Denim Jeans in History

Do you own a pair of jeans? It seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? Jeans have been a casual part of our wardrobe since about the 1950s, and have been a fashionable part of our wardrobe since about the 1970s.

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Jeans are popularly made of denim these days but in the 17th century, European jean material and denim were very different. Jean material seems to have originated in Genoa, Italy, called “bleu de Genes” in French, and was woven from cotton or linen and sometimes blended with wool. Denim seems to have originated in France and England, named after Nimes, France, and generally called “serge de Nimes.” Unlike the jean fabric, the early denim was woven of silk and wool. However, the denim fabric used a colored thread and a white thread in the weave, similar to today’s denim fabric, while the jean fabric used only colored threads.

As time went on the denim material evolved into a cotton twill weave instead of a wool blend, and it retained its characteristic colored warp thread and white fill thread. Its signature blue color became popular when the indigo dye was used in the processing.

By the 18th century, sailcloth was being made at Dongari Killa near Mumbai, India. The cloth was a coarsely woven, undyed cotton fabric used by various naval sailing vessels. The cloth was often reused by sailors to make clothing such as overalls. Eventually, the overalls and pants made from this material became known as dungarees.

In the 19th century, the California Gold Rush gold miners needed strong pants that did not tear easily. Luckily, a Bavarian-born immigrant named Loeb Strauss obtained his American citizenship and journeyed to San Francisco. He changed his name to Levi and produced some sturdy pants for the gold miners. Eventually, he reinforced the pockets and weak points of the pants with copper rivets. In 1873 Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis received a patent for the copper rivet reinforcements and the pants now known as “levis” became popular among working men.

In the 1930s and 1940s denim pants grew in popularity. Cowboys gravitated toward them and movie cowboys especially looked good in them. Soldiers during World War II favored wearing denim pants when they were off duty. Factory workers during the era also preferred them. Following the war, rival companies like Wrangler and Lee began to challenge Levi Strauss for a share of the market.

In the 1950s denim jeans became associated with rebellious young people. James Dean popularized them in the movie, “Rebel Without a Cause.” Because denim jeans were identified with non-conformity and rebellion, they were sometimes banned in schools, movie theatres, and restaurants.

In the 1960s and 1970s blue jeans became well accepted for casual wear and became part of general fashion. During the period different styles of jeans were created to match the imaginative fashions. For example, stone-washed jeans, embroidered jeans, painted jeans, and psychedelic jeans were a few of the styles that young people were buying from an increased number of manufacturers.

By the 1980s and 1990s famous designers entered into the market with their own styles and labels. Jeans entered the fashion market and the prices of the designer products went surprisingly high. Levi Strauss lost market share and had to close some of its factories. Also during this period, other styles of pants such as khakis, chinos, and carpenter pants began to compete with traditional blue jeans.

Now into the 2000’s blue jeans survive as utility pants for much of the population. It is said that the average American owns about seven pairs. On the other hand, however, denim pants have reached a new high in the fashion industry. There now seems to be no upper limit on the price that can be charged for a pair of ultra designer jeans. Big-name designers have reinvented the top of the line fashion jeans.

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