Blue jeans are probably the world’s most popular article of clothing. From a sturdy workday outerwear to a comfy and casual daily wear, blue jeans have definitely stood the test of time.
Before there were blue jeans, there existed denim. Denim was accidentally discovered in the 18th century. Weavers in Nimes, France, tried to replicate the sturdy cotton corduroy that was famously created in Genoa, Italy, but they had no luck. Instead, they had developed a similar twill fabric that became known as denim, from “de Nimes,” meaning “from Nimes.” The denim was coarser and more durable; it was used for over garments such as overalls and smocks.
Its distinctive blue color was due to indigo dye. In a denim textile, warp threads were dyed in indigo while weft threads remained white. Nearly all indigo plants needed for dyeing came from India until the late 19th century. When methods of producing synthetic indigo were developed in Germany, it replaced the organic indigo.
The history of blue jeans started in 1871, when a tailor named Jacob Davis of Reno, Nevada, encountered a problem. The pockets and the button fly in the pants he was making for miners were always being torn. A wife of a local miner asked Davis to come up with pants for her husband that wouldn’t fall apart. He came up with the idea of the riveted trousers as he looked at the metal fasteners he used on harnesses and other objects.
Davis put metal rivets at points of strain, like the base of the button fly and corners of pockets. The pants became an instant hit. More and more miners were buying his pants, so Davis realized he needed to protect his idea. Lacking the money to file a patent, he immediately thought of Levi Strauss, a merchant from whom he bought bolts of cloth to make his riveted pants.
Here’s a backstory of Levi Strauss, the person to whom the famous Levi’s jeans were named after. Strauss was a young man from Germany when he went to New York in 1851 to join his older brothers who ran a goods store. Then, he moved to San Francisco in 1853 to open his own dry goods business, the Levi Strauss & Co.
That time, the Gold Rush was at its peak. Men were traveling to the West in search of fortune through mining gold. They would spend months camping out in most inhospitable climates, and their pants made of traditional fabric were destroyed within a matter of weeks. Like other businessmen and tailors, Strauss catered to the growing need for durable pants. He used brown cotton tent canvas to make plain trousers and sold it to miners. His trousers had no back pockets or belt loops, and a cinch belt in the back kept them from falling. It was sturdy, cheap, and comfortable.
In 1872, Strauss received a letter from Davis, asking for help to patent his idea and manufacture his riveted pants. Being an astute businessman, he saw the potential for this new product and agreed to Davis’ proposal. Strauss bought the idea for $69, which is the price of the patent application. The two men received the patent on May 20, 1873 – the day blue jeans were born.
Wide-scale production of the riveted pants began for the first time since then. Strauss owned and managed the business while Davis became production manager. Within a very short time, the pants became a bona fide success and became very popular. They were originally called overalls, even without the straps.
By the 1880s, Strauss’ overalls were full-blown with orange stitching, rivets, bar tacking, watch pocket, and the “Two Horse” leather patch. Lot numbers were assigned to products.
Initially, the pants were simply worn by miners, factory workers, farmers and cattlemen throughout North American West. Men’s jeans had the fly down the front, while women’s had the fly down the left side. Later on, they created the first pair of the iconic Levi’s 501 Jeans in the 1890s.
In the 1920s, Levi Strauss removed the crotch rivet due to complaints from the miners. They said it caused pain when they had to squat. This started the modern jeans design. During the same decade, another denim merchant named Henry David Lee invented the first zipper fly. Yes, he is the founder of the famous American denim brand, Lee.
These modern jeans were mostly sold to the working people of the West, like cowboys, railroad workers, and lumberjacks. They were only introduced to the East during the dude ranch craze of the 1930s.
By the 1940s, US soldiers and sailors introduced jeans as casual wear around the globe. Blue jeans were declared as an essential commodity for the World War II warriors, but they were also seen wearing jeans while outside duty.
Actor James Dean popularized the blue jeans in the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause. His T-shirt, leather jacket and jeans ensemble became a fashion trend which young men began copying immediately. Dean’s Lee 101 Riders were dip-dyed to make the blue color eye-catching. Marlon Brando, who also wore jeans in his 1953 film The Wild One, and Elvis Presley, who wore it all the time – also influenced the men’s fashion scene that era.
Because Dean represented an edgier breed of star, he and the blue jeans he popularized, became a symbol of youth rebellion during the 1950s. Because of that, jeans were sometimes banned in schools, restaurants, and theaters.
During the 1960s, jeans became more acceptable. Designer denim and skinny jeans started to emerge in the 1970s, while the stonewashed and baggy jeans were introduced in the 1980s. Distressed denim jeans emerged from the punk movement in the 1970s, but the trend continued to be popular until today.
During the first decade of the 21st century, blue jeans became a wardrobe staple in North America and other parts of the world. While it started as a practical fashion choice, the jeans today are seen being worn by people of all races, genders, ages, and walks of life.