Every generation thinks they have solved the problem that is jeans. Specifically, the jeans that the previous generation wore: They were too tight or too loose. Too low or too high. Too wide or too narrow, too dark or too light.
Millennials just got the news from Gen Z: Your jeans are bad. Specifically, late-aughts skinny jeans are bad. The kids have an answer: width. Their jeans have wider legs and tapered ankles, or maybe they flare out with a little kick. They have lighter washes and high waists.
That’s right. Gen Z has discovered mom jeans. Naturally, this means war.
The looser style of jean, long associated with a middle-aged drift toward practicality and comfort, “look good on everybody,” says Aymee Batra, a college senior who lives in the suburbs of New York. “They’re really comfortable. They actually cover your stomach area, which makes it more appropriate and allows you to wear crop tops. And, you know, it’s just really efficient. Like, you could easily jump into mom jeans and take them off. You don’t have to struggle to put them on.”
Mom jeans got their name, in 2003, from a fictional ad on “Saturday Night Live” starring Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler. It showed the four women wearing dumpy, boxy jeans that made their midsections look lumpy. The voice-over: “Give her something that says: I’m not a woman anymore. I’m a mom.”
“Mom jeans flatter almost no one,” wrote Jill Hudson Neal in The Post, in 2006. “Though they were ostensibly designed to compliment a real woman’s fuller figure, the reality is that most of them make an average wearer’s behind, hips and stomach look . . . well, big.”
The millennial backlash came in the form of skinny jeans, form-fitting denim pants that lengthened the legs and showed off cute shoes. But the conventional wisdom has shifted. Skinny jeans are seen now the way mom jeans were in 2003: as the pants of choice for women past their prime.
“When I wore skinny jeans in the past, I looked like a fool,” says Batra, who is 21.
Millennials aren’t having it. Some have taken to Gen Z’s home turf, TikTok, to declare that they will not be taking fashion advice from “the generation that ate Tide Pods.” One songwriter, Sarah Hester Ross, wrote a diss track with the lyrics “You can pry these skinny jeans from my cold dead a--, ya hear?”
“You’re wearin’ what we wore when we were in school,” sang another TikTok millennial in yet another skinny jeans ditty, recalling the baggier jeans of the Y2K era. “Gen Z don’t even care about y’all,” someone responded.
Women’s pants tend to get a big style overhaul every 10 years, so this fashion course correction arrived right on schedule. But somehow, it took millennials by surprise — and they overreacted.
On Etsy, that millennial retail haunt, sellers began making “Side parts and skinny jeans FOREVER” shirts (Gen Z-ers prefer to part their hair in the middle).
Multiple BuzzFeed listicles were posted, highlighting “clapbacks” to the Gen Z attack on millennial culture. “Listen ya little so and sos, you aren’t so cool,” screeched one proud millennial. “You are repeating the absolute worst trends of the 90s. We’ve already been there. We’ve seen some things. And we aren’t giving up our side parts or our skinny jeans. WE ARE FIGHTING BACK.”
Um, wow. This seems like it’s about more than just jeans. Are millennials okay?
Not very long ago, "millennial" was synonymous with youth. They, the kids born in the years 1981 to 1996, were horrifying their elders with their blogs and avocado toast and lack of urgency around marriage, kids and homeownership. The jeans of their youth were flared at the ankle, tight on the waist and, in some cases, rode low on their hips (giving rise to "muffin top," an odious term from 2003 describing, as New York Times language columnist William Safire put it, "three to six inches of stomach bulging out below a short blouse and above hip-clinging 'low-rise' jeans").
Now the millennials are middle-aged, or getting close. The skinny jeans of their 20s have become a sign that they aren’t so young anymore. Maybe they’re not ready to accept that. They’re fighting about jeans, says Sophie Hooker, a 22-year-old college senior from Grand Rapids, Mich., “Because they’re scared they’re not cool anymore.” And there is nothing less cool than asserting that you’re still cool. (Ouch.)
The generational showdown is rooted in differing needs for control and stability, said Dawnn Karen, a fashion psychologist. The popularity of ’90s jeans — along with tie-dye shirts, crop tops and puffy sleeves — among Gen Z, she said, is a way to “take ownership and create their own way.”
Millennials, she says, are looking for comfort and consistency as they navigate the borderlands between young adulthood and middle age.
“Thirty-somethings are trying to hold on to what those skinny jeans represented pre-pandemic: A time when they were at their peak, when they knew what was coming next and there wasn’t all of this uncertainty,” said Karen, a millennial who says she’s “not giving up skinny jeans for anyone.”
Nobody’s actually going to come and take their jeans, but fashionable retailers might pay less and less attention to their preferences. The younger generations always have a leg up in the Jeans Wars because they are the most desirable marketing demographic. Gen Z, born after 1996, has grown into its power. And they are using that power to obsolesce the skinny jean while making mom jeans fashionable.
“This is a big opportunity — the girls and boys are willing to spend right now,” says Jennifer Foyle, chief creative officer of American Eagle Outfitters, which oversees the top-selling jean brand among 15- to 25-year-olds. Its most popular item this season, for the first time ever: the mom jean, which comes in high-waisted, ripped and curvy varieties.
Executives at Forever 21, the fast-fashion teen favorite, say they were surprised when sales of “mom-fit ’90s jeans” suddenly picked up at the beginning of the year. Other old-school favorites, including flared and embroidered jeans are also coming back, says CEO Daniel Kulle.
“I wouldn’t say the skinny is completely dead,” Kulle says. “We still have late adopters buying them. But the fashionistas are going for ‘the mom’ and the flare.”
For retailers, the shifting denim tide has also become an opportunity to sell more crop tops, zippered hoodies and sneakers to pair with wider silhouettes. Which is not to say that skinny-jean loyalists will be squeezed out entirely. The Jean Wars are not zero-sum; American Eagle will continue to stock mid-rise jeans and skintight jeggings, according to Foyle. “I’m 54,” she says, “and know not every jean is made for everyone.”
Mikayah Booker, a college student studying fashion marketing in Philadelphia, is “definitely leaning towards the more boxy style,” Booker says. She recently Instagrammed an outfit she loved: a forest-green sweatshirt, leopard print Converse sneakers and straight-legged jeans with slashes at the knee.
Mom jeans, along with loosefitting boyfriend jeans and even looser-fitting dad jeans (which, despite their name, are also a thing for women), “have a vintage look,” says the 20-year-old, “which I know is really popular right now.”
Now we're getting to the heart of it. Vintage is fashion. Everything old is new again. The mom-jean silhouette harks to the 1980s (boomers wore them!), and before that, the 1950s. Flared jeans were a late-'90s millennial thing, when teens were getting fashion inspiration from the late '60s and '70s. In the late '00s, there was resistance to skinny jeans, which were a throwback to the Beatniks of the '50s and early '60s. Eventually, millennials embraced them tighter than denim on a leg.
Fashion is trendy but style is very often personal, and so battle lines in the Jean Wars are not strictly generational. “You’ll never see me in a pair of mom jeans,” says Emma Delattre, a college freshman from Wilton, Conn., who is, at age 19, a card-carrying member of Gen Z. “I always look like a rectangle in them.”
Generational conflict isn’t necessarily even a good lens through which to observe the push and pull of what’s fashionable. Like all generational boundaries, the distinction between millennials and Gen Z is artificial, says David Costanza, a George Washington University associate professor of psychology and organizational sciences who specializes in generational differences.
“What we do see is gradual changes in all sorts of characteristics over time,” he says, but researchers see it as the ebb and flow of a lengthy continuum of people, “not necessarily these kinds of break points” at certain years.
“Anytime I see this generation is fighting with that generation,” Costanza says, “I just immediately think, ‘Well, there’s nothing there.’ ”
Let’s dare to imagine a world in which millennials are not merely annoyed by Gen Z, but rather, sympathetic. Millennials came of age during some turbulent years for denim. Between 1996 and 2006, teens cycled through a full range of embarrassing fashion, from low-rise flares, to “Coyote Ugly” boot cuts, to tent-shaped, wide-legged
JNCOs and embellished bell bottoms. Maybe they look back at photos from high school and cringe at their fashion choices. Maybe they want to spare the youngsters a similar fate. The real Jean War, after all, is internal: Where do you fit, and what fits you?
“I get it, Gen Z is young,” says Ella Hill, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker. “But they also didn’t live through the ’90s, so they don’t know what we know: Getting those pants wet any time it rains is just the worst. The bottoms get all dirty and gross, and they rip.”
“When they experience all that, Gen Z will come back around to skinny jeans.”
Millennials may well come around to wide-legged jeans — although, again, that is the kind of choice that will be made by individuals, not as part of any kind of generation-wide detente. Emily Teague, who at 29 is a young millennial, was prepared to give wide-legged jeans a chance. She ordered a pair from Old Navy to be delivered to her Las Cruces, N.M., home, but when she put them on — well, they didn’t look any better than they did in middle school.
“There were just lumps in all the places that I did not want to accentuate,” she says. “I did not feel confident whatsoever. I felt like it truly made me feel like an old lady trying to be hip and cool, which is just completely sad.”
For those unsure of how to make the transition to trendier fits like mom jeans and dad jeans, the retail chain Madewell has created transition styles, including the “Slim Boyjean,” to “help customers who are ready to bid adieu to the skinny leg,” said Anne Crisafulli, the company’s senior vice president of merchandising.
Shoppers are also booking more styling appointments in stores and online to discuss exactly how to wear looser fits, Crisafulli says.
“I remember when skinny jeans first started being a thing, and thinking they looked ridiculous,” says Bethany Harbison, 31, of Fullerton, Calif. She has begun to make the transition to mom jeans, with reservations: “I don’t think they’re cute, but they are so comfortable.”
What happens if millennials actually do take Gen Z’s advice and begin wearing the “correct” jeans? Will there be peace among the younger generations? Can we all get back to ganging up on the boomers and pretending Generation X doesn’t exist?
Actually, says Batra, a millennial surrender would probably make wide-legged jeans less cool. “I feel like it would give in to what mom jeans are,” says the college senior. “Like, for mothers.”