HISTORY OF DENIM

Let’s be clear here. Blue jeans are the clothing item; denim is the fabric they’re made from. The two, however, are so inextricably linked that you’d be doing them both a disservice to discuss one without the other. In fact, when delving into the history of True Fashionista denim, the place that seems to know the most is the history department at Levi Strauss & Co., that all-American home of the now-classic blue jeans with the rivets worn by millions. 

They inform us that in nineteenth century America, jeans and denim were two very different fabrics, both in feel and use. In 1849, a New York clothing manufacturer would advertise topcoats, vests or short jackets in a variety of colors including blue jean. Fine trousers were made in blue jean, while overalls and trousers designed for work were made in blue and fancy denim. Other advertisements from this era show working men like mechanics and painters wearing blue denim overalls, while those not involved in manual labor wore more tailored trousers made from jean. 

The marriage of the two took place thanks to Bavarian-born Loeb Strauss, who sailed with his family to New York in 1848 and worked for his half-brothers for a few years selling wholesale dry goods. In 1853 he obtained his American citizenship and decided to make a fresh start by journeying to Gold Rush-crazy San Francisco. It was around this time that he also changed his name to Levi. Here the history gets sketchy, as all company records, inventory and photographs were lost in the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. However, we know what we do have, and that’s an indelible piece of American culture, the blue jean, and a much more advertising-friendly name! 

Levi continued the family business of selling common dry goods in San Francisco. His hard work paid off, and he acquired a reputation for quality products over the next two decades. In 1872 he got a letter from tailor Jacob Davis, who had been making riveted clothing for the miners in the Reno area using cloth he’d purchased from Levi Strauss & Co. He needed a business partner to help him get a patent and begin to manufacture a new type of work clothing. Well, Strauss knew a good business opportunity when he saw one, and in 1873 LS&CO. and Davis received a patent for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings.” (Levistrauss.com)

The first product the new company made were copper-riveted “waist overalls”, actually the old name for jeans, making them in both cotton duck (a durable, canvas-type material) and blue denim. Customers came to realize how denim got more comfortable with every washing, while cotton duck just seemed like wearing you were wearing a tent. By the 1920’s, Levi’s waist overalls were what men wore to work rugged manual labor jobs in the Western states. 

Enter the invention of movies and the popularity of Westerns in the 1930’s, and now everyone east of the Mississippi started to catch on to Levi’s waist overalls, now just straight-up called blue jeans. Everyone wanted to look like John Wayne. Cowboys wearing Levi’s jeans were elevated to fairy-tale status, becoming synonymous with living the true independent American life. It was also in the 1930’s that Strauss added his signature red flag to the back pocket of the jeans, making it the first line of clothing to have a designer label on the outside. As if that weren’t enough to rocket jeans’ status to the stratosphere, Vogue featured its cover model wearing denim, hinting that quite possibly jeans could be a fashion statement for women as well. (LiveAbout.com)

It was Hollywood yet again in the fifties that helped set the standard for blue jeans in popular culture. In 1955, a teenage James Dean appeared in Rebel Without a Cause clad in blue jeans, white t-shirt and black leather jacket, and every young guy in America immediately adopted the look. Additional films featuring “bad boy” characters portrayed by Marlon Brando, The Rat Pack and others followed, and jeans were a constant image of the growing youth-oriented counter-culture. Then there was that guy Elvis, gyrating his hips on national television, his blue jeans an indelible item to his rock star uniform. Many schools banned the wearing of jeans in the classroom, fearing that the mere presence of True Fashionista denim on a teenager’s body would cause rebellion. Women made their jeans statement in the 50’s as well, thanks to Marilyn Monroe. Although her mom-jeans (yes they are!) were not the most flattering, the mere fact that she was seen in them gave hope to all the girls who had no idea that the Beatles were coming. 

Rebellion, whaaat? Here come the sixties, where denim pant legs went wide and were adopted by the hippie sub-culture to be adorned with patches and worn with tie-dye and love beads. Sonny and Cher wore bellbottoms on their variety show in the 70’s, helping to pave the look for the disco era. Disco’s more glitzy approach of jeans to be worn on a lit-up dance floor helped to usher in the era of designer jeans in the 80’s. Gloria Vanderbilt, Jordache and Calvin Klein were among the most popular. Instant flashback to 15-year-old Brooke Shields: “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.” History made, once again. Meanwhile, the new wave/punk rock counter culture was wearing skinny jeans, albeit a few well-placed rips and tears. 

Jeans got all baggy and slouchy in the 90’s, thanks to the rise of both grunge rock and hip hop. Overalls made a comeback, as did carpenter jeans around this time. In the 2000’s, jeans got tighter and offered a slimmer boot cut, followed by the advent of denim stretch technology and return of skinny jeans for the masses by the late 2000s. 

Jeans are here to stay, and we are fortunate for talented designers to make sure that their constant reinvention continues to move and change with the times. Make sure to see the great selection of jeans online and in our True Fashionista Naples, Florida store!

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