Denim has long been an iconic symbol of American culture. Today, on average, most Americans own around seven pairs, according to a study by Cotton Incorporated. Are blue jeans a timeless piece of clothing, an artifact of culture, a staple of fashion? They are all of these things and yet so much more.
There are books written about them, blogs devoted to them and ancient paintings depicting them. Over 400 million pairs of jeans are sold each year in the United States, ask anyone their timeline or history and most people will be confused. Denim’s beginnings were humble, rooted in the working class.
The opposite of designer wear, a pair of jeans was made for hard working laborers.
Having secured their own spot on the runway, they are reinvented time and time again. Unlike anything else they spanned multiple categories, from very cheap and casual to the highest ends of luxury. Always changing, yet remaining the same, they symbolize history, memories, life. The history of the fabric and its most famous article of clothing, jeans, follows an interesting and controversial story.
The word denim was derived from the French word ‘serge,’ (describing a durable twill and wool type fabric) and Nimes (the name of the city serge was invented in). Thus, ‘serge de Nimes’ was shortened to ‘denim.’ The word jean on the other hand came from the city of Genoa, where sailors were said to wear indigo dyed clothing (the same dye used for denim), used because it did not easily seep through fabric as other dyes did.
The denim jeans we know today were first designed in late 19th century America, as the work-wear of laborers in western states, including farmers, coal and gold miners. A tailor, Jacob Davis, came up with the idea of reinforcing the pockets on pants with copper rivets. He looked to Levi Strauss, a well-known entrepreneur and owner of the dry goods store where Davis bought his denim cloth. The two would soon partner and patent the popular pants.
Before World War II, jeans were synonymous with the cowboys of the West and romanticized by Easterners going on ‘dude ranch’ vacations. It wasn’t until after the war, in the 1950’s that Hollywood turned them into a movie star costume.
Once Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe were rocking Levi’s, so were most of the modern, rebellious youth. College students wore them to symbolize equality with the blue-collar class during the Vietnam War. It didn’t take long for the craze to spread across Middle America with Europe following suit and this article of clothing secured its icon status.
We currently own 28 pairs of jeans. There is something about each pair that we don’t want to give up, a perfect fit, a certain shade, a particular style, but most importantly, a memory, a feeling, a second skin to make you feel perfect in your own.