The pants, according to their description on the Nordstrom site, "embody rugged, Americana workwear that's seen some hard-working action" and show "you're not afraid to get down and dirty." Except, of course, the pants have never seen action and the wearer only looks dirty. (The look is pretty convincing, though; there's even some shine on that mud.)
Mike Rowe, the former host of Dirty Jobs and a longtime advocate for the value of skilled trades, had one of the most popular, and most thoughtful, responses.
He noted that the fake-dirty jeans seem to value the idea of work. "What they don't value — obviously — is authenticity," he wrote on Facebook:
"But forget the jeans themselves for a moment, and their price, and look again at the actual description. 'Rugged Americana' is now synonymous with a 'caked-on, muddy coating.' Not real mud. Fake mud. Something to foster the illusion of work. The illusion of effort. Or perhaps, for those who actually buy them, the illusion of sanity.
"The Barracuda Straight Leg Jeans aren't pants. They're not even fashion. They're a costume for wealthy people who see work as ironic — not iconic."
The jeans aren't alone. PRPS, a premium denim brand known for its "heavily distressed" styles, offers other besmirched denim options, including a pair of pants "prominently defined" by dirt smudges and a "mud denim jacket" with "caked-on and baked-in muddy smears." There are pants destroyed to the point of being "abstract art."
Speaking of which, if you'd rather imitate a different kind of work, you can purchase "slouchy joggers" with paint splatters that look "as though they stepped straight out of the art studio."
And if your first thought was, "just $425? Do they have anything pricier?" ... well, yes. It's not available on Nordstrom's site, but PRPS does sell $900 selvedge jeans with distinctly dirtlike stains.
The fake-mud-splattered PRPS jeans aren't new; the look was featured in PRPS's fall 2016 lineup, though they didn't hit the spotlight until this week.
"In all honesty, PRPS have been making jeans like this, with mud, oil, dirt, paint, distressing on mammoth scales for many years, and nobody has really spoken out about it," says Lorna Burford, founder and editor of The Jeans Blog.
And the price tag, while high for premium denim, is pretty average for PRPS, she says. Burford thinks Nordstrom's description of the jeans — actually invoking hard labor in the ad copy — might have been the reason these particular pants have taken so much flak.
Pricey dirty clothes aren't just a premium-denim issue.
In a 2010 thesis on "dressing poor," Australian curator and editor Kate Louise Rhodes described the political implications of dirt "worn as a deliberate accessory" in high fashion.
She traced a brief history, from the intentional stains of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in the '70s to literally moldy couture presented by Martin Margiela in the late '90s — and countless examples of fake-torn or fake-stained garments.
Rhodes argued that such looks can generate an "aura of authenticity" while raising philosophical and moral questions about what it means to be mimicking stereotypes of poverty in the expensive world of high fashion.
Nordstorm has not responded to NPR's inquiries. A spokesman for PRPS said the brand is not available for comment.
But the denim line provides a hint at its philosophy on its website — where the idea of craft, precision and meticulous detail is applied to tears and smears.
"Each loving stitch and rip suggests a job well done," PRPS writes at one point. At another, it says garments "stitch the soul of ancestral American jeans ... onto modern silhouettes that bear the old stains proudly."
And then there's that pesky word: authenticity. The word pops up again and again as PRPS founder Donwan Harrell describes his values.
The brand uses denim woven on vintage looms. Harrell started it in response to what he saw as a lack of "authentic" jeans on the market. Even the name — PRPS, as in Purpose — is a callback to a time when jeans were designed as workwear, with a real function.
In an interview last year, Harrell invoked authenticity — or the emulation thereof — as a core design principle.
"Every significant detail within the jean is built for the purpose of looking authentic," he said.
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.