Fashion experts will tell you two things about blue jeans. First, they're the most popular item in the U.S. wardrobe (a $14.2 billion business). Second, what counts most to the denim customer is the fit, especially around the rear: For the masses, it's about asses. As more and more consumers are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for a pair of premium jeans, the perfectly packaged posterior is what makes the shopper part with his dollars. That's the science. Exactly how the denim must wrap round the glutes, however, is the art, because just how a man'straight or gay, black or white'views his butt in jeans is highly subjective, as I discovered recently on a tour of jeans emporia in New York and Los Angeles.
The only way to collect data on the subject is to hang out a little pervily in denim store changing rooms, places where the anxiety level approaches that in women's swimsuit departments. Even the vainest man can be reduced to vanilla pudding if the Sevens don't forgive sufficiently. (By the way, I'm leaving aside the continental man in this analysis; tight jeans on a man in Europe can project not cowering but confidence.)
In denimland it is immediately apparent that most straight men won't try on a pair of premium'$150 and above'jeans alone. The price tag seems to make them aware that they have entered the land of fashion, and therefore they need the validation'the maternal, permission-giving coddling'that apparently only a woman can provide. At Fred Segal, the 'ber-trendy clothing store in L.A., on a Saturday afternoon, I didn't see a single straight guy take a pair of Seven or Paper or True Religion jeans to the checkout without first asking, "Honey, how do I look?" these men never came out from their changing cubicles; they had their girlfriends or wives come into the stalls with them. One guy who did emerge, however, glanced at his Diesel jeans'clad behind nervously, pulled his girlfriend over, and said, "You don't think these are too tight, do you?"
Yes, straight guys are afraid of their asses. Or rather, since they must be checking out their derrieres when they are inside the changing stall, they are afraid of other people seeing them checking out their own behinds. This isn't just a matter of insecurity. It's physically hard to check out the fit on one's own ass. Unless you're Linda Blair and can crane 180, you will never see your ass in jeans exactly the way it's going to look to somebody else.
One afternoon at Barneys New York, while watching a Will-and-Jack pair of gay friends hesitantly check out the fit while trying on jeans, I started chatting up a woman who called herself Val.
"Why are so many men'even some gay ones'so wary of checking out the ass fit so publicly?" I said.
"Are you kidding?" she replied. "It took me two years to get my boyfriend to admit that he liked me playing with his butt while we were in bed. You think he's going to acknowledge his ass in any way, shape, or form around strangers? No way."
Saying that denim fit is essentially about sex and sexual attraction is no new revelation'anyone who ever saw George Michael's 1988 video for "Faith" probably reached the same conclusion (while also wondering just where he could get jeans as artfully torn as the singer's.) While we may all tell ourselves that we seek a denim fit to please ourselves, the fact is that we more often seek the fit that will attract the object of our desire. Women and gay men acknowledge that their desired demographic is going to be checking out their ass, so they themselves had better check it out first. American straight guys don't want to acknowledge that anyone'even a female'is performing the inspection, so they shy away. And if a jean is a little loose-fitting when they get it home? No problem: They'll use a belt to minimize the difference.
Sometimes an ass aversion can involve almost primal fear. One weekday afternoon at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, a straight guy growled at me, "Stop staring at my butt, dude." The fact that I had glanced at his behind because I couldn't believe anybody would try on a pair of $300 jeans that were two sizes too big rather than out of any sexual attraction on my part was completely lost on him.
Contrastingly, when a gay guy at New York's Bloomingdale's SoHo noticed me noticing him in a pair of vintage-y Paper jeans, he smiled conspiratorially, as if to say this must be the right size.
My theory that denim is inextricably related to sex received further corroboration the afternoon I went to Atrium, New York's premiere premium-denim shop. Erin Sloan, the store's assistant menswear buyer, told me, "When straight men try on trousers, a lot of times they won't even bother to check on the back. But they sure spend a lot of time making sure that the fit in the crotch is just right."
Gay men, Sloan said, seem especially crotch-concerned when they try on low-rise fits, which direct the gaze toward the pubes.
"Gay men," Sloan continued, "look at everything, because it's all potentially bait for the boys at the bar. I notice that they often shop for jeans alone, and that when they do shop with their boyfriend, they don't ask his opinion of the fit behind. They've already hooked that guy; it's everybody else they want to lure now."
As I kept watching guys try on jeans, I couldn't help but think that the 1990s preference for baggy denim was a product not only of hip-hop stylists but of straight guys who didn't want to have to showcase their asses at all. It was a conspiracy of sorts: Let's tighten the denim fit on the honeys (hip-hop videos, of course, are still a bonanza of cinched female booty) even as we relax it on the fellas. They reveal; we conceal. The conspiracy is widespread. There's no gay-male version of the 1990s ode to bouncy booty, "Baby Got Back." Pop culture leaves the majority of the population'women and gay men'posterior-parched.
Even abetted by straight guys' power, however, baggy couldn't last: Loose boxer-topped jeans always looked pretty stupid on anyone over 18, which is why this old-school hip-hop fit is now relegated to white boys in small-town high schools, while rappers favor "loud-logo" brands like budget-busting Evisu ($650 and counting), whose bold patterns erupting on wide, dark denim backgrounds somehow remind me of Thomas Pynchon's famous first sentence in the novel Gravity's Rainbow: "A screaming comes across the sky."
Of course, the loose butt'fit also waned because African-American entrepreneurs like Sean "Puffy" Combs and Jay-Z moved hip-hop back into a slicker aesthetic. "Doesn't matter what your house or apartment really looks like," Combs told me recently, "if your attire has style, you're seen as somebody in the world."
But when it comes to denim fit, a lot of men subscribe neither to the "if you've got it, flaunt it" theory nor the "leave it all to the imagination" school. For example, African-American guys, gay and straight, have been edging into premium denim brands like underground-chic Rogan and Finn Creations, which have distinct style but neither the cramped crotch nor the tight butt'fit many guys are shy about sporting.
Dana Smith, the creator behind Freedom Is Natural Nirvana, the New York'based maker of Finn, told me he started his company partly in reaction to the fact that he and his friends didn't like either the baggy or breathless fit. What's more, says Smith, who once played basketball for Harvard, he and his buddies were athletic and found it hard to buy jeans that accommodated worked-out thighs and glutes but didn't droop like days-old daisies around the waist. Smith added, "Guys now want something that's styling but not stupid."
Even with the diversification in denim styles, aimed at accommodating all kinds of rears, I have to admit that the most dazzlingly denimed derriere I saw in a changing room was on someone attired neither in premium tightness nor new-school realism. I was at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. A tall man in his early 30s tip-toed out of the changing-room stall. He turned around. His fit was so right, I couldn't help complimenting him'in my best low-key, if-you're-straight-just-chill fashion. "What've you got on anyway?" I asked. "They look expensive."
"They're not," he replied. "They're Levi's. They're 501's." I too bought some 501's. Nobody shared my dressing room.
For more about the latest in denim, pick up the July issue of Out.