Editorial

Stretch: The High-Fructose Corn Syrup of Menswear

I had heard great things about the jeans from DSTLD, a popular disruptor of the overpriced denim racket, and I was very excited about a pair of slim (not skinny) raw denim jeans I had purchased online for $65. When they arrived, I tried them on right away. The fit was great and they looked pretty damn good. The feel of the denim, however, felt strange. When I started to take them off, I noticed a hint of stretch in the waistband. The wind went completely out of my sails when I saw that the sewn-in garment tag said “98% Cotton / 2% Spandex.” Fuck.

How could it be? These jeans were raw denim. Real raw denim doesn’t stretch. I quickly went to the website to see if DSTLD perhaps sent me the wrong item by mistake. Nope. These were, indeed, the Men’s Slim 12.75oz Raw Denim Jeans In 24 Dip Indigo Timber that I had ordered. After a more careful look at the item description, I saw it – the one thing I hate almost as much as the non-iron cotton used in dress shirts – the S-word: “Infused with our signature 2% comfort stretch…”

Stretch. I expect it in t-shirts, socks, athletic wear, “athleisure” (if you must) and the waistband of my underwear. But now it’s in jeans, khakis, dress shirts and even suits. The unconditionally forgiving and increasingly ubiquitous element of elasticity has officially become the high-fructose corn syrup of menswear.

I know that stretch is super popular and that it enables legions of ostensibly grown men to squeeze into a pair of five-pocket leggings called skinny jeans. But does it need to be so everywhere?

Stretch fabrics are ideal for athletics and other high-performance tasks, like mountain climbing or cat burgling. But as I look around at a culture draped in athletic/athleisure clothing, the words “athletic” and “high-performance” would not be accurate descriptives of most men wearing said fabrics. Between this and Crocs, it’s as if we’re on a mission to casualize, rubberize and elasticize as much as humanly possible.

It’s even happening in suits. Unless you’re a well-tailored MI-6 agent chasing villains from motorcycle to bulldozer to the tops of high-speed train cars in Istanbul or jumping from a falling building and clinging midair to the exterior of a helicopter in Mexico City (and let’s be clear: none of you are), the introduction of stretch in suit fabric is positively ridiculous. With all that rough and tumble, even Daniel Craig and his stunt double wear genuine un-stretchy worsted wool. Any perceived need for stretch in order for a suit to be comfortable or merely fit can be summed up in two words: too small.

Unlike the time I purchased those jeans, I usually read product descriptions and material contents very carefully. I see phrases like “with a hint of stretch” or “flex” more and more frequently. These enhanced fabrics that are primarily wool, linen or cotton typically come with 2% or 3% synthetic stretch. When I’m buying genuine athletic or performance wear (which is basically never, in my case), it’s fine. Otherwise, the words spandex, Lycra and elastane are my cues to move on.

Technology has made incredible advances in how fabrics are made. The materials worn now by extreme athletes and Olympians are heads and shoulders beyond what was available to athletes merely decades ago. What I’m trying to figure out is why the average non-professional non-athlete doing non-athletic things seems to require a “performance” element in his clothing, specifially with jeans, shirts, khakis or suits.

What makers and merchants of stretch fabrics don’t tell you is that after many washes, dry cleans and the simple toll taken by Father Time, they stop working. Elastic stops being elastic, like the waisband on those pairs of underwear we throw out every year or so. Another item in the minus column is environmental. Unlike natural rubber, it’s a non-biodegradable synthetic made with chemicals. And another bummer? Lycra is a Koch Brothers product. I hate to flash a little political bra strap, but I’m not in the mood to contribute to their profits.

My philosophy with my preferred clothing fabrics is basically the same as my philosophy with my preferred foods: The further you take it from its natural state, the weirder it is. We all probably wear some kind of performance wear in our winter parkas and jackets, which is necessary to protect us from the elements. But I believe in approaching it like one approaches sugar in our diet: by cutting it where you can. Until I’m paid handsomely to run a half-marathon in a 97% wool/3% Lycra suit or go spelunking in stretchy skinny jeans, I’ll stick to real raw denim, real untreated cotton, real fine linen and real suiting wools that were already perfected many years ago.

And with respect to my purchase from DSTLD, lesson learned: Read the description of a garment’s material content more carefully before purchasing.

5 Comments

  1. Derrik Ollar Reply

    I have some “stretch” jeans, and after 3 wears on a pair I have to wash and dry them to get them to return to their proper size. They just keep stretching and stretching until they are too baggy to wear. This causes them to fade much quicker than I would like as I like my jeans dark.

    • I found the same. Anything with ‘stretch’ now looks baggy and awful. But of course, that’s intentional – how else to keep the profits rolling in? Making long-lasting garments? Ha! 😉

  2. What an enabler of bad lifestyle choices, not to mention a major style faux pas. I am in total agreement with you on this one!

  3. mickjaggled Reply

    Elastane/Lycra/Spandex work more like Splenda/Stevia than high fructose corn syrup. Lack of comfort and mobility are the top reasons men give for now buying suits, blazers, or modern fit trousers. Remove these elastic fabrics, and guys will go back to boot cut jeans, wide leg chinos, and boxy OCBDs, while blazers/suits get relegated to weddings, funerals, and baby baptisms. They are a necessary evil for the fashion industry.

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