There’s no item of clothing more iconic than a pair of blue jeans. Virtually everyone is familiar with this article of clothing. You wear jeans, your mom wears jeans, just about everyone you know wears jeans. But do you know why? Have you ever wondered about the origin of these slightly-stiff but deeply-loved denim pants?
The Origin of Jeans
At first consideration, it’s easy to assume that jeans are All-American. Not so. While they have become a cultural staple, the fabric used for jeans was a French invention. Rather, a French variation on an Italian invention– a sturdy fabric called “serge.” People from the French region of Nîmes tried to replicate it, coming up with a fabric they called “serge de Nîmes,” later shortened to the word with which we are familiar, “denim.”
The actual pant was the brainchild of Nevada-native Jacob Davis and German immigrant Levi Strauss. Jacob Davis was a tailor with a problem: the pants he was constructing for local miners couldn’t stand up to the wear-and-tear of their work environments. He came up with the idea of “riveted trousers,” overalls made of canvas which were fortified with metal fasteners.
As the success of his idea rose, so did a necessity to protect it, and so Davis turned to dry-goods store owner Levi Strauss to help him secure a patent, which they received on May 20, 1873. The two ended up going into business together, founding the still-famous brand “Levi Strauss & Co.” Eventually, Strauss substituted the French fabric, denim, for the chafe-prone canvas, and blue jeans were born.
Levi’s are Born
Strauss and Davis’ patent expired in 1890, but it was of little concern. The brand had already taken root in the American economy; its reputation was excellent. All pairs of pants bore a tag with the phrase, “Patent Riveted Duck & Denim Clothing. . . Every Pair Guaranteed. None Genuine Unless Bearing This Label.” (It wasn’t until the mid-1900’s that the little red tag became ubiquitous.)
1890 was a significant year for the company; it also marked the introduction of Levi’s 501 style, the classic silhouette that probably comes to mind when you think of blue jeans. With that, jeans began their rise to cultural prominence.
Until the mid 20th century, jeans were worn primarily by blue-collar workers, miners, cowboys, and, interestingly enough, polo players– they held up remarkably well while riding horses. The elevation of jeans to everyday popularity can be credited to movie stars. Think of James Dean: when you see him in your mind’s eye, there’s a good chance he is wearing a leather jacket, a t-shirt, and a pair of jeans. This is the uniform he popularized in 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause. Influencing the woman’s wardrobe was Marilyn Monroe, who wore blue jeans in the film The Misfit. The public, eager to emulate movie stars, couldn’t get enough of the denim pants.
Jeans Fashion Takes Hold
Though jeans were now ironed into the fabric of American fashion, more developments were to come. In the 1950s, the boxy, cuffed look made popular by the movie stars was all the rage. As the ’60s rolled in, bootcut was the preferred look, worn by celebrities like Brigitte Bardot and Pauline Boty. Bootcut morphed into the flares of the ’70s, bootcut’s extra-wide ankle cousin. This decade also hosted a popularity surge of patched and embellished jeans. In the ’80s, the high-waisted, stiff-legged jean came into fame but was trumped by the dark-wash, low-cut, stretchy jeans of the ’90s. In the 2000s, glammed-out, low-cut jeans became all the rage. From 2010 into today, a host of styles have made the rounds, most notably, a rerun of the classic ‘80s high-waisted look colloquially known as “mom jeans.”
From 1873 until today, jeans have slowly but surely lodged themselves in our closets and in our hearts, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be going anywhere anytime soon.