Six and a half years ago, I weighed a bit over 300 pounds. I got invited to attend a friend's wedding, and decided it would be nice to dress up in something formal. The only suit I owned was black, having been purchased a few years prior to wear at a friend's funeral. I was unwilling to wear a funeral suit to something as optimistic as a wedding, so I went to Men's Wearhouse. An employee there helped me select a couple of sport coats and a pair of slacks, all in tweeds or brownish earth tones, along with shirts and ties in brighter colors for contrast. I still own the slacks, which were intended to be worn with suspenders; the inside tag says they had a 54 inch waist. Even after the tailor was finished hemming and everything, they fit me poorly, but still looked reasonably nice when I was standing up.
It was until last September before I agreed to attend another wedding. By then I was down to about 260 pounds, having lost 25 in around six weeks thanks to an abrupt slide into depression. The dress clothes were still in good condition, but none of them really fit me at all any more. The slacks were legitimately difficult to get into because they simply wouldn't stay up as I buttoned the suspenders in; they were impossibly loose around the waistline, and the dress shirts billowed out beneath them. It was time to buy new clothes but I found all this out too close to the wedding to do anything about it.
My weight loss continued through the winter and I slowly started to replace my wardrobe with new clothing in smaller sizes. This sort of thing is a Good Problem to Have--the kind of thing that The Custodian has characterized in recent Bariatric Surgery 2016 daylogs as a Non-Scale Victory. A couple of weeks ago I got down to 233 pounds, my lowest weight since I was a teenager. I'm no longer losing weight because of depression; these last 20 pounds or so have come off because I have mindfully started to eat less, drink less alcohol, walk several miles most days, and especially to understand how my relationship with food and liquor alike were largely about the emotions I associated with eating, rather than actual physical hunger.
I skip an entire day's worth of meals once every week or two, making sure on those days to drink plenty of water and take all my vitamin supplements. Hunger is no longer a mystery to me, and I am now much more able to disassociate it from feelings of sadness, loneliness, or any of the other forms of despair I have struggled with off and on for most of my life.
I started my downward spiral into last autumn's depression for the typical combination of reasons: a couple of situational setbacks, a habitually unhealthy lifestyle, and the standard-issue brain chemistry stuff that a lot of people deal with. In response to that sudden slide, I started writing extensively in a private journal, trying to document these feelings because I recognized that I had been through them before and hadn't documented enough to really remember what I experienced and how I got through it. I made a post on my Facebook wall, partly to acknowledge to others the way I was almost involuntarily pulling back from things around me, but also to remind myself why documenting the process was important:
There isn't much to recommend depression, but there's one part of it I'm glad to have experienced a few times in my life: You get to a point where your body is just finished feeling bad for a while. That wet, heavy feeling in your chest lifts and you're left in this kind of fragile equilibrium; not good, not yet--but momentarily better. The word is "respite."
It doesn't always last--but once it comes it keeps coming. You start stringing together a few hours of it at a time, and then a few days, and finally, sometime when you're not expecting it, there will be a moment where you realize that equilibrium isn't quite so fragile any more.
Memory is knowledge is the strength to keep going. I had to earn that. I'm glad that I did.
Reading back through the last year of journal text has been difficult, maybe impossible. Far too much of it details the tiny minutia of my life and my feelings about the situational components of my depression. I won't go into that stuff here, except to say that one the themes which kept popping back up in that private writing was admissions of how I couldn't imagine for myself a meaningful future of any kind. My poor substitute for life goals was to seize on a personal cultural calendar, marking time by doing things like buying tickets to upcoming live performances, or reserving seats at events like beer dinners, or pre-ordering upcoming books and video games, or marking release dates for new films and TV seasons.
How do you decide what you're going to be about when none of the normal answers seem to work for you? I'm still working on it, but it doesn't seem like as much of a problem these days. One of the reasons why is one of those Non-Scale Victories: I was able to purchase some raw denim.
Why was owning raw denim a personal victory for me, exactly? There's a huge variety in jeans, but I had always struggled to find ones I like. Stores which stock denim in Big and Tall sizes don't go in for much variety. Usually, you only get to pick between two or three brands, each carrying one or two styles, and you get your choice of light blue, medium blue, dark blue, or black. For a long time I thought that this was all there was, but as I started shopping for clothes on websites rather than in the local Casual Male or Destination XL, I started noticing foreign words to me, mostly in sections of the website catering to sizes just slightly smaller than my own dimensions.
A short selection of these:
- Rigid denim
- Denim with very minimal rinsing after the dye process, generally with a stiffer texture as a result.
- Selvedge denim
- Refers to denim from certain older-style looms, where the entire roll of fabric has a "self edge" that can be used directly in garments. Non-selvedge denim has a soft, frayed fringe on the sides which has to be cut off or otherwise removed. Jeans constructed from selvedge denim are recognizable because of the way this "self edge" is typically incorporated into the outer seams of the pant legs; when cuffed, the pants have a distinctive change in fabric near the seam, often marked both by a change of texture and a contrasting thread color. "Red line" selvedge is probably the most common.
- Raw denim
- Refers to denim which has not been rinsed after receiving indigo dye. This is like rigid denim only more so: a near-cardboard stiffness, substantial contrast between the inner and outer surfaces of the fabric, a "hairy" texture resulting from imperfections in the cotton yarn fiber that has yet to be abraded away through the stresses of wash and wear, even a distinctive smell from the indigo dye. Until the middle of the last century, all denim garments were constructed from raw denim.
- Sanforized denim
- Refers to denim which has been treated to avoid shrinking in the first wash. Raw denim can be sanforized or unsanforized; Levi bills its unsanforized 501s as "shrink-to-fit."
- Refers to the tendency of the yarn used to construct denim to vary in thickness throughout a piece of fabric, often due to mechanical imprecision in the performance of the loom. Results in denim with characteristic patterns.
- Similar to slub, but refers to a different kind of imperfection, where segments of cotton fiber protrude visibly from the woven fabric.
- Characteristic fading on the back side of jeans near the knee, named for the geometric patterns which the fades resemble.
- Diagonal or horizontal fade lines on front side of jeans near the lap, formed by the creases in the fabric which appear when the wearer is seated.
- Fade lines near the cuffs of jeans, made by the way the fabric piles up where it meets the shoe or the foot.
- The process by which fugitive indigo dye is transferred from a pair of jeans to nearby surfaces.
These aren't pop-culture terms. We're not talking about things like mom jeans or skinny jeans or Daisy Dukes here. This is the jargon of fandom. Discovering this stuff lurking just below the surface of clothing retail websites made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
I started looking up more and more of these terms, successively reading articles around a common string of topics on Wikipedia and longer-form pieces on sites like Heddels (http://www.heddels.com/) and Rope Dye (http://www.ropedye.com/) and even peeking with a kind of fascinated horror beyond the obligatory subreddit and into a phpBB message board which really is called Denim Bro. They have an annual convention. I gradually began to learn the history of blue jeans, dating back to Levi Strauss and their patent on rivet-reinforced garments. I learned about how indigo is in some ways a very poor dye for clothing, because it doesn't hold fast. I learned how in some ways denim wasn't an ideal fabric for cotton clothing because it shrinks ferociously the first time it's washed. I read reports that raw denim isn't very comfortable until it's been washed several times, and that this is especially true for heavier fabrics.
Stories about early jeans made in this style have some interesting bits to them. Apparently you were supposed to buy them big, and then sit in a bathtub full of hot water until they shrank to fit you. You had to be careful about washing them alongside other clothes until most of the fugitive dye had washed out. The fabric was so rigid and rough that some people would drag a new pair of jeans behind a car in order to break them in more quickly. I learned how stone washing, which is how almost every pair of jeans I wore for the first 36 years of my life were made, was introduced relatively recently in an attempt to lower these barriers to entry. I learned how selvedge denim became less and less common, and about how designer jeans here in America have for many years been less about the cut or the materials used to construct a garment, and more about what kinds of stress the manufacturer was applying to the jeans before selling them to you. Freshly-made jeans can be strategically faded. Fabric can be stretched and rubbed and abraded, even have holes intentionally cut into it, repairs applied, and more, all so that you could buy a pair of jeans off the rack which look just like the ones Johnny Ramone was wearing on that one magazine cover in 1981, even though he would have had to break his in over a period of years to get them looking that way.
As mainstream American companies like Levi Strauss were gradually pulling out of the raw denim business, companies in other parts of the world, especially in Japan, were becoming more intensely focused on making a product like the one we used to make in America, with even greater precision than we used to make it. Jeans constructed in this more authentic, vintage style typically used selvedge denim. This is slower to make and more expensive to use, but is recognizable to educated buyers. Selvedge denim has become a mark of prestige in denim clothing, and many selvedge denim garments are sold in a raw state, having never been washed--or washed only very gently--after leaving the loom.
People have started to notice that style. Those raw denim jeans, no longer from companies like Levi or Lee or Wrangler, but instead from smaller companies with names like Iron Heart or Samurai or Naked and Famous, became coveted objects. Interestingly, this status doesn't accrue to how they looked in their factory state, but rather for how after years of wear they looked much more like those amazing vintage Levi's 501s than anything you could buy in mainstream stores. For some, this vintage aesthetic seems to be the entire point. (This seems especially true with denim jackets, where designs Levi introduced decades ago still dominate the market.) For others, the interest seems to depart from nostalgia almost entirely. These fans wanted something new: fabric which was even harder to break in than vintage jeans had been, or jeans made from fabric which had an even more "small-batch" feel than those old jeans had.
Getting ideal fading on jeans has started to become more about obtaining a high contrast between the most faded sections and the least faded ones. A vocabulary has emerged, not just with textile industry terms like warp and weft and twill and loomstate and deadstock and overdye, but with some of the more denim-specific terms I described above. Writing on the topic of denim clothing pays special attention to the way the garments fade with wear. It engages in debates about the trade-offs of popular synthetic indigo dyes versus the older, more expensive natural indigo dyes. Beyond the fading these enthusiasts describe as whiskers, honeycombs, and stacks, there's also interest given to fading around the pockets of the jeans, which might have visible lines near a habitually-carried rigid artifact such as wallet, smartphone, or even the occasional knuckle-duster, and there's even focus on more faint details like how the texture of the selvedge seam running up the jean leg will influence the way the exterior of the seam fades. There's even vocabulary (see crocking, above) about how the fading actually works, particularly to discuss the way indigo can leach from your raw denim clothing onto your furniture, your skin, and the contents of your pockets.
(As I mentioned, I walk a lot these days. Rain or shine. I walked six miles in pouring rain while wearing a pair of rigid Levi's 514s this spring, and when I got home and stripped off my wet clothes, my legs were streaked blue from ankle to thigh. I was strangely proud of that.)
These days, there are international competitions to judge the most strikingly faded denim. This is true. There are online magazines and message forums which track what's available and swap stories about how the clothing fades over time. There's folk lore about how long to go before your first wash: six months of daily wear, using tactics like putting the unwashed denim in your freezer to get rid of its stink without washing them too soon, or going wading in the ocean so that salt water influences the fading process in some arcane way. There are suggestions about how to wash and dry it to get the best fading: for example, inside-out on a gentle machine cycle using specific detergents, followed by hang-drying them upside-down.
For the obsessive manufacturers whose products have attracted this fandom, sometimes the focus is on pure authenticity, sometimes it's on advancing the state of the art, sometimes it's just about catering to fanatics. Fabrics keep getting heavier, or more idiosyncratic. Stitching using the right 1950s-era sewing machine can add a hundred dollars to the price of a pair for the right buyer; websites advertising this clothing give surprisingly detailed technical specifications for each garment. Sometimes it gets more than a little weird. One company has done things like scratch-and-sniff denim, and another has partnered with a whiskey distiller to literally barrel-age denim jeans in full liquor barrels--creating a product which is "small-batch" in more ways than one. Bonkers! Meanwhile, detail-oriented collectors of vintage Levi's jeans can teach you how to determine the era in which any particular pair of jeans might have been made, which features are the most rare or sought-after, and even how to spot forgeries. Individual pairs of these vintage jeans can sell at auction for tens of thousands of dollars.
To be clear, a denim garment isn't an object like a cast iron skillet: something which demands very specific treatment but can be passed down through generations of daily use given proper care. The clothing is celebrated for the manner in which it wears out, and fans of the clothing go out of their way to put it through appropriately hard wear. Why be so precious with a product we're buying just so that we can beat it to shit?
The first time I had an idea of how to explain this was after I read an article published in 2010 on a website called BERG about the term patina. The article (http://berglondon.com/blog/2010/09/03/patina/) opens with a photograph of a 35-year-old film camera whose metal pieces have begun to lose their outer coat of paint around the edges, revealing the brass hardware beneath. The article ruminates on the aesthetic beauty of this weathering, and goes on to give other examples. These range from the dubious: the probably-fake footprints supposedly worn into the wood floor of a temple by the daily prayers of a Tibetan monk; to the more intimate: faint scuffing in the aluminum casing of the author's Apple MacBook.
Writing which discusses the similar weathering of raw denim often makes reference to a Japanese aesthetic term wabi-sabi, and takes it to mean something like "the perfection of imperfection." These fashion writers describe it as the idea that absolute precision in manufacturing and extreme caution in care and use of the product will only result in an object which is totally impersonal, reflecting nothing about either its owner or its creator. The idea is that these small imperfections, which result from individual attention during construction, or from individualized patterns of wear emerging from earnest use make the finished product more beautiful. These same denim-enthusiast publications also make occasional mention of wartime economy influences on the textile industry, such as the Japanese concept of boro for recycling heritage fabric for patchwork on dissimilar garments, or accounts of Occupied Paris in World War 2 using similar recycling of fabrics and whole garments in response to Nazi-imposed rationing as a kind of household counterculture. (http://www.thevintageshowroom.com/blog/?p=8542)
The idea is that textiles continue to exist long after they are first produced, and their wear and use over time tell a story not just about the clothing but about the people who wore it. When you buy a pair of raw denim jeans and wear them regularly until they fade in a manner unique to your body and your habits, you are writing a story about your life into your clothing. You can look at the object now and think about where it has taken you, and where you will go with it. I have a heavy leather jacket which I bought new in 2001 and wore on every cold day until last winter when it started looking shapeless on me. The jacket has been through intense weathering, and I spent hundreds of dollars on later modifications to it, replacement zippers and liners and other repairs. All these things make it an article of clothing which is completely unique to me. When I look at it, or hold it, or smell it for the first time when I take it out of the closet each autumn, something like a fondness for my own adult identity seems to spill out of it and back into me.
I was learning about all of this stuff almost accidentally. I coveted a pair of selvedge denim jeans because when I was a 285-pound man none of the jeans that were available to me had selvedge seams, and suddenly I was down to waist sizes (40 inches and below) where they were available. I was cautious about what to buy because I didn't want something that would shrink below my fit, or crock all over my other clothes in the laundry. I learned a lot of this denim vocabulary and the history of this clothing by doing online research into what jeans to buy and how to care for them once I had bought them. Making the most of a Non-Scale Victory which was a small silver lining in an otherwise grim time.
I had to replace my entire wardrobe, all at once. Like I said, this is a good problem to have, but I kept thinking about that leather jacket, and all the sense of identity I had wrapped up in it, and how in a way that was suddenly gone. I was struggling with how to rebuild that sense of self, and I was doing it at a time where I wasn't even sure I believed that I would still want to be alive in six months, let alone believed I would still want to be wearing the same clothes I was picking out as I listlessly wandered through department stores in the middle of a Minnesota winter.
Raw denim made me perk up, especially the concept that denim came in a variety of different weights. I wrote in an earlier node about how I liked clothing which felt like armor--this peculiar Japanese denim which was twice as thick (or more!) than the denim of regular Levi's jeans sounded a lot like armor to me. I started shopping.
I eventually settled on a pair of custom-made jeans from SOSO Clothing, a Swedish-owned company manufacturing in Thailand. I got a pair of sanforized raw denim red-line selvedge jeans in an ultra-heavy 24.5 oz fabric, done in a straight leg with low-contrast stitching, extra-deep pockets, silver rivets, a reinforced fly, and no leather patch, with a 36-inch waist tag and a 31-inch inseam. (They use vanity sizing, the actual waist is more like a 39 or a 40.) I went with these minimalistic specifications, thinking of something William Gibson once characterized in a novel of his as Cayce Pollard Units. My SOSOs fit me well, better than any other article of clothing I've ever owned, and after 3 months of near-daily wear with one soak and no washes, I'm starting to see whiskering, faint honeycombs, a wallet fade, and some really promising fading at the knees and ankles, especially one spot on the left knee that I accidentally doused with a few ounces of rye whiskey on a Sunday night a couple of months ago. The jeans were so heavy and rough that they actively hurt to wear for the first week or so, but they're now the most comfortable piece of clothing I own. When I had to give them up for about 5 days so a nearby tailor could replace a couple of busted rivets using replacement hardware that SOSO shipped to me for free, everything else I wore instead felt so light and swishy that I felt almost naked. I had a long, depressing Friday wandering through the men's casualwear department of Macy's fingering the fabric of various jeans and glumly realizing that I didn't want to buy anything they sell. Stretch denim is the last thing I want. Maybe I'll have better luck if I try again in the winter.
I'm still shopping for new clothes, still trying to define my new sense of taste. This concept of wabi-sabi patina is a big part of what I'm thinking about. I can turn my SOSOs inside out and see places where the indigo from the dyed warp yarns has bled through to the undyed weft yarns on the inside of the jeans. As the outside creases fade to lighter and lighter shades, the inner creases are becoming increasingly stained by a ghostly-pale hint of blue. My clothing is a process in motion. So am I. I think often about this pair of pants, and about what they will be like after I machine-wash them for the first time, and about what they will be like after I've worn them regularly for a couple of years. I think about the kinds of clothing I will pair with them, and whether they'll still fit me as I lose the next 20-30 pounds, and whether they'll still fit me if I take my power-lifting friend's advice and start weight training soon. I've ordered another pair of heavyweight jeans from the SOSO spring Kickstarter, they'll be arriving next month.
I get strangely excited when I talk to people about this stuff. They usually smile faintly, a little bemused at the idea that I have become, of all things, a denim nerd. But they're missing the point, I think. Losing all this weight for bad reasons forced me to buy new clothing, and in learning the things I needed to learn to buy that new clothing, I realized that I care about my future again.
I'll come back to the thing I quoted from my Facebook post: "Memory is knowledge is the strength to keep going. I had to earn that." It's written in that leather jacket, and in a couple of years it will be written in the jeans I'm wearing as I type this. As I've come back up out of this darkness again, I haven't kept up with the daily journal writing so much--but it would have been hard to go back to read all that the next time I start sliding down again anyway. I can look at these clothes, and think about how they changed and about how excited I was to watch them change. Memory is knowledge is strength. The clothes I wear can be a reminder to stay resolute, to remain a process in motion.
Yeah. I think I like that.