"Blue jeans" are the archetypical garment of the twentieth century. They are traditionally ankle-length, slim-fitting trousers made of blue denim worn for labor and casual dress. The term "jeans," or "blue jeans," has been in widespread usage since the mid-twentieth century.
The word "jeans" comes from the word Génes, the French word for Genoa, Italy, where sailors were known to wear sturdy pants of fustian, a sturdy twill of cotton, linen, or wool blend. By the sixteenth century, the fabric was being referred to as "Jene Fustyan." By the eighteenth century, jean fabric was made entirely of cotton and was being used to make work clothes. Jean was available in many colors, but often dyed with indigo. Pants made from jean were often referred to as "jean pants," the origin of the contemporary jeans.
Jeans, however, are made of denim. Denim is also a sturdy cotton twill, similar to jean, but even stronger. Denim is traditionally yarn-dyed and woven with an indigo-blue face and a gray or unbleached fill. This method of manufacture enables denim to develop distinctive areas of fading and wear with usage. It is commonly believed that the name "denim" is an Anglicised name for serge de nîmes, a French fabric dating back to the seventeenth century. While this attribution has been popular and widely disseminated, it has recently been called into question. Serge de nîmes and a second French textile known simply as "nim" were mainly wool, not cotton. The sturdy cotton twill now recognized as denim was originally given the name "denim" in eighteenth-century England. It has been theorized that the French name was given to an English product to add prestige.
To confuse the matter even further, jeans are sometimes referred to as dungarees. This term refers to a coarse calico fabric that was often dyed blue and used to make work pants. The word "dungaree" would later describe the pants as well.
Miners and the Workingman
The first true "jeans" were created in 1873 by Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor, who went in with Levi Strauss, a San Francisco merchant, for the patent. The pair received a patent for the addition of copper rivets at the pocket joinings of work pants to prevent tearing—a boon to the many California miners and laborers. The first jeans Levi-Strauss and Co. produced were available in brown cotton duck and blue denim and were known as waist overalls (the name jeans not adopted until the mid-1900s). In the late nineteenth century, Levi's (as they became known) began to acquire their hallmarks: the leather "Two Horse Brand" patch, lot numbers, and back patch pockets with distinctive stitching. The Levi's "501," which originated in 1890, is considered by many to be the archetypical pair of blue jeans.
Levi-Strauss had cornered the market with their denim pants, but competitors moved quickly. Companies manufacturing similarly styled denim work pants entered the market. These included OshKosh B'Gosh in 1895 and Blue Bell in 1904, which later became Wrangler. The Lee Mercantile began production of their waist overalls in 1911 and enjoyed their first great success with the Lee Union-All in 1913. During World War I, Union-Alls were standard issue for all war workers, and the design was modified for the doughboy uniform.
Hollywood, Cowboys, and Wartime
During the 1920s and into the 1930s, the image of the waist overall was given a glamorous spin by handsome cowboy movie stars like Tom Mix, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper. In 1924 H. D. Lee Mercantile Co. introduced their 101 cowboy pants, which were designed to meet the needs of cowboys, rodeo riders and others looking for authentic western garb. The 101 cowboy pant was given a facelift in 1941 when Sallie Rand, the wife of famous rodeo champion Turk Greenough, recut them for a tighter fit. These new and improved cowboy pants were then called Lee Riders. The romanticized view of the cowboy life seen onscreen brought about an enthusiasm for dude-ranch vacations, and tourists brought back comfortable waist over-alls as souvenirs. This glamorous new image was reinforced by publicity photos featuring actresses like Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard wearing the humble waist overalls while camping and fishing. Through these glamorous associations, the waist overall became associated with leisure and rugged individualism rather than manual labor. Young people began to adopt them into their casual dress, wearing them rolled up and baggy.
World War II would change the image of the waist overall forever. Raw materials were restricted for the war effort, and the general silhouette was slimmed down to reduce fabric consumption. As a result of these restrictions, Levi's lost their back cinch and copper crotch rivet while the stitching on the back pocket was painted on to conserve thread. Denim began to be used as a fashion fabric by fashion designers like Claire McCardell, whose denim wrap dress, the "popover," sold in the thousands.
American GIs brought jeans overseas with them to wear while off-duty. This had an important impact on the international reputation of jeans; they became associated with American leisure and abundance, especially in countries devastated by the war. To many, blue jeans were an important symbol of freedom and wealth.
Post–World War II Leisure and Rebellion
Blue jeans would continue to be associated with leisure in the post–World War II period. The term "jeans" became widely adopted during this time, and jeans began to be marketed specifically to the youth market. In 1947, Wrangler introduced the slim "body fit" jeans, which emphasized fit and appearance over traditional qualities like durability. In 1949, Levi Strauss and Co. opened an outlet in New York, and began nationwide promotion of their waist overalls, which they grudgingly began to call "jeans" in 1960. In 1953, H. D. Lee (formerly Lee Mercantile Co.) began an advertising campaign aimed at teenagers. Lee Riders were transformed into a slimmer "drainpipe" style popular with teens.
Once again, Hollywood films had an important role in the reinvigoration of the image of the utilitarian waist overall. While young children continued to idolize the cowboy, teenagers found new denim-clad idols in Marlon Brando (The Wild One, 1953) and James Dean (Rebel
Without a Cause, 1955). Denim now had a dangerous element and a healthy dose of sex appeal. Exciting new rock'n'roll musicians like Eddie Cochran, a Levi's devotee, also played a role in the popularization of denim. This rebellious association caused jeans to be banned from many high schools throughout the 1950s, but this only strengthened their popularity.
The 1960s saw an explosion of the production and acceptance of jeans as leisure wear. Denim as a fashion fabric also became widely accepted, and the important contribution denim jeans had made to fashion and popular culture began to be acknowledged. In 1964, it was boldly stated in American Fabrics magazine:
Throughout the industrialized world denim has become a symbol of the young, active, informal, American way of life. It is equally symbolic of America's achievements in mass production, for denim of uniform quality and superior performance is turned out by the mile in some of America's … most modern mills. (American Fabrics, No, 65, 1964, p. 30)
With this mass acceptance came the need for distinction. Early in the 1960s, slim-fitting styles dominated but were superceded by the well-worn bell-bottom styles popularized by the hippie movement. The wearing of jeans was both a political and social statement and the baby boomers embraced the aesthetic of customized decorated denim. Embroidery, paint, and appliqué on faded bell-bottom jeans became a powerful symbol of anti-establishment ideals around the world.
Since jeans and denim-inspired fashions were everywhere in the 1970s, this period has been called "the golden age of denim." The customization of jeans continued and reached its pinnacle with Levi's Denim Art Contest of 1973. Mass-produced jeans echoing the earthy styles worn by political activists and rock stars, and the traditional workingman's garb, the overall, became popular.
Increasingly though, denim jeans reflected a new sophistication. Early inroads were made by the Italian company Fiorucci with their Buffalo 70 jeans. Buffalo 70 jeans were skintight and dark, the opposite of the faded bell-bottoms worn by most consumers. Since they were also expensive and difficult to find, they became a status symbol among the Studio 54 set. Their success paved the way for the high-end designer jean market of the early 1980s. American socialite Gloria Vanderbilt introduced her jeans in 1979. Similar in styling to the Fiorucci Buffalo 70 jeans, they also featured dark denim, a slim fit that emphasized a woman's curves and a bold designer logo on the rear pockets. They were significantly more expensive than other jeans and were promoted as being "high fashion." The jeans used the glamour and celebrity of socialite Gloria Vanderbilt to promote them, rather than emphasizing their practicality or styling.
This type of marketing strategy would become increasingly important during the 1980s, since there soon was a deluge of similarly styled "designer" jeans on the market. Advertising had the ability to make or a break a brand's success, and this trend has continued. Designer jeans lines from this period included Jordache, Sassoon, Sergio Valente, and the legendary Calvin Klein Jeans. In 1980, Calvin Klein Jeans embarked on a now-legendary ad campaign featuring fifteen-year-old model Brooke Shields, who cooed provocatively, "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins." The public outcry was great, but Calvin Klein Jeans sales rose from $25 million to $180 million in the span of one year. During the next decade, sexy marketing campaigns became standard. Some of the most successful were advertisements for Guess? Jeans that featured sultry models like Claudia Schiffer in seductive poses.
The jeans market grew increasingly fragmented during the 1980s. What had been the uniform of youthful rebellion and social protest during the 1950s and 1960s was now seen as a wardrobe basic and worn by all age groups. The many different styles offered included pinstriped, acid-washed, stonewashed, cigarette cut, twotoned, stretch, and pre-ripped. With this focus on innovation and novelty, many traditional denim manufacturers languished. The designer denim movement continued into the 1990s when well-established fashion
houses like Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Donna Karan branched out into denim.
Vintage Denim and Retro Styling
After more than a decade of designer jeans of various finishes, denim saw a return to classic styles, dark denim, and dangerous rebellion. Dark denim returned to mainstream popularity during the 1990s, a dramatic change from the pale, fluffy denim being produced throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Dark denim was stiff and was often worn with cuffed hems in the style of a 1950s bobby-soxer. Dark denim was seen as intellectual and ironic, a deliberate throwback to the essential elements of mid-century jeans. Traditionally styled dark denim was given an additional boost by the popularity of hip-hop. The hip-hop styles of the early 1990s were characterized by oversized, low-slung baggy jeans, associated with convicts forced to turn in their belts. Manufacturers like Ben Davis and Carhartt prospered since their no-frills, dark denim work clothes appealed to this hard-edged prison aesthetic and were prominently featured in music videos and lyrics by artists such as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Based on styles popularized by the hip-hop community, urban sportswear labels like FUBU, Rocawear, and Phat Farm emerged. Mainstream labels like Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Jeans were also appropriated in this style.
At the same time, vintage denim was experiencing a renaissance. By the late 1980s, the simple garment of the mid-century had been bastardized by the glut of fashion jeans on the market. To many consumers, vintage denim symbolized strength and integrity, a direct challenge to the perceived corruption of the 1980s. Increasingly the wearing of vintage denim became popular, and prices for original Levi's, Wranglers, and Lees soared. Others turned to faithful modern renditions of vintage denim. Evis Jeans, a Japanese company, made their name during the early 1990s by producing modern versions of classic denim, like the Levis 501 and the Lee 101 with a twist. In 1999, Levi Strauss and Co. launched the "Red" line, a successful series of high-priced reproductions of vintage styles. Likewise, Lee jeans produced a replica of their highly collectible "hair on hide" cowboy pants for the Japanese market. Jeans, at least for the moment, had returned to their roots.
During the 1980s, smaller, higher-priced lines began to experiment with vintage-styled denim, paving the way for the vintage-inspired denim explosion of the 1990s. Adriano Goldschmied, founder of the influential "genius group" of denim innovators, was an early proponent of sandblasted knees and painted on "cat's whiskers" (the wear pattern at the crotch of vintage jeans). The genius group would become hugely influential, spawning many denim labels, such as Diesel and replay, whose higher priced lines provided finishes that the coveted striations and fading that characterized vintage denim. By the mid-1990s this aesthetic had gone mainstream as seen by success of "Dirty Denim" produced by designers such as Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein. The denim craze has continued into the twenty-first century with cult denim lines like Mavi, Paper Denim and Cloth, Seven, and Blue Cult all competing in the marketplace with perfectly faded, whiskered, and creased jeans.
Jeans, the ubiquitous twentieth-century garment, will undoubtedly continue to have a permanent place in twenty-first-century wardrobes around the world. Their iconic status will remain intact, largely since they will be reinterpreted by each passing generation. In 1983, legendary French couturier Yves Saint Laurent told New York Magazine, "I have often said that I wish I had invented blue jeans. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity—all that I hope for in my clothes" (New York Magazine, November 28, 1983, p. 53).
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