The History and Style Evolution of Denim Jeans

The History and Style Evolution of Denim Jeans | MakersValley Blog
Anna Palagano

Anna Palagano

Jeans are not just a closet staple, but a culturally rich artifact. They started as a working class uniform and became a garment that soared in popularity to now transcend class, age, and gender. Almost everyone now owns a pair of jeans. Today, it is not a question of whether or not jeans are in style, but what style of jeans ranks most popular. People love jeans not only for their versatility but also for the durability of their denim. 

The terms denim and jeans sometimes get used interchangeably but are different and have different origins spanning the world. Read on to learn more.

International Origins of Denim and Jeans

Beautiful view of Italy's Genoa

While there’s still debate around the exact origin of jeans and denim, the word “jean” is said to come from Italy, a country with historical expertise in tailoring and textile production. In the port city of Genoa (or Genova), 400 years ago, sailors used a coarse twilled cotton cloth to make their pants and ship sails. This material was called “jeans” or “jeans from Gênes” after the Geneoese people. It was a great working garment option because it was affordable and sturdy enough for the rough duties of a seamen, dockmen, and miner. In fact, this cloth led to the term Blue Jeans because in French, around Europe, the term used for the cloth was “bleu de Gênes” (the blue of Genoa).

 Weavers from Nimes, France, tried to replicate the fabric from Genoa but failed. Instead, they created a different sturdy twill called “Serge de Nîmes” from which the word “denim” was born by putting together the words “de Nîmes”. 

And, off on a different continent, in the 17th century, Indian laborers in a village called Dongri  started to wear rugged clothing made from thick, coarse cotton fabric called Dungri. It was later exported to England and to the U.S. This fabric is said to influence today’s popular overalls and are still sold now made out of denim. 

Why Are Blue Jeans Blue?

A characteristic shared between the above mentioned twilled cotton fabrics was the indigo dye that gave them a blue color. This happened, despite geographic differences, because indigo dye was the easiest dye to infuse into cotton, and the blue was good at hiding any dirt and grime.  

Coloring fabric with indigo dye

Indigo itself has a long history dating back 5,000 years, where it was extracted from Indigofera Tinctoria in the tropic zones of East Asia and Africa. However, India is the largest and most well known center for producing indigo.

The word indigo hints at its origin as it means “from India”. Over the centuries, indigo was traded across the world to places like England, the Netherlands, and Portugal. It was considered a luxury item and known as “blue gold”. However, as it was used more to dye cotton fabrics, demand for indigo grew, and people tried to find ways to make it cheaper. Indigo is labor intensive produce, and moreover, because it is not soluble, it requires complicated chemical processes to dye cotton. 

Many attempted to find a cheaper alternative to indigo. The invention of synthetic indigo by Adolf von Baeyer, in 1870, marked a turning point for synthetic dyes and made it easier to produce today’s blue jean dye. 

Denim Jeans as We Know Them Today

Even though we can trace the origin of jeans all over the world, they are tightly interwoven with American culture. Jeans, the American garment, emerged from the shop of James W. Davis, from Nevada. Davis was a tailor and encountered an issue when the pants he was producing for miners were not durable enough for their grueling work – the knees, pockets, and fly of the pants always tore.

A workmen's jeans, Nevada Jeans

Image from Beyond Retro

He came up with a plan to use copper rivets instead of the common metal fasteners to hold the pants together at their stress pants.These points included the pockets and at the fly. His earlier designs also used “duck cloth”, otherwise known as a canvas fabric. He later implemented denim instead. 

The design with the rivets found success among miners. Davis sought to patent this idea, but didn’t have the funds. This led him to write to Levi Strauss, a businessman running a dry goods business in San Francisco, who was Davis’ fabric supplier. Davis proposed that Levi partner with him on his idea, and on May 20th, 1873, they received the US patent No. 139, 121 for, "Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings". The patent was granted the name Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss and Company, and the garment “jeans” was born. 

The design of jeans improved over the decades. A detail of double arch orange stitching was added as reinforcement and to differentiate Levi jeans from their competition. Belt loops were added in 1922 and zippers replaced some button up fly styles in 1955. 

Strauss’s and Davis’s patent ended in 1880, and since, iconic brands still recognizable today – such as Blue Bell (otherwise known as Wrangler) in 1904 and Lee Mercantil (Lee Jeans) in 1911 – entered the market with their own blue jeans products.

Cowboys and Counter Culture Pushed Jeans into the Mainstream

Initially, jeans were only popular among hard working laborers like farmers, ranchers, and miners. Their image expanded when famous actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood portrayed cowboys in Western films. Jeans became an essential part of the fashionable cowboy look. In 1930, Vogue released an ad campaign with two women in fitted jeans and deemed them “Western Chic”.

James Dean posing in his jeans

Image from Gentleman’s Gazette

Following the 1950s, jeans served as a symbol of rebellion. James Dean popularized them in the film, Rebel without the Cause, wearing them with a leather jacket and simple white t-shirt. This leather jacket and blue jean combo soon became the nonconformist uniform of motorcyclists. Later, jeans became so controversial and provocative that they were banned in schools. 

Further on in the century, hippies and anti-war protestors wore jeans as a way to align themselves with the working class. Feminists donned them to illustrate gender equality, as women wearing pants challenged the status quo of gender.

Jeans Join the Subcultures 

In 1976, the high fashion world began to embrace jeans. Calvin Klein was the first designer to feature jeans on the runway. In 1980, the brand released its iconic television commercial featuring 15 year old Brook Shields stating suggestively that, “Nothing comes in between me and my Calvins.”

Later, the punk subgroups of the 1970s wore jeans that were darker, tighter, and intentionally ripped. They wanted to express their desires to tear down the current establishment. The grunge subgroups of the further on 1980s sported jeans that were dirty and beat up, also to challenge politics at the time. Then, the hip hop groups of the 1990s wore jeans that sat wide and loose on their hips, paired with baggy t-shirts.

Denim Jeans Now a Permanent Part of Western Fashion

People standing in various jean styles

You would be hard pressed to find someone without a pair of denim jeans in their closet today. They can be found anywhere from budget retailers to the catwalk. Jeans are for those who love statement styles like bell bottoms to century old classics like the still popular 501 Levis. This former sign of rebellion has become the most commonly worn item in the country.

Today’s jean design and technology continues to make progress. Modern fashion designers have the ability to make them softer, stretchier, and even longer lasting with machine made rips.  Jeans are here to stay, and ready for the next great designer’s reimagining. 


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