Much like the year that preceded it, little about 2021 so far has felt expected. Never could I have predicted that the U.K. would still be locked down nearly a year after the first coronavirus restrictions went into place, or that Donald Trump would get permanently banned from Twitter. Even more shocking has been Gen Z’s declaration that skinny jeans are dead (along with side partings and the laugh-cry emoji). Yes, barely two months into the new year, Zoomers on TikTok have proclaimed precisely this — signaling the end of an era that began when this (apparently) ancient millennial entered high school 16 years ago.
As a fat woman and former fat teen, skinny jeans have been much more than a trend to me. When stretchy, skin-tight denim first hit the scene, my comfort in my own body was practically non-existent. I took every effort possible to hide my lumps and bumps in tent-like dresses and baggy, olive-colored trousers. I told myself that I wore garments like the latter so that I might look like a plus-size version of Lindsay Lohan circa the 2003 classic Freaky Friday. Deep down, I knew that it was shame surrounding the nuances of my body that made me want to drown it in excess fabric.
When the skinny jeans look hit the fashion industry, I finally gave myself permission to dress my body in a form-fitting item. I remember shopping for my first pair in the goth shop at our local mall. They were black with subtle red pinstripe detailing; I even bought myself a studded belt to complete the look. I still recall how different I felt in those jeans. The stretch factor made them unlike any stiff, bootcut denim I’d ever purchased from the "husky" section at my mom’s go-to department stores. The softness was entirely new as well. My big legs felt luxurious underneath this fresh type of denim. I was almost, sort of, comfortable.
What I have learned in the days following Gen Z’s announcement that skinny jeans are on their way "out" is that a lot of plus-size women associate the style with a turning point in their body image and sartorial journeys. To Zoomers, skinny jeans may not be as cool as mom denim or ‘70s-style flares, but, to many of us, they will forever remain precious, as a tool through which we embraced our figures like never before.
Not everyone may agree, but I reckon the popularization of skinnies actually began with alternative communities. At our school, it was the emos, goths, punks, and general weirdos who embraced skin-tight denim before the popular kids did. This is probably why I felt comfortable dabbling in the trend myself. I was already considered an outcast, so I might as well experiment with the clothes that would signal to other outcasts that I was a friend rather than a foe.
Rebecca McGowan — who is based in the Greater Manchester town of Wigan in the U.K. — agrees, telling Refinery29: "I think [skinny jeans] were just part of the scene I grew up in and what I wanted to show the world about myself." Her staple ensembles once skinny jeans hit the market were much like mine: skintight denim, band T-shirts, and hoodies. "I don't care if a fashion is 'out.' I'm still going to wear it," she adds. "My body type has never been fashionable, so why should I now care what is being said?"
For Carolyn Hesketh, from the Lancashire town of Bacup, it was the way skinny jeans stretched that felt most groundbreaking. "That hadn't really been done in denim before, to my recollection," she says. "Fat bodies move in a completely different way and regular denim just doesn't flex in a way that accommodates that."
"Skinny jeans felt (and feel) really liberating to me because although they’re everyday fashion, I can pair them with an outfit that's on either end of the smart/casual spectrum," she adds. "Before they became a thing, I always felt I had to be drastically overdressed in order to feel just presentable. With skinny jeans and a sweater, I can easily and comfortably be dressed and ready to leave the house in five minutes in an outfit that anyone would be wearing. I feel less visible, and that's important for someone that has spent over 30 years being scrutinized by people on how I dress my fat body."
For London-based L May, dabbling in skinny jeans definitely correlated with a shift in her self-image. "Wearing more form-fitting clothing allowed me to appreciate the way my body felt and dress more unapologetically," she explains.
"When I was younger, I did like how I dressed and felt my clothes were expressive, [but] in hindsight, I don’t think I felt like I could wear truly form-fitting clothes," she adds. "While I was always a confident person in my fashion sense, I did still conventionally follow the 'rules' for plus-size bodies. The skinny jean became a bit of a gateway to wearing other more form-fitting clothing."
May does note that even though she loves the way skinny jeans look, she doesn’t find them especially comfortable or practical. Thankfully, the recent rise of plus-size clothing options means she can experiment with other garments that tick the form-fitting and comfy boxes.
Like May, it’s worth mentioning that not all plus-size babes have some kind of fairytale romance with skinny jeans. Yorkshire-based Kaomi Murty explains her own personal history with denim: "I used to wear baggy jeans and flared jeans when I was a teenager and was finding my style. I always hid my chunky thighs with my baggy jeans. Then, in my early 20s, I dared myself to try skinny jeans and never looked back." They became an item she could rock to clubs and restaurants, on walks, or even just to chill in.
"I loved the fit and the way they felt but I still burned through them with my thighs," she adds, noting that most jeans — regardless of cut or fit — end up worn through at the upper thighs. "I find women’s jeans need better sizing, maybe with three measurements for leg length, waist, and hips (and also reinforced thighs!). This would be a game-changer for us bigger girls."
There’s also something to be said for the name of the style. "Skinny" jeans imply a certain target customer base — one that doesn’t include us fats. "I definitely felt some kind of way about the name 'skinny' that I didn't really even recognize and certainly couldn't have articulated," Hesketh explains. "In retrospect, there was an element of being a fat imposter, wearing something that so obviously wasn't meant for me, and I'm sure there were one or two articles in magazines at the time sort of discreetly mocking and steering fat folks away from them. But if you make comfortable jeans in my size, damn right I'm going to wear them."
Despite her hopes for a future in which plus-size skinny jeans (and all denim) are reinforced in places where our bodies could do with a little more support, Murty feels much the same. She’s also confident that the cyclical nature of trends will mean that even if skinnies aren’t as widely available for a few years, they’ll always make a comeback.
In the meantime, Yorkshire-based style blogger and model Em Smyth remains committed to the look. Despite her initial avoidance of the trend — "I assumed that the form-fitting squeeze of a Lycra mix would make me look and feel like a denim-clad sausage roll," she says. "That the areas I’d spent decades hiding — thighs, hips, bum — would be on show for the world to comment on" — she is now a devotee.
"Here I am in 2021, [with] a wardrobe full of skinny jeans in every color — for every occasion," Smyth says. "Part of this shift was due to a development in self-confidence and appreciation that I dress for myself, not for the strangers I pass in the street. The other part is that skinny jeans are just the most useful, versatile item in my wardrobe. Plus, I genuinely look great in them. If I am a sausage roll, I’m a really sexy one."