My sister still likes to tell the story. Skinny jeans had been the thing then for nearly a decade, they just wouldn’t go away, and she’d walk through the mall staring in the windows thinking, “It’s all very well being able to buy them, but you can’t buy the legs the mannequins have that make them look so damned good.” Their legs have planes, hard edges, the tops of their thighs no wider than their knees, with those long, thin ankles that make the shape cling just right at the bottom. Not many real people have legs that shape, but they’re pretty much the only kind that made those jeans look really hot. She says she didn’t have the time to put in the hours on sweat runs and cross-trainers, and she had a phobia of the surgeon’s knife. She didn’t even like skinny jeans that much, she just wanted the legs that would looked good in them.
So, she was in the queue that started building outside the mall three days before the first public outlet of Perfect Pins opened in London. Everyone had seen the trousers on those rich or well connected enough to get hold of the test run editions. London, Paris, Milan, New York, they all went crazy. The photographers turned up to catch the first customers emerging from the store in their new trousers, and within minutes every newspaper had the pictures up online. Grinning, elated women, every single one of them with legs a shop mannequin would have been proud of. Boy, did they look good in those trousers. We all knew it was only appearances, that when they took them off they were just the same as they had been when they went jiggling into the shop, but it didn’t matter. Appearances were everything.
The creepy thing, I thought, though my sister didn’t care, was that at first there was no variation. All the women streaming out of that first branch of Perfect Pins had identically toned, thin legs in their identical trousers. I suppose in the rush they’d just gone for the default settings, so eager to show them off that the customising could wait until later.
We didn’t have to wait that long. Despite the odd dead supermodel it was still the number one rule in fashion that you could never be too thin. Heroin chic may have died with Kate Moss’s wedding, but malnutrition chic still had a stranglehold the rest of us. You’d think austerity might have done for it, but if anything it only made it stronger – nobody wanted to look well-fed when half the country had to choose between food and central heating.
As soon as women – and let’s be honest, any of us who could afford it had bought them – mastered the settings on those trousers, mannequin legs weren’t good enough. Instructional videos popped up on Youtube showing you how to programme them for a convex thigh, for a knee the size of a satsuma. The idea of ‘balancing your shape’ went out of the window. It didn’t matter if you had a torso that wouldn’t meet long haul baggage restrictions even in control underwear, as long as your buttocks looked like they would fit in an A cup bra. Ultimately what counted was that you had a pair of Perfect Pins trousers and you knew how to use them, regardless of the limits of human anatomy.
Within a month, anyone who was anyone was walking around on legs that resembled knitting needles. A hack went viral online that could reduce the ankle until it was invisible to the naked eye. Women floated along the streets above the clack of their platforms, looking for all the world like half-finished puppets, and they were happy.
We all know fashion is fickle, but most of us follow, not caring what reckless forces are leading the way. When some girls in Brooklyn started pumping up their Perfect Pins, adding bulges where they had none when they were in their pyjamas, people thought it was funny, not cool. They did it in a couple of music videos, gave themselves thighs that rubbed together, figured out how to make it look like the fabric was pinching into wobbly flesh. They simulated the kind of cellulite that gives even sensible women nightmares.
Soon a gang of them was walking around New York like that, all the time. They’d swell up their trousers until they had asses like zeppelins, and go on the subway. People laughed, took photos on their phones, and soon girls in London were doing it too. It was more extreme, more attention-grabbing than the cocktail stick legs – so many people had those by then that it wasn’t special anymore.
When it came down to it, it was just as effective a disguise for the real shape of your legs as the skeleton look. And women started to realise that, while walking around on cocktail sticks made your top half look bigger, hips like a two-seater sofa made everyone’s waist look tiny. When the craze hit Paris, there was no going back.
There was a backlash, of course. Women whose flesh really was as voluptuous as our trousers made ours out to be didn’t benefit from the look, because it had to be obvious you were doing it with a pair of Perfect Pins. And you could tell. The trousers didn’t move quite in the way that a real body does. They could create the shape, but not the illusion of weight, a bit like filling a clown’s dungarees with balloons. Then a generously proportioned female mayor somewhere in middle America banned Perfect Pins from her town, claiming they were offensive to larger people. There were riots.
All this had happened by the end of March, and the first Perfect Pins had been sold on January 1st. That winter, it was an added bonus that the trousers had a warming effect. You could wear a short jacket, ideally a bolero, to show them off, and you never got cold legs. We didn’t think ahead – this was fashion, after all. By May, it was starting to cause a problem.
The issue wasn’t so much the heat. We’re all used to freezing and sweating for the sake of an outfit. But because of the technology in Perfect Pins, whatever nano-mirror magic it was that created the illusion of any shape you wanted, the trousers weren’t washable. You couldn’t even dry clean them. When a heat wave struck London in early June, newspapers began running headlines about The Great Stink. And while fashion may be fickle, it couldn’t make us love the odour of unwashed trousers.
My sister was on the number 56 bus when the first attack happened. The stench on the top deck from a group of teenage girls was so bad that people were standing on seats with their heads poking out of the windows. A woman snapped when her small daughter was sick onto her lap with breathing it in. She marched down the aisle and dived at one of the girls, yanking at her trousers until they split and then, retching, balled them up and hurled them from the bus. There were cheers. Someone filmed it on their phone. Within half an hour it had happened again, and for the rest of that day in London, trousers were torn from the fashion obsessed, usually by other women, and thrown into bins, canals, or burned on the spot.
It was liberating at first. Being seen (or smelled) in a pair of Perfect Pins was an affront to society and to fashion. I suppose it’s not surprising that fashion made this twist its own, and within a week of that bus attack the only thing to be seen out in was your real legs. Unadorned, fully exposed, in all their naked glory. That summer all we cared about was the colour and cut of our underwear.