What It Means to Get Your Jeans All Wet for Fashion: A Critique of Levi's Shrink-to-Fit Jeans

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Sometimes I decide that I’m too busy to go shopping for new pants and I order them online. Recently, I went to the Levi’s website and ordered a pair of 501 Shrink-to-Fit jeans without looking into what they actually are. I think I thought they were just regular jeans. But when the jeans arrived, they were cumbersome, heavy, had kind of an odd, sour smell to them, and were unusually attractive to dust and animal hair—they kind of turn you into a Sasquatch. The ones I ordered fit weird for my size—they bag at the bottom in a way that reminds me of the kind of dudes you knew in college who wanted you to think they were more working-class than they really were. Like they wanted to give you the impression they were working on the docks all day rather than reading Bukowski in the quad. I guess I’m trying to say they fit like Dickies. (You could also argue that I, in fronting like I had no time for shopping at the mall and had to order my jeans without trying them on, was the same kind of phony.)

I didn’t realize what I had gotten myself into until I was reading Marc Maron’s book, Attempting Normal, in which the comedian recounts a recent experience with the Shrink-to-Fits. A Levi’s clerk with a mustache sells Maron the jeans, but explains they must be treated a very specific way:

“You put the pants on and you get into a bathtub with them. Then you get out of the bathtub and you towel off and then you wear them around, wet, for as long as it takes them to dry. That way they are perfectly contoured to your body.”

“Secretly obsessed with the idea of perfect pants,” Maron goes home and gets in the tub with the jeans on, but then decides he’s been had, comparing himself to a clown being dunked at a carnival.

I looked up the jeans and the Levi’s company has slightly different instructions for the proper care of these jeans:

Shrink to fit jeans inline.preview
Via Levi's

(I love everything about the illustration in step 4, but it is the cavalier flip of the hand with which our hero dismisses his retro-babe girlfriend’s suggestion she wash his clothes that makes it for me, I think. “Sorry, babe...someone challenged me to a game of chicken down by the old saw mill, so I have more important things to deal with.”)


I tried the Levi’s website’s approach and soaked the jeans and wore them around on a sunny day. There is a certain childish thrill to soaking something in the bathtub when it’s not supposed to go there, and I even giggled out loud by myself at one point in the process. I used cold water because I didn’t mind losing some of the color in the jeans, and putting on the cold, heavy, wet jeans was unspeakably uncomfortable at first. Later the effect of the cold and the Dr. Bronner’s helped take the edge off the hot day. But mostly it’s just super irritating.

photo (8)
My jeans in the tub.

The jeans did not end up fitting perfectly. They started out fitting poorly, and now they fit a little better. I was only in it for the sake of having jeans that magically fit perfectly, but they just went from bad to decent.

When I posted on Facebook about the jeans, my friend Carolyn, a poet, nailed what I find troubling about them: “One begins feeling vain, and a little high maintenance. Which is ironic because the ‘look’ is meant to be low effort, cowboy farm jeans, rough, worn, weathered by tragic human experiences.”

The Shrink-to-Fits are absurd because, like much of contemporary men’s fashion, they conflate foppishness with ruggedness. The idea of walking around in public in sopping wet jeans, hoping no one on the bus can tell, like someone with an obscure sexual fetish, is connected to the life of a carefree 1950s-style cartoon rocker whose girlfriend does his laundry for him, just as handlebar mustaches and the kind of clothes you buy at a saddlery are now associated with going to brunch and playing in experimental noise bands.

Look, I’m not blowing anybody’s mind saying hipsters are vain or that fashion can be silly. But take a look at this semi-recent Levi’s commercial, which quotes Walt Whitman. It’s invoking something that I think young people today feel a legitimate existential yearning for: a type of freedom, but also a type of duty and importance. Something beyond bartending and Snapchatting and watching “Breaking Bad”.

There are, of course, still ways to attain the kind of experience Whitman is talking about in his famous poem, which I believe is titled “Levi’s Jeans are Cool”--  joining the Peace Corps or Teach for America, for instance, or moving to New York or L.A. for that last ditch effort towards becoming a screenwriter/hand model. The thing is, you can do those things in whatever pants you want. If that commercial speaks to you, it is not because you need to make some weird, soggy historical reenactment of your day’s errand-running.

Levi’s 501 Shrink-to-Fit Jeans are $39.90 on their website—down from $74.