Image: Unsplash

Times of instability and crisis produce increased nostalgia for the past. Such a longing for a time that no longer exists, nostalgia is central to fashion. Every season, the fashion industry reaches into the archives with cyclical predictability, echoing historical trends and stimulating nostalgic feelings through marketing that makes the consumer “miss things that never were,” as Arjun Appadurai put it in “Modernity at Large.” Even while mining the past for inspiration, fashion designers – or at least, good fashion designers – tend to reflect present culture with their work, mirroring the social status quo and creating garments that are desirable to the modern consumer.

One recent trend to cycle through this system – and stick – as of late? “Mom jeans,” the high-rise, loose-fitting, straight-legged blue jeans that are nonchalantly reminiscent of the original Levi’s 501s, representative of mid-century ranchwear1990s grunge, and early 2010s normcore, and yet, also distinctly current. 

As the very antithesis of the low-slung, hip- and midriff-baring styles of the 2000s, which were popularized by the likes Britney Spears and co., mom jeans have traditionally been viewed as the opposite of cool. They were frumpy, drab, dowdy. Despite the fact that high-waisted, straight-legged styles had been the norm for much of the 20th century, they were suddenly deeply conservative in comparison to the skin-tight, low-rise jeans that surged to popularity during the early days of the millennium. 

The pejorative term “mom jeans” only helped to cement the out-of-fashion perception that came with this trusty, old style. 

 ‘The 90s are back, baby!’

Over a decade after SNL famously aired its 2003 “mom jeans” sketch starring Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler, the social and political mood in the United States was steadily sobering. This was reflected in fashion, which moved away from the body-conscious styles of the early 2000s to looser, more oversized, and more gender-neutral styles. 

Mom jeans, differing only slightly from their close “dad jeans” counterpart and other normcore wares, fit neatly within this shift. 

While the early 2000s were epitomized by Spears and her ilk in low-slung jeans, the post-#MeToo era is embodied in celebrities like 18-year-old Billie Eilish, known for favoring oversized designer garments and speaking out against the impossible beauty standards imposed on women. Fast fashion trend arbiters like Zara, ASOS and H&M have been selling denim labelled “mom jeans” since at least 2015. 

Celebrities and fashion industry influencers and street style figures, alike, have adopted the style, while no shortage of buzzy designers – from Off-White to Hedi Slimane – have out high-waisted and roomy denim on the runway. 

The nostalgia represented in these styles recalls an imagined time, when things were simpler, calmer, easier. After all, when the future is uncertain, we turn to speculating on the past, using nostalgia to think through our current realities. In evoking an imagined past and reflecting a somber cultural present, mom jeans are far more than a garment that symbolizes parental status; they are a garment that locates women in place and time, politically and materially.

The draw of nostalgic longing means we find comfort in the familiarity of the past, no matter how recent. In response to today’s COVID-19 crisis, we are turning to old movies, letter writing and vintage fashion trends more than ever. Nostalgia is a defense mechanism against upheaval. Mom jeans, recalling a history of denim that has influenced fashion since the development of the Levi’s 501 in the late 19th century, epitomize this affective yearning, and had returned to dominance long before we started feeling the impact of COVID-19. Yet, it is difficult not to notice how neatly they fit within the larger cultural ethos of the moment.

Dr. Harriette Richards is a Research and Teaching Associate at the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Sciences. (Edits/additions courtesy of TFL)