What would those gruff prospectors of yore make of men's jeans today — what with the serious talk about selvage (a finished edge), whiskers (wear lines) and the rigidity of raw Japanese denim? One suspects the answer would not have been "crocking" (dye bleed) but something considerably terser and blunt. But, who knows? Like death, taxes and striking gold, looking "cool" is an eternal obsession.
Long accustomed to getting away with paying less for fashion, men are now coughing up hundreds of dollars for the "right" designer jeans — undergoing the sticker shock women have endured for generations.
"The coveted price makes the peacock male more elitist, more distinct — at least in his mind," said Tom Julian, author of the "Nordstrom Guide to Men's Everyday Dressing" and president of his eponymous New York-based retail consultancy. "Today, branding, marketing and retailing are all very strategic," he said.
OK. But why does the average guy care about pricey jeans?
"Denim jeans are part of one's psyche, individuality," Julian explained. "Does it look and feel like a rock star with stagelike qualities? Or is it architectural and clean-lined and making one feel like a creative? Or is it urbane and distinct, making one feel like a hipster? Or is it classic and old-school making one James Dean?"
Jeans make the man in other ways, said Seth Putnam, editor of The Midwestyle, a lifestyle website for men.
"They are one of the most versatile things you can have in your closet," he said. "You can wear them to work and wear out at night. They go with everything. Twenty-five percent of my wardrobe is jeans."
Julian, for one, thinks men need an array of jeans. "Straight fit seems to be the silhouette for now," he said.
Though raw denim is getting attention, Julian cautions this fabric is not for everyone. "They can be rigid and uncomfortable,'' he cautioned.
Putnam sees growing interest in quality, American-made jeans. Buying American is like voting with one's dollar, he said.
"People care about the story their clothing tells about them," he added. "Guys are buying jeans that haven't been washed or predistressed so they can do the breaking-in process themselves."
While the Joplin, Mo.-raised Putnam is galled by the price of $200 jeans, he is wrestling with the idea nonetheless.
"I like the idea of selvage jeans, but my roots are warring against that," he admitted. "Part of me wants to mock it. Part of me realizes what is important to people. ... Whether you care about the story your jeans tell about you depends on what you care about."
And that, perhaps, may include who is reading your sartorial story.
"The jean can also be considered a deal breaker for the guy out and about," Julian noted.
"In other words, will the jean get me a date? Will the jeans be cool enough for my date wanting me out of them?"
That answer? Priceless.