It seems curious, doesn't it, to buy brand new clothes that have been artfully, artificially distressed; to part with significant sums of money for clothes that appear to be in a state of disrepair, rather than in pristine condition? After all, not so long ago tattered clothes would never have been purposefully chosen, let alone manufactured. In fact, wearing shabby attire would have been deplorably uncouth.
Today's sartorial landscape is quite the opposite. It is abundant with apparel that is raw, unpolished, and in various guises of mock deterioration. The S/S 15 shows were testament to this: dresses at Prada were embellished with strips of ragged fabric and unapologetically frayed hemlines; delicately frayed edges offset the clean lines of Sportmax's luxurious chequered creations; long threads hung off a jacket at Lanvin that appeared so roughly hewn, and had such coarse, conspicuous stitching that it looked unfinished, (an inversion of the distressed style, perhaps).
A quick glance at net-a-porter's denim section offers further evidence of this current penchant for battered clothes, with about as many pairs of jeans that have been deliberately torn as those with the fabric in tact. Of course, the ripped jean is hardly a new trend, but now it abounds with greater profusion than ever before. Clearly the style of dishevelment has enduring appeal. And yet, when we wear garments that are ripped, frayed and torn, like jeans strewn with holes or dresses with raw, unravelled hemlines, we brandish an aesthetic of pretence: we all know that the lived-in, worn-in look has been perfectly contrived. So what compels us to do it?
To some extent the attractiveness lays in the visible appearance, since holes, tears and patches make a garment more interesting: they add texture, allow greater contrast of colour, and appear idiosyncratic. But belying this look is an essence; a feeling and an attitude that imbues it with desirability, that gives it its purchase and appeal.
The desired effect is to ooze an aura of effortlessness, not grubbiness. To appear unkempt is to appear insouciant; the sartorial answer to a mane of tousled bed-head hair. It is the apparent lack of effort inherent in a pair of distressed denim jeans that gives them an oh-so subtle sex appeal. Think how alluring it is to catch a glimpse of skin beneath a frayed gap in the fabric when that hint of flesh comes with a twist of tomboy grunge, and lashings of nonchalance. It's seductive without trying to be: distressed clothes suggest a life that is lived without too much thought for appearance.
Perhaps, then, when we don clothes replete with rips, holes and scraggy hemlines, we are reaching out toward the authenticity of experience; to time spent living, and the memories of childhood: that era of freedom, innocence and lack of restraint. In childhood, jeans easily became torn through sheer play as we tumbled around, hemlines were often pulled loose by small fidgety hands, and wearing tattered hand-me-downs didn't matter so much. Back then, our attire just wasn't as important. Only when we grew up did we realise that clothes could be such potent signallers of identity.
It is impossible to fully reclaim the liberty of childhood, but growing up doesn't mean we have to stop having fun. Free-spiritedness transcends age and don't we want our clothes to convey this? A frayed edge might be all that is needed. Literally speaking, frayed fabric is a loosening of threads as they become unwoven, but this gestures toward metaphor too: like the antithesis of the tightly done up, unyielding corset that restricted women for so many centuries, frayed edges imply a woman who has come undone in the best possible way; a woman who is less repressed; a woman with personality, autonomy and an abundance of joie de vivre.
Perhaps it is no surprise that tatty and unravelled edges are so often a feature in the various incarnations of Chanel's signature bouclé jacket. Inspired by the fluidity of menswear, when Coco Chanel designed that item she had modernity and freedom of movement in mind. The frayed detailing means a little bit less polished, a little bit more attitude. Consider one of Chanel's more recent items: a vibrant dress from the S/S 15 collection where the thick, colourful yarn un-weaves into a long, densely 'frayed' hem, so that it resembles a technicolour Hawaiian grass skirt. With the fray the dress is looser, freer, and more fun.
Could it be that wearing 'distressed' clothes is not quite as curious as it seems; that behind the façade there lays an emblematic power, and actually, it all makes perfect sense? Perhaps frayed isn't so confused, after all.