Because of The Wild One and later films, particularly Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean, jeans became so linked to teenage rebellion that they were banned at a number of schools. By 1958, newspaper article noted that “about 90% of American youths wear jeans everywhere except ‘in bed and in church’ and that this is true in most sections of the country,” according to Levi’s (pdf).

A poster for "Rebel Without a Cause"
Dean’s jeans.
Image: Warner Bros.

As jeans grew in popularity, so did a word to describe their allure: cool. It had been around for centuries as a metaphor for maintaining composure—a “cool hand,” for instance. But it was black Americans at the turn of the 20th century who first used it as an expression of approval.

The word became part of the vocabulary of urban jazz culture, an outsider group in the racially segregated US. It maintained those shades of meaning as the mainstream absorbed it as shorthand for the detached iconoclasm of Brando and Dean.

Today, the same fetishizing of rebellion still plays out in “cool,” though in subtler ways, such as the popularity of items such as hooded sweatshirts. And in jeans. “Skinny jeans are such a convenient shorthand for youth and rebellion,” Rod Stanley, former editor of Dazed & Confused magazine, told the Guardian in 2013.

Cool is something you can buy

A pair of jeans isn’t exactly an all-out revolt against society. But it’s telling that a consumer product made for the working class took on such symbolic weight in 1950s America.

Wealth has long been a driver of status, but as the US postwar economy boomed, a large swath of society became more affluent. Money ceased to distinguish people as clearly as it once had.

Fashion at the time, and for much of history, was largely based on social class. Sociologist Georg Simmel, in a 1957 piece (pdf) in the American Journal of Sociology, described it as a process in which the “upper stratum of society” adopted a trend, was promptly imitated by the lower class, and then immediately abandoned it before it became common.

But Asp and Quartz argue that these new socioeconomic conditions in postwar American created an opening for a new kind of status competition. As the influence of social class decreased, people used cool as novel way to distinguish themselves and where they stood in society. Recent research lends the view some support.

“Join the cola dropouts,” says Canada Dry.
“Join the cola dropouts,” says Canada Dry.

By the 1960s advertisers were using cool and its subtext of defiance as a tool to sell the growing counterculture everything from soda to menswear. It worked extraordinarily well, and continues to. ”Until we look cool to an American kid, we aren’t going to sell any gear to them,” Adidas’s head of North America said last year.

Much like class-based fashion before it, which Simmel called a type of “social adaptation,” it’s largely focused on adopting and abandoning trends. ”Coolness as a counterculture force may no longer reflect an actually rebellious value system, but rather a kind of rebellious-looking conformity to current social forces, particularly consumerism,” wrote a group of psychologists in a 2012 paper. Interestingly, other studies find it’s often associated with brands rather than particular styles.

To know what’s cool, follow the influencers

Cool is still a social phenomenon, though, and products have no power unless people give it to them. There exist whole companies dedicated to identifying influencers who set the tone for what’s cool, such as Barracuda NY, founded by Liz Fried. Unlike the “coolhunters” in Malcolm Gladwell’s well-known article for the New Yorker in 1997, Fried isn’t looking for trends. Clients including Ray-Ban and Salvatore Ferragamo have hired Fried to find people who she says are ”doing something unique, first, and well.”

“I had to infiltrate women’s exercise classes to find out whether front-row girls were influencers or not,” she says. (They weren’t.)

Brands may enlist them as consultants on certain projects, or pay them to represent their products, though how effective they actually are is open to debate. They could be relative unknowns who can sway a small niche, such as some of those Fried finds, or they may have a sizable following.

In fashion, one example is Gosha Rubchinskiy, the Russian designer and photographer who has led a trend of post-Soviet nostalgia and has collaborated with Reebok and Vans. Or Luka Sabbat, the 18-year-old “fashion influencer” and model profiled in the New York Times in April. “You want to know him. You want to be around him,” the managing director of one digital agency told the Times. “He’s the cool kid at the party we all want to be.”

Platforms such as Instagram have made it so that a much wider array of people than ever before can have influence. Recently, Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri noted that influencers on social media had helped sales by spurring acceptance of the brand’s new creative direction. Danielle Bernstein, the fashion blogger behind WeWoreWhat, earns up to $15,000 for a single sponsored Instagram post, because her 1.4 million followers look to her for inspiration in their own styles.

The image-sharing network has become a main venue for people and brands alike to signal their cool. You can even map their influence based on where they stand in the sprawling network of connections on the platform. Its constant barrage of imagery is even thought to be speeding up trend cycles by rapidly surfacing and overexposing new ideas. Influencers have become more valuable as a result, as their followers look to them to stay on top of what’s cool.

If what’s cool has become common, it’s time for a change

Even if a brand has figured out cool, it can quickly lose it if its products become overexposed. Status is relative. If everyone has the same thing, it diminishes its power, which is why exclusivity is so important. It’s a typical Veblen good, just with cool substituted for cost.

In denim, skinny jeans are now the status quo, and while they still rule in sales, people are starting to look to other styles. On the women’s runways, wide-leg jeans overtook their skinny counterpart for the first time in years at the spring-summer 2016 shows.

Currently there’s no brand that better embodies cool’s contradictions than Vetements, the Paris-based label that in just two years has become the biggest thing in fashion. It has been called “radical,“ yet its oversized hoodies and t-shirts riffing on the logo of shipping company DHL have become status symbols. Some think its popularity is killing its cool.

Fittingly, one of Vetements’ first big hits was a pair of straight-legged jeans, patched together from vintage Levi’s, that cost $1,450.

Still, what the next big trend in jeans will be isn’t yet clear. Nothing has jumped out to completely subvert the status quo. But maybe it won’t be jeans at all. It could be sweatpants.

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