-length) jeans from a neighbourhood shop for my first day at work. I wore it with a short kurti. I felt all eyes on me as I walked to the bus-stop… My neighbours told my mother my jeans were too tight. But at my office, everyone appreciated me. Many said I looked smart,” says the second of four siblings. Recently, she bought her sister a pair of ripped jeans and has been browsing the internet to look for styles for herself, too. “My father and brother were angry with me, but I don’t agree with their views. I don’t see anything wrong with the outfit. In fact, I like the tight (slim) fit jeans,” she says.

Saurabh Srivastava, director, Amazon Fashion India, underlines the role of online shopping in driving growth in tier-II and tier-III towns. “The demand for denim on Amazon Fashion has increased two-fold in tier-II and tier-III centres when compared to metros. In the last few months, we have witnessed a faster growth in demand for denim between the age bracket of 18 and 24 for both men and women,” he says, adding that while jogger-fit, slim-fit and stretchable jeans are among the popular products, the slim fit (what Malvi refers to as “tight jeans”) is among the most preferred on the platform.

Popular denims brand Numero Uno, which is “opening almost 30 new stores every year in tier-II and tier-III cities”, also counts ankle-length, skinny-fit jeans among its “fast movers” in smaller centres, while bootcut fits are more popular in cities. “Denims are practically seasonless… Availability of multiple fits, washes and price points ensures that there is a pair for everyone,” says Manjula Gandhi, chief product officer, Numero Uno.

The spike in popularity and sales is also a “reflection of the times”, says Umashan Naidoo, customer head at Westside. “Denims are sexy, has utility, it is casual and like second skin for some… It is the most democratic piece of clothing around. There is a shape, style, fit for everyone and if that doesn’t work you can add your twist with a bit of customisation,” he says. Naidoo also believes that the “many functionalities” of denim which “no one retailer can cover” is also helping the market grow bigger.

For Jaipur-based Soni, as she takes small, anxious steps towards building a Westernwear wardrobe, factoring in her age has been crucial. “I am always conscious about it. When one is younger, it is easier to experiment, but not now… I stick to straight-cut jeans with long tops that cover the hips. The ankle-length trousers are not for me,” says the mother of two.

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But the new design philosophies of the industry are breaking some of these barriers, says Parika Rawal, head of design at Madame clothing, which is celebrating April as “Denim Month”. “Mom jeans, elasticated waistlines are all designed keeping the Indian body-type in mind… As tops are getting more cropped, jeans are getting more high-waisted and women are not refraining from trying these. Now, jeans have become a core category at our brand, like tops and dresses, because gone are the days when people had just two pairs. Now, people in all age groups want to own one in every style,” she says.

The pandemic has also pushed companies to focus on comfort, with brands such as Uniqlo coming up with denim-like fabrics to meet the demand. “Now more than ever, people need everyday items that fit their lifestyles and we are trying to deliver on these through a combination of design, fabric and technology,” says a brand representative.

In the future, the focus, these brands say, will be on sustainability. “In the past one year, with people forced to stay indoors, the athleisure segment has boomed. But the consumer now also wants to know what impact the product has on the environment, and that is why the denim sector is also moving towards that,” says Pepe Jeans’s Kapoor.

Soni’s denim collection has seen a small expansion recently. “I now have a suitcase ready with my western wear. It has three pairs of jeans in basic colours, seven tops and two jackets. When I visited my son and daughter-in-law in the US, they helped me buy everything. But I still can’t wear these clothes in Jaipur. I might in the future…,” she smiles.

Meanwhile, Malvi has already started saving up for a new pair for herself, “maybe like the ripped ones I got my sister,” she says. “Last year, a leading portal launched its regional search option. ‘Fati hui (torn) jeans’ was the most searched option on it. So, we know what people are looking for,” says Kapoor.

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