You wanna know what comes between me and my jeans? …Nothing!
I wasn’t into Calvin Kleins like Brooke Shields was (they were, after all, paying her), but I do love my jeans! My cats let out a collective sigh when they see me change into the “blue leg covers;” it means I’m leaving the house.
Today we take these pants for granted; practically everyone in Western Culture has worn jeans at some point. But this wasn’t always the case.
Blue jeans started out as rugged work pants worn exclusively by laborers who needed clothing that stood up to the rigors of their work. Pants made of denim or duck cloth were referred to as waist overalls. Jeans have made quite a journey from their humble beginnings.
WHERE DOES DENIM COME FROM?
The story goes that a durable fabric was produced in Nimes, France, called serge de Nimes, and this is the ancestor of denim, if not the very denim used in early jeans. According to Lynn Downey, Historian at Levi Strauss & Co., this probably isn’t the case.
References to sturdy serge de Nimes can be found as far back as the seventeenth century, but there was also another fabric called nim being used in France. Both were wool-based fabrics, and serge de Nimes had silk in it. Denim is made of cotton. A fabric called serge de Nimes was quite popular in England late in the seventeenth century, and in spite of the name, was in fact produced there. So, there exists the strong possibility that the English fabric was purposely misnamed: was it strong like the fabric called nim? Or was it a marketing ploy? Fancy French fabric would be coveted over those produced locally. The real origin of denim is likely to remain a mystery!
WHY DO WE CALL THEM JEANS?
Another name of origin! This time it’s Genoa, Italy, and the textile known as “jean” was a cotton or linen blended with wool. Downey says jean was very popular in England in the sixteenth century, imported in great quantities, and ended up being produced there too. By the eighteenth century, jean lost the wool and/or linen, and was a durable cotton cloth used in men’s clothing. Meanwhile, English denim was also evolving, now all-cotton, it was the stronger, more expensive cousin to jean. There was one other difference between the two: denim was woven with one colored thread and one white thread, jean used threads of the same color.
Jean and denim were similar, but different enough that in nineteenth century America, they were used differently. Due to its superior strength and washability, denim serviced the laboring set—pants made of denim were called waist overalls, or just overalls. Jean being finer, but still durable, was used to make topcoats, jackets and vests—in addition to tailored trousers for workers not engaged in manual labor.
By the 1950’s if you wanted a pair of jeans you would still ask for overalls…but things were changing. Thanks to movies’ romanticizing the cowboy and the rebel (who both wore jeans) in the first half of the twentieth century, these pants were becoming a fashion statement. G.I.’s going overseas during World War II had to lock up their jeans as valuable items! They were desired near and far. This change in attitude led to a change in name. The move away from workers’ overalls toward playful fashion made them more relatable as the less specific jean trousers, or jeans. Ta da! Blue jeans!
WHO INVENTED BLUE JEANS?
Levi Strauss & Co. is credited as the creator of the first modern blue jeans. It’s another great story about an immigrant changing the world. Young Loeb Strauss left Bavaria, Germany in 1848 to join his half-brothers in New York City. The Strauss brothers were dry goods wholesalers, selling fabric, clothes, linens and the like. Loeb went to work for them and learned the business. He obtained his U.S. citizenship in 1853, which seemed to inspire him to make his own name…literally! He changed his name to Levi, and moved to San Francisco where he opened his own dry goods business, Levi Strauss & Co. He was just 23 years old.
There is a story about him being inspired to make pants out of canvas and dying them blue after realizing miners needed rugged clothing. Not so much. Here’s how it really went down.
Levi spent twenty years building his business and developed a reputation as a quality merchant. One of his customers was a tailor who supplied miners in the Reno, Nevada area. His name was Jacob Davis. His patrons complained that in their line of work the seams and pockets on pants were easily worn—if you are out in the middle of nowhere and a pocket comes loose, you can’t exactly visit the tailor! So Jacob Davis started making waist overalls with copper rivets at key points to improve durability. They were a hit!
He needed a business partner to obtain a patent for this new kind of work pant. He wrote to Levi Strauss, his fabric supplier. Strauss knew a good opportunity when he saw one, and the partnership was formed. LS&CO. and Jacob Davis received their patent for “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings” in 1873. And the rest, as they say, is history!
THE ROAD TO ACCEPTANCE
Through the cinema these utilitarian work pants came to symbolize American ideals: hard work, tough character and independence. Prior to World War II they were associated with the cowboy, and in post-war films it was the rebel—think Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. For a while this created a PR problem for this innocent piece of clothing. In some quarters, it was feared that merely wearing jeans would send a teenager spiraling into a life of delinquency. Fortunately, we got over ourselves!
In the later decades of the twentieth century, jeans morphed from one trendy cut into the next: the ‘70’s flared bell-bottoms, skin-tight “designer” jeans (and let’s not forget the ankle zippers and acid washed denim) of the ‘80’s, and then the baggy street style of the ‘90’s. All the while Levi’s 501s were still available for the traditionalists. I think it’s fair to say, I can probably thank the designer jeans trend for getting us to the point where I can wear jeans to work. The cachet of a designer label, combined with the fact that people were willing to pay a lot for a pair of jeans, had to give them a boost.
I wonder what would Levi Strauss think about people shelling out over $100 for a pair of blue jeans?
What is your attitude toward jeans? I love that you can dress them up or down—for me, versatility is a good thing! Please share your denim tragedies and triumphs in the comments below, and post a picture over on Facebook! I leave you with a little ditty from David Bowie, because yes this song has been in my head the whole time I’ve been working on this post!
A Brief History of Blue Jeans, http://fortune.com/2014/09/18/brief-history-of-blue-jeans/, accessed May 24, 2016.
A Short History of Denim, http://lsco.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/A-Short-History-of-Denim2.pdf, accessed May 24, 2016.
Our Story, http://www.levistrauss.com/our-story/, accessed May 24, 2016.