While the 1970’s saw surface embellishments in painting, gem studding (exhibit 1: The Bedazzler), and fabric reconstruction, chemical distressing was an 80’s invention that changed the physical state of the material.
Guess brought out the first stonewashed jeans in 1982, and in 1986 a new chemical process called acid wash was patented by Italian Candida Laundry Company and commercialised by Rifle of Italy.
The process – also known as marble, frosted or ice wash – was a form of chemical bleaching that broke down the fibres and forced the dye to fade and bleach.
Porous stones, soaked in chlorine bleach, were tumbled in humungous washers so that the repetitive beating action of the stones against the denim would bleach out the fabric unevenly and create a mottled effect.
This worn-in look of brand new jeans did not please most parents, who resented buying brand new jeans that already looked ten years old and were more expensive than the “perfectly good” (dark) jeans on the next rack.
Ironically, those faded, worn jeans actually cost more to make, because of the added stonewash process.
When chemicals couldn’t break down the material any further before disintegration, people furthered the distressed obsession by slicing and dicing their jeans.
It started at the knees, with a simple horizontal rip to expose the kneecaps. Then the tears made their way up and down the leg, a series of slashes that shredded the jeans and offered little modesty.
Hard rockers and hair metallers strutted their stuff in this ripped-up bottomwear (just check out Def Leppard‘s Pour Some Sugar On Me video), and a generation swooned.
The most extreme (and cheeky) look was that of rips across the butt, which unapologetically exposed the wearer to a chilly draft. The more modest prevented such a fashion faux pas with a sewn-in handkerchief or a pair of boxer shorts worn underneath. But most just let it all hang out.
By the time the distressed look reached its apex, anything went. Bullet holes, razor blades, scissors – the methods of destruction were continually pushed further, until one day the madness suddenly faded even more quickly than the jeans did.