For my entire adult life I have suffered from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, thinking the tighter my jeans the better. I am not alone in this, of course. The generational divide between skinny and baggy denim—geezer millennials like the form-fitting variety, cool teens need room—has been meme and TikTok joke fodder for much of 2021. But I remained a holdout, wearing rigid, unyielding pants that left imprint stripes on the skin of my stomach, because I must hate my ribcage, I guess.
Then two things happened. As I sat down for dinner one night, a button on my fly popped open. A few days later, I saw a photo of Rihanna wearing jeans big enough to fit three Rihannas (imagine that girl group). So I went to the back of my closet and pulled out a pair of loose vintage Lee’s I’d bought on impulse years ago but never really wore.
I paired the pants with a black long-sleeve mesh top layered underneath a cropped T-shirt. All I needed to look like a (bad) imitation of an E-girl was a skateboard. I felt like a walking quarter-life crisis. But I also felt—get this—comfort. It was the type of coziness I usually only get while wearing sweatpants, or no pants. I finished the look off with high boots and went out for the night.
It seems almost sacrilegious to say I knew what it was like to be Pope Rihanna in that outfit. That’s not quite it. But I walked with a bit more swagger than normally, and swinging my hips back and forth with each step. I think I even winked at myself in a bathroom mirror. It felt good to wear pants that actually had space for my body—and then some—pants that weren’t a battle to shimmy over my hips. It was an outfit which greeted my body and welcomed it rather than sought to constrict or reshape it. I went to a thrift store and bought three more pairs.
I’m not the only one. One trend analyst told The Zoe Report last month that baggy and oversized jeans are “up in searches 166 and 109 percent, respectively” compared to 2020. “Interest in super stretch skinny jeans are down,” the publication added, writing, “mom jeans are searched for three times as often compared to skinnies.”
Vogue predicted that “Spring/summer 2022 is all about baggy jeans.” Designers like Valentino, The Row, Balenciaga, Peter Do, and Molly Goddard all included the look in their collections. On TikTok, young people are celebrating the onset of what’s been dubbed “Meg Ryan fall,” by showing off their autumn outfits. Those frequently feature slouchy sweaters tucked into roomy denim, and maybe a porkpie hat for good measure.
And oversize does not have to mean frumpy, as shown by the model Memphis Murphy who recently attended Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty lingerie fashion show wearing low-rise, roomy jeans that unbuttoned to show off her visible thong (which matched her blue leather bustier, for good measure). Or Jennifer Lopez, an Actual Mom who wore “mom jeans” to the Global Citizen Festival with Ben Affleck. Hers were ripped and patched up at the knee.
Cynthia Erivo wore the hell out of some ripped, strawberry-hued acid wash loose jeans at the Venice Film Festival. Katie Holmes looked very Dawson’s Creek while walking in New York last month in oversized blue denim. Ella Emhoff, step-daughter of Kamala Harris and newly signed model, wore baggy black pants for Balenciaga. Her mother, Kerstin Emhoff, wrote in an Instagram story “I hope you don‘t trip on these pants @ellaemhoff #MOMWORRIES.”
Sky Pollard, head of product for the subscription clothing service Nuuly, told The Daily Beast that baggier jeans “balance out” cropped and fitted tops, which have also become a trend. But she also suspects there’s a deeper meaning to the look as well.
“People are looking for fun, lighthearted, colorful styles as they get back to being out and social again,” Pollard said. “The Y2K look harkens back to the days before everyone felt the pressure to outfit themselves perfectly polished for social media.”
Taylor Tomasi Hill, creative and fashion director of THE YES, a shopping app, added that the most popular baggy jean brands on that platform for the past three months have come from RE/DONE, Khaite, Jeanerica, Frame, and AYR. Denim are up by 78 percent this month, according to Hill, and wide legs are a top style. “To be expected, skinny is moving down the ranks,” she said. “Leg room” is a top search keyword.
Michael Ford, the senior culture and trends researcher for the resale website Depop, told The Daily Beast that the demand for “baggy, relaxed, and oversized aesthetics,” comes directly off the heels of work and school reopenings. “Now that consumers are heading back out, many are looking to keep some level of movement and freedom even in their more formal wardrobe essentials,” he said.
Ford added that the trend is “also influenced by the Alternate y2K trend which pulls from skate, goth and emo references – all predominately baggy in aesthetic. With skinny jeans being so mainstream, baggy is a way to stand out.”
In the U.S. and U.K., where Depop is based, Ford says that shoppers are taking cues from Japanese brands. “The wide, pleated trousers from Issey Miyake blew up and moved a lot of styling into a wider/baggier look,” he said.
Mickey Freeman, a stylist whose clients include Keke Palmer, Dascha Polanco, Azealia Banks, and Dylan Sprouse, told The Daily Beast that, “The current resurgence of baggy trousers demonstrates that good tailoring ultimately determines what looks good. From pleats to panels, a little volume can fill up the void skinny and slim pants have created.”
Jenny Cartmell, a Brooklyn-based creative arts therapist who specializes in body image issues, added that she has seen many of her younger, teenage clients lean into ’90s styles. As a 34 year old woman, she actually grew up in the decade—“which [kids] are now calling the ‘late 1900s,’” she said with a laugh.
“I can relate to what they’re feeling,” Cartmell said. “In the ’90s, I loved vintage clothing from the 1960s and ’70s. My 13-year-old clients are very into the ’90s in that same way, wearing a T-shirt tucked into mom jeans and Doc Martens. It’s interesting to see them have a cool ’90s aesthetic, because my ’90s aesthetic was not cool. But I certainly have a lot of nostalgia for that era, when you didn’t have a phone on you at all times and there was no Facebook, and you just wore your Birkenstocks with bootcut jeans.”
Cartmell added that the “comfortability factor” of roomy jeans could be a metaphor for how people want to feel in their lives, as well. “We’ve been so restricted in the past year, so how can we make space for ourselves and have room for our well-being? You get the sense when you see someone wearing this trend that they have confidence in themselves, and that’s appealing to a lot of people.”
Cartmell spent her twenties in skinny jeans—sometimes low-rise skinny jeans—and at the time, “We thought, ‘We look awesome,’’” she remembers. “We went to skinny jeans because we were mortified by the mom jeans look of the ’90s. But now, we think of skinny jeans as the new mom jeans.” The joke has been reversed—once roominess was considered matronly, now tightness communicates a type of out-of-touch dresser.
As Cartmell put it, referencing the famous 2004 SNL sketch, “Soon it’s going to be Amy Poehler on SNL wearing skinny jeans and not mom jeans.”