Denim Jeans have become such an essential yet regular part of our lives but have we ever thought about the history of denim? Do we know what the origins of the jeans were? Today, denim jeans are considered highly fashioned, but they were initially made for the miners to prolong their clothing as their pants used to tear off during the mining process. Thus, for the past two centuries, jeans have been used by the miners, cowboys, rebels and turned into fashion and fame.
History of Denim and Birth of Jeans
There is a lot of debate over the birthplace of denim due to the lack of evidence and various myths. However, a widespread belief is that denim was initially made in Nimes, France.
Back in the 1700s, there was a popular fabric called ‘serge de Nimes’ in France. The word denim has possibly been descended from this fabric, even though there is a difference between the two. Serge de Nimes is a mixture of silk and wool, whereas denim is made of pure cotton, although both fabrics are a twill weave – consisting of two threads: white and a colored one.
So, denim is made up of twill weave textile in which the weft passes through two or more surface threads. The surface threads are dyed in indigo, whereas the weft threads are left off as plain white. That is why denim is always blue on one side – the outer side – and white on the other. Moreover, the denim also fades in a unique way which becomes a fashion in itself.
Moreover, there also coexisted another fabric during this time which is now known as “jean.” The word jean originated from “Genes,” which was derived from Genoa, a city in Italy where cotton trousers were made. During this period, jean was made from fustian, made up of cotton, linen, and/or wool blend. However, by the eighteenth century, it was entirely made of cotton.
While denim was trendy back then, it was solid but expensive as compared to jeans. Both denim and jeans had many similarities, but the significant difference was that denim was made from two different colored threads: white and blue, whereas jeans were made from two threads of the same color.
The Jean of Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis
The most iconic and classic jeans were made in 1873 by Jacob Davis, a tailor, and Levi Strauss, the proprietor of a wholesale fabric shop in San Francisco. It was constructed from indigo-dyed denim with pockets and riveting solid to make it appropriate for workwear.
Levi Strauss had moved to San Fransisco to extend his family’s dry goods wholesale business, including cotton cloth. Jacob Davis, who was a tailor in Reno, Nevada, was one of his customers. Davis used to produce items like horse blankets, tents, etc., by that time. Davis once got an order from a miner client, asking him to make a pair of sturdy jeans that will not rip apart during the mining process.
Davis completed the order by using the cloth that was bought from Levi and made the jeans stronger by putting copper rivets at the areas used to get ripped apart easily and more likely. This pair of pants became a huge success. Since David had bought the cloth for these jeans from Levi Strauss and needed copyright, they both became partners. This is the story behind the jeans that we know and use today but with further modifications over the century.
For instance, Strauss and David’s jean was initially made of two fabrics only: brown duck and blue denim. Later came the popular denim 501 style, which took off the blue denim fabric. Later on, Strauss added a double arch of orange stitching for more sturdiness and distinguished them as Levi’s in 1922. Moreover, belt loops were added in 1922, followed by zippers replacing buttons in 1954. So, this is how jeans became a huge success, although they were called “waist overalls” or “overalls” until the 1960s, after which they have been known as jeans.
From Workwear to Fashion – A Complete Timeline
From workwear to high-end fashion, denim and jeans have come a long way. Below is a short timeline of their popularity during these times by various groups of people:
From Workwear to Hollywood – Denim became the chosen workwear fabric for western cowboys, miners, and farmers in the United States. Denim was not only less expensive, but it was also more robust and sturdier than the popular alternative, ‘jean’ (traditionally made from cotton, linen, and wool). After patenting metal rivets to make them more durable, Levi’s & Strauss began producing the classic denim blue trousers that have become a staple among working men.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood helped glamourize the blue jean by putting the trousers on attractive cowboy types like John Wayne and Gary Cooper.
From Hollywood to Rebels – Followed by the 1930s were the times of World War II. During this time, blue jeans were designated as an essential commodity. They were only sold to those involved in defence or military work. Thus, they became to be associated with rebellious people.
From Rebel to Fame (1950 onwards) – The war’s end caused a shift in this perspective. Denim jeans became less associated with workwear and more closely related to casual wear.
Denim’s dark colour and stiffness made it a popular fabric for trousers in the 1950s. Zippers were used in denim trousers for the first time in 1954. The new generation began to wear denim trousers as leisurewear. As more people began to wear denim, they began to refer to them as ‘jeans’ rather than denim overalls. Meanwhile, movie star icons like Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, James Dean reinvented the denim jean as an empowering and moderately sexualized appearance.
Later on, during the 1960s and early 1970s, jeans were worn by various groups, including rebellious groups anticipating wars, hippies during The Hippie Revolution, and, later on, by feminists to portray gender equality by wearing blue jeans. In the 1960s, some schools even banned jeans when they became popular amongst the motorcycle boys as inspiration from Hollywood movies. It only ended up further increasing its popularity.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, famous fashion designers such as Calvin Klein, Gloria Vanderbilt started using jeans in their collections. Even big fashion houses like Dior, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana entered this market.
Thus, during all these years, the various types and styles of jeans have become stratified into groups and subgroups, but the popularity has only risen. So, this is the complete history of denim and the origins of jeans, and how it has been modified and used by various groups during various times till today.