Unless raw denim goes totally mainstream, there will always be those moments when a friend spots you in conspicuously crunchy new jeans and derisively asks, “Are those the jeans you’re supposed to put those in the freezer?” But seriously…are you?
Every person seems to have their own unique formula for wearing their jeans, most of which are drastically different from the way we wore cheap stonewashed denim as kids. A culture of fade showmanship has resulted in what oftentimes feels like a contest to see who can keep their jeans away from water the longest, the common consensus being that fewer washes makes for more distinct, high-contrast fades, while more frequent washes result in “vintage” fades.
Exceedingly long intervals between washes have spawned all kinds of theories on how to keep your denim relatively fresh-smelling and presentable during said intervals, and chief among these theories is to throw them in the freezer.
In today’s article we will discuss this myth of frozen denim and the particularities of the culture that birthed the practice. And, just maybe, it’ll save your friends and partners from spending time with your stinky pants.
A Myth is Born
The first mention of freezing denim we could find online came from the above Superfuture thread from 2005 (although the myth was alive and well long beforehand). A user complained of jeans that became unbearably malodorous after frequent skating, and other users suggested everything under the sun to beat the odor without damaging the precious fades. Everything from vinegar, air-tight bags, and Febreeze. When user “Corbin Law” suggests that they freeze their denim like he freezes his “udnerwear” to allegedly kill bacteria, the next comment pretty immediately questions his statement.
Users then back up their claim that freezing jeans won’t actually kill bacteria, the response being immediate and fairly unpleasant: “dude… find a science forum.”
The Myth is Reinforced – And Experts Weigh In
In 2011, Heddels was actively discouraging washing your jeans in articles like “Perils of Washing Raw Denim Too Early” and espousing the freezer method in “Cleaning Via Freezing – Controversial but Effective.” So yes, we could be a part of the reason that freezing denim (at least among the raw denim community) has been considered a viable alternative to washing.
But in 2014, a pro-freezing message reached a much wider audience when Levi’s CEO, Chip Bergh, announced that his 501s hadn’t been washed in a year. He went on to elaborate that he threw his jeans in the freezer to help with the smell. And while his message was actually quite important, and aligned with Levi’s mission to use less water, his year without washing also spawned a minor internet freakout and made major publications like CNN and the Huffington Post.
Chip’s message and the ensuing maelstrom of denim stories in the media caused actual experts to weigh in, like biology professor Stephen Craig Cary, who spoke to Smithsonian about his research on microbes in Antartica. He said, “one might think that if the temperature drops well below the human body temperature they will not survive, but actually many will. Many are pre-adapted to survive low temperatures.” Freezing temperatures don’t kill bacteria, they merely stop their growth, otherwise freezing food would actually clean it instead of merely preserving it for whenever you’re going to eat it.
The traditional raw denim wearer has been conditioned or counseled to hold off on washing their jeans until a milestone six-month mark. At this time, most agree, the honeycombs and whiskers are sufficiently set to survive a gentle, cold soak in the bathtub. But depending on one’s smell tolerance or personal aesthetic, first soaks have been held off for up to 12, even 18 months…and of course, in a handful of cases, these soaks have been delayed indefinitely.
There’s no doubt that these extreme conditions create amazing fades, and certainly no doubt that they look good, but a certain degree of maintenance is required, even for those who refuse to wash. Freezing is just one of several ways that one can allegedly improve the smell of your favorite pair of raw denim.
At the dawn of my raw denim adventure, I too froze my jeans. I was wearing my jeans every single day and trying as hard as I could to make it to the milestone six-month mark. (My mom even sent me a postcard at college that implored me to “please wash your jeans.”) I adhered to this pretty closely until this year, when I shifted my social media involvement from r/rawdenim to Superdenim, where, for the first time, I saw fellow raw denim wearers unabashedly washing their jeans.
If the layman washes his jeans too much and the radical raw denim wearers are washing not at all, the middle ground is clear. Washing every couple months—or even weeks—will not, as our 2011 article states, render your jeans a “fade failure.” Fades, as you will certainly have noticed from our Fade of the Day features, are almost always a symptom of hard wear, usually earned in physically challenging fields. And a more active lifestyle will, in turn, give you a stinkier pair of jeans. Imagine telling an actual cowhand or construction worker not to wash their sweaty jeans for the fades!
The raw denim fan whose seams are felled and pockets are riveted, yet is somehow too afraid to throw his jeans in a regular washing machine irks me to no end. Should not your fades tell your story honestly? And isn’t it a little affected to waste time essentially perfuming and fussing over your jeans, which are, at their core, workwear?
The Final Say
The fact of the matter is that freezing does not, as people argue, kill bacteria. It at best delays its growth for a time. But this article is not meant as an indictment of the people who don’t mind their dirty jeans sharing space with their frozen peas. It’s merely a reminder that our moms were right: the best way to care for your jeans is to just wash ’em. And while delaying a wash may preserve the color, the grit that builds up between the fibers over the months and years will tear your pants apart over time.
At the end of the day it’s your business what you do with your jeans, but there’s no reason to show up to a date with a stinky crotch. If you need more frequent-washing inspiration, check out Superdenim, particularly the TCB and LVC topics, where vintage fades reign supreme.
Washing advice can be summed up in Levi’s historian Paul Trynka’s comment on the Levi’s Vintage Clothing page, “at least wait until they’re a bit funky.”