When Bruce Springsteen's denim-clad butt appeared on the cover of his 1984 album "Born in the USA," the image evoked more than his Americanness or his sexiness. It established his working-class bona fides. Springsteen, Annie Leibovitz's photograph tells us, is American and sexy because he works hard. And we know he works hard because he's wearing denim.
Specifically denim that's frayed in all the right places.
For almost a century, blue jeans have been a quintessential item of work wear because labor leaves its mark on the fabric. The longer we wear a pair of jeans, the more their outer coating fades, gradually revealing the gray or white fibers beneath.
Because denim loses color fastest at spots where we apply the most pressure, authentic fade patterns can reveal a great deal about what we do while we wear our pants. Bend and straighten your knees as you swing a pickax above your head, and a telltale "honeycomb" pattern will begin to form behind your legs. Sit in front of a computer all day, and your behind itself will grow pale. Tellingly, the indigo on Springsteen's backside remains largely intact; only his wallet has left a significant mark. Whatever he does, this detail suggests, he does on his feet.
But since the 1980s, many have adopted this aesthetic, clothing themselves in jeans faded in the factory rather than on their bodies. While the fashion cognoscenti occasionally declare such garments "out," pre-faded pants have refused to fade.
This might be precisely because they allow us to fantasize about increasingly distant forms of manual labor. Pre-distressed denim is a fantasy object, one that allows us to play at being someone else without leaving our digital bubbles. Whether they realize it or not, for those who wear pre-distressed denim, every day is Halloween.
Here's the problem: Artificially weathered jeans perpetuate myths about work that obscure the real toils of those who make our clothes. When we casually pretend to be a cowboy or a car mechanic, manual labor starts to seem a little less real, and a little less substantial. To be sure, this problem is not limited to apparel: Seth Perlow, a cultural critic at Oklahoma State University, argues that initial fascination with the iPhone's gestural interface helped to hide the real gestures of the workers who built the devices. But fake fades retain a special importance: They might literally be killing the mostly invisible workers who manufacture them for us.
Traditionally garment factories have used sandblasters to strip layers of dye from denim selectively. In 2005, a Turkish physician definitively demonstrated that textile workers who operated these machines were developing silicosis at alarming rates. An incurable and often fatal respiratory disease, silicosis had been long associated with professions like mining. But where silicosis previously had taken decades to set in, workers in textile sandblasting facilities sometimes contract it in mere months. The irony of this situation should not escape us. The laborers who make our pants for us are dying of the very illness that once afflicted the workers who wore pants that ours resemble.
Despite efforts to ban or otherwise restrict sandblasting, it has yet to disappear completely. A 2013 study of six Chinese textile factories found that sandblasting is still widely practiced. The machinery has merely been pushed out of the public eye, meaning there are fewer safety precautions than ever. What's more, the report suggests that other methods of distressing denim might be similarly dangerous. For example, workers rarely receive proper safety training before they are assigned to handle potassium permanganate and other chemicals used to degrade indigo pigments. In other facilities, workers now sand jeans by hand, a practice whose risks have not been properly evaluated.
Banning dangerous practices like sandblasting might help, but there's a simpler solution: Let's save the costumes for trick-or-treating and stop wearing pre-faded clothing. Next time you go to buy a pair of pants, be a little more like Springsteen: Let your butt make its own mark.
Jacob Brogan is an essayist and academic living in Washington. He is researching for a book on denim and labor.