Let’s talk about… JEANS
This is the first in a series examining the important sartorial staples that we find in our wardrobes, and the history that has lead them to become the significant pieces that we often overlook.
Why is that we are wear jeans, and how have they come one of most important pieces in our wardrobe? Denim remains one of the most used, versatile and durable fabrics on the market, despite the wide range of innovative materials available. You probably won’t find a person on the planet that doesn’t own at least one pair (let’s be honest most of us own far more than that), from celebrities, royals, politicians, scientists and businessmen - blue jeans have become an integral staple in all of our wardrobes.
Do we own trousers that are more comfortable, the answer is obviously yes, yet we reach for our jeans time and time again. Jeans have become an ingrained part of our culture and can be seen everywhere we go, and while you might not realise it, wearing a pair of denim jeans means more than wearing any other pair of trousers - through the way they have are intertwined in history.
Blue jeans were supposedly an accidental discovered in the 18th century, when people in Nîmes, France attempted to replicate the sturdy Italian fabric called ‘serge’. What was created ended up being called, ‘Serge de Nîmes’, and was shortened to ‘denim’. The word “jean” comes from the French ‘jean fustian’ (fustian: a heavy cloth woven from cotton) originally from Genoa, Italy in the 1800s. These trousers were worn as workwear for people doing hard labour and intensive tasks. And by the 20th century, “jean” was the term for a wide range of cotton or denim informal trousers. Over the decades, countless brands have been built on their production of denim jeans, such as Wrangler, Lee, Diesel, and Calvin Klein, however, there is one brand that stands above the rest. Levis Strauss & Co were in fact the brand that created the first version of the blue jeans that we know and love today.
On May the 20th in 1873, business man, Levis Strauss (owner of a wholesale fabric house in San Fransisco) and tailor, Jacob Davis obtained a US patent on the process of putting rivets in men’s work trousers for the very first time. This is a very important date for Levis Strauss & Co’s history, and is considered to be the official birthday for blue jeans. The story goes that one day a local labourer’s wife asked Jacob to make a pair of trousers for her husband that would be able to endure his work load everyday, instead of falling apart like all the other trousers he owned. Jacob came up with the idea to put copper rivets at the points of strain, such as pocket corners and the base of the button fly to strengthen them.
These riveted trousers became an instant hit, allowing workmen to carry tools in their pockets without them ripping, and soon Jacob decided to take out a patent on the process. He thought of Levis Strauss, from whom he had purchased the cloth to make the riveted trousers. Over the course of the decade there were design improvements made, such as the added double arch of orange stitching for further reinforcement and to identify them as Levi’s.
1920’s & 1930's
L-R: John Wayne & Gary Cooper
Tristan Kennedy (Vice) comments that, “for the first 50 or 60 years of their existence, the idea that jeans might one day become fashionable was laughable. These were work pants, pure and simple, and all about function over form”. Hollywood helped romanticise the blue jeans by putting them on actors in Western films, like Gary Cooper and John Wayne. In the 1920’s and 30’s, jeans became popular western wear in the US, worn by cowboys, miners and other male workers. Blue jeans were also featured on the July 1930’s cover of Vogue, proving that jeans can be more than just trousers for workmen.
L-R: Marlon Brando in The Wild One & James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause
While blue jeans had been introduced to the silver screen in the 1920’s, for the most part, they were still viewed as a costume, and had not yet been introduced into everyday wear. It wasn’t until after World War II that young men and women began to dress in these working trousers as an act of deliberate rebellion against dress codes. Films like ‘The Wild One’ staring Marlon Brando and ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ with James Dean, cemented the idea that jeans represented a young rebellious movement.
Jeniffer Wright at Racked states that, ‘Dean also represented a newer, younger, edgier breed of star. The leather jacket and the blue jeans that Dean wore in the film symbolised that he wanted nothing to do with suburbia. He had no desire for a 9 to 5 job like the one his father held. Instead, he craved adventure and meaning in the manner of, say, a cowboy.’ For this young generation watching these film, they had perviously associated jeans with their father’s workwear overall, and for the first time were seeing a cool and new version, that they were happy to mirror.
Levis officially coined the trousers ‘jeans’ in the 1960’s with their ‘Jeaneration’ campaign. This was the decade that jeans were becoming a household item, with counter-culture youth using jeans as a uniform while they protested against the establishment, or demonstrating their solidarity with the working class.
The style of jeans also changed in the 60’s, the Bell-bottom jeans and low-rise hip huggers were a big hit, and were popular with both men and women. Women embraced the blue jeans and opted for them against the usual structured clothing. The 60’s were the decade of creative expression and personalising your jeans was considered groovy. Patches, bright colours, rhinestones and embroidery were some of the go to styles when accessorising your favourite pair. Double denim also made its first appearance, with jean jackets becoming a staple in young peoples wardrobes.
Let us not forget that in 1969, America was deep in the controversy of the Vietnam war and many young people fiercely disagreed with. It was also the era of the civil rights movement, and Woodstock offered people a place to escape, coming together and spreading messages of unity and peace. (It is clear looking at a photo of the crowd how intertwined blue jeans were into peoples experience of the famous festival.
L-R: Levi's 1970's advert & French actress Sylvie Vartan
In America, denim symbolised a fresh, wholesome, all-American sexuality. Farrah Fawcett was the perfect example of this, with the best hair around and staring in the ‘it’ TV show, Charlies Angels, she embodied the wholesome American sex-symbol. The 70’s was also the era well known for the introduction of disco, with bell-bottoms becoming even more popular, which gained notoriety on ‘The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour’.
While jeans became an acceptable staple in everyones life, Vice comments that, “behind the Iron Curtain they were still seen as dangerous symbols of degenerate attitudes. Jeans were effectively banned in East Germany until 1974, with rules forbidding kids from entering dance-halls if they were wearing “riveted pants”.
Other popular styles of denim was the mini skirt and shorts - and in 1979, ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ TV series made the Daisy Duke shorts i.e. very short denim cut-offs, popular with the help of actress Catherine Bach’s character on the show.
Bell bottom jeans were becoming less fashionable and were being taken over by the skinny trousers. Stone wash, acid wash, and ripped jeans were some of the most desired looks of this decade, along with bold colours and silhouettes.
This was the birth of designer jeans, and denim was beginning to come to the forefront of luxury designer minds when thinking of what their consumer wanted. Brands such as Calvin Klein used young and up and coming actress Brooke Shields as the face of their collection saying in the avert, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins”. Versace also launched a collection of “Jean Couture” confirming jeans had begin to saturate the designer market.
Vogue was known for their close up images of models on the cover of their magazines, however in 1988 Anna Wintour took over as editor in chief, and for her first cover she published (at the time controversial) a young model, Michaela Bercu, wearing a Christian Lacroix jacket and a pair of low-rise Guess jeans. ICONIC. Let us not forget the amazing effortlessly cool jean looks Princess Diana was giving us, especially the memorable image of her in the flat baseball cap, over sized blazer and blue jeans tucked into the leather boots.
L-R: Anna Wintour's first Vogue cover & Princess Diana in 1988
The 90s brings a wave of grunge and naturally denim changed with the movement. Instead of bold colours and tight fits, this decade came with a slouchy and casual style. Hip-Hop music brought the popularity of oversized, low slung baggy jeans, and pop-culture introduced the popularity of denim overalls and shortalls, with tv show ‘Fresh Prince of Bell-Air’, regularly sporting them.
With low rise jeans becoming increasingly popular, young designer Alexander McQueen produced a collection for his AW 1993 collection titled ‘The Taxi Drive’, that exaggerated the idea of the low-rise trouser. Coined the ‘bumster’, a bum-grazing, pube-skimming trouser was sent down the runway. McQueen’s take on the loved style shook the fashion world with an altered version that elongated the body even more than before.
L-R: Alexander McQueen's AW93 collection presenting: The Bumster
The low-rise trend did not disappear as the ‘noughties’ rolled in, and instead appeared to take on McQueens idea of what low-rise should look like. Stomachs were out and on display, as the low-rises got lower and the crop-tops got more cropped. The 00s queen of low-rise jeans must be awarded to Britney Spears, who at the height of her fame, was seen displaying her flat torso at almost every event she showed up to. Runners up the this darling look included Paris Hilton, Nichole Richie and Christina Aguilera.
2001 was a magnificent year for denim as Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake strutted down the red carpet at the AMA (American Music Awards), Britney in a v-shape corseted dress with a train (obviously), matching clutch and Justin in an oversized jean blazer with matching jeans and a pale blue t-shirt. This has to be one of the most iconic looks of the 21st century, with Miley Cyrus captioning a throwback photo: “"I want a boyfriend that will wear jean on jean on jean with me.” I mean, don’t we all! The couples denim-on-denim look truly encompasses how far the beloved blue jean has come, and by transforming denim officially to formalwear.
2010 - to now
Skinny jeans were all the rage as we entered 2010, and thankfully the introduction of high-rises, and new styles of cropped and distressed fraying. Overall’s came back and styles like mum and boyfriend jeans been brought back, emulating styles we saw in the 1960s. Recently we have seen a serge in sales for the boiler-suit, a new take on workwear being embraced for casual chic. Now that we have an abundance of options on the market choosing the perfect pair of jeans is easier, however with lots of options out there, you might be looking for a while. Every top designer from Chanel, Dior, Celine to Maison Margiela have sent out collections that included denim, verifying how important this beloved material is and how it has been accepted into the high fashion circles.
L-R: Dior, Celine, Chanel & Maison Margiela
Focusing on how we wear jeans today, there has been a resurgence in almost all of the previously styles, from the 90s grunge, to the 70’s hippy flared jeans, daisy duke shorts ... etc, whichever style you choose reflecting your own sartorial individuality. However, as different denim brands come and go, there is still one that stands out above the rest, the humble and beloved Levi Strauss & Co. Customers are becoming increasingly aware of their impact of fast fashion, and unnecessary shopping habits. There has been a shift in how consumers are beginning to shop locally and sustainably, which is impacting the retail industry, and jeans are no exception. Can the jean industry keep up with the growing desire for transparency in the production of each garment?
L-R: Hailey Bieber, Bella Hadid & Kaia Gerber
As always, Levi’s are ahead of the pack, stating on their website, “A lot of people throw around the word “sustainable,” so we think it’s important to be super straightforward in exactly how we use it. For us at Levi’s®, it’s about making better choices like sourcing more sustainable materials and finding ways to use less water.” The evolution of the jeans that we know and love today spans over 150 years, becoming intertwined with some of the most poignant moments in history, so I think it is fair to say that they won’t be going anywhere. Im exciting to see what the future holds for denim and where it can transcend to next.
Hawthorn, ‘History of Denim & the Origin of Jeans’, www.hawthornintl.com
Levis Strauss & Co, ‘The history of denim’, (July 4, 2019): www.levistrauss.com
Live About Dot Com, ‘The History of Jeans’, (Jan 09, 2019) by Marlene Montanez: www.liveabout.com
Racked, ‘The complete history of blue jeans, from miners to Marilyn Monroe’, (Feb 27, 2015), by Jennifer Wright: www.racked.com
Amuse: Vice, ‘From Brando to Britney | How Denim Became Iconic (and Where it All Went Wrong)’, (Dec 12, 2019) by Tristian Kennedy: www.amuse.vice.com
Vogue, ‘Vogue Encyclopaedia: The history of denim jeans’, (April 10, 2019), by Maude Bass-Krueger: www.vogue.fr