The complete history of denim

Jenessa Williams 29 April 2021

We all wear it, but where did it begin? Jenessa Williams dives deep into the blues of denim’s backstory, from workwear uniform to catwalk staple

Denim’s French beginnings

The Colosseum in NimesThe colosseum in Nimes

The first usages of denim began in the French city of Nimes, hence the name—"from Nimes” translating directly to “de Nimes”. A twill weave fabric, it is made by using one coloured thread and one white one, with the weft (horizontal) passing under the warp (longitudinal) threads. For ease of identification, weavers used indigo to dye the warp threads blue, but left the weft natural white, creating a unique two-toned finish.

Indigo itself originated in India but was heavily prized across the US and Europe, formulated as it was from the leaves of the rare Indigofera Tinctoria plant. As a result, denim made fairly slow progress across the western world, only accessible to those who were able to access the dye.

New York

In 1851, a young Loeb Strauss left Germany for New York in a bid to escape growing anti-Semitism. He trained at his brother’s textile shop before changing his name to Levi, setting up his own shop in California during the Gold Rush. A heavy focus on mining in the San Francisco area led to a high demand for workwear that could withstand the rigours of manual labour, and denim certainly fit the bill.

 The work that Levi Straus was doing didn’t live in isolation. In 1865, German chemist Adolf von Baeyer began a nearly twenty-year process of trying to synthesise natural indigo, which he finally achieved in 1883. Offering more colour permanence and vividity, Baeyer’s formula is synonymous with the classic indigo look we know today.

When Levi’s caught the eye of local tailor Jacob Davis in 1873, he knew that he could strengthen denim further by adding copper rivets to the joining seams, preventing them from rips or seam splits. Having contacted Strauss to sell him his patent, the two went into business together, and by 1920, Levi’s “waist overalls” were one of the most popular garments of clothing that any San Franciscan could buy.

Denim’s Wild West years

Wild West saloon

Seeing the success that the Levi’s brand was experiencing, other now-iconic denim brands such as Wrangler and Lee popped up in 1905 and 1911 respectively, outfitting cowboys, lumberjacks and railroad workers. Western movies of the 1930s caused a further surge in denim popularity, changing the style from workwear to everyday wear as people sought to get a taste of the all-American hero attire. 

After the First World War, jeans were even more synonymous with the off-duty attire of returning war champions, spreading across Europe as post-war financial recovery began to grow.  Travel became more tenable, and so the growth of guest ranches (sometimes known as “dude ranches”), helped to encourage a romanticised notion of Wild West agri-tourism, appealing to famous, affluent visitors such as President Theodore Roosevelt, who went on to have a ranch-turned-National-Park in his name.  

Thanks to an abundance of casual guest labour, the agricultural industry boomed, creating a rapidly growing industry where denim was the essential accessory.  In the 1930s, Vogue labelled jeans as “western chic”, allowing women to embrace the fabric as a covetable, feminine fashion.

"In the 1930s, Vogue labelled jeans as "western chic", allowing women to embrace the fabric as covetable, feminine fashion"

 During the Second World War, jeans would be declared an essential commodity online, sold only to those who were employed in defence or military work. As soldiers took their beloved pairs overseas, word again spread of their hero cool. By the time the war was finished, they were synonymous worldwide with a kind of All-American gravitas, an effortless way to appear both strong and chic. 

Denim in the 1960s and 70s

By the swinging sixties, denim trousers were present in every subculture, taking on the name of “jeans” for the first time. Zippers were incorporated for the first time in 1954, popularising them amongst the younger generation who looked up to denim-wearing stars like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Marlon Brando. A symbol of youth rebellion, jeans were regularly worn to youth marches for feminist liberation and against the Vietnam war, with some schools going as far as to ban them entirely as a politically synonymous fashion.

"A symbol of youth rebellion, jeans were regularly worn to youth marches for feminist liberation and against the Vietnam war"

As styles got bolder and technology more experimental, the typical straight leg was usurped in hippie and youth communities alike, with the bell bottom or flared styles becoming immensely popular in the disco age. From Farah Fawcett skateboarding in her flares and Nike Cortez to John Lennon in his classic Wrangler jacket, denim was fast becoming an easy way to show the world what kind of person you were— the more patches, frays or customisations, the better. 

Denim from the 1980s to the Noughties

 

The 1980s would herald the first wave of “designer denim” as we know it. Calvin Klein and Armani were amongst the first to show denim jeans on the runway, while the utilisation of stretch-denim by Adriano Goldschmied introduced us to the skinny jean for the first time, often in impossibly tight fits. Often featured on high-end supermodels like Brooke Shields and Claudia Schiffer, a well-fitting pair of expensive jeans became synonymous with a kind of youthful, carefree sex appeal—you only need to look at the classic Levis advertisement with Nick Kamen in the Laundrette from 1985 to see how far the denim jean had come from its humble workwear beginnings.

"The 1980s would herald the first wave of 'designer denim' as we know it"

On a sub-cultural level, baggy denim and dungarees—the trendy younger cousin of waist overalls—were creeping in, popularised by hip-hop and pop groups who wore them low on their hips. As was the case across much of the 90s and 00s fashion, customisation was still very much key, and so chains and intentional frays were all becoming more common as a fashion choice, a way to express yourself and distinguish your jeans from other generations.

By the early 2000s, bootcut was back in, but so were denim accessories – mini denim handbags (often used in Hollywood to carry a small Chihuahua), miniskirts, even denim bucket hats and denim sneakers.  When popstar couple Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears stepped out at the 2001 American Music Awards in more shades of blue than any Ranch leader could count, they immortalised a moment in fashion history—here was one of the world’s most famous couples, endorsing denim as not only everyday wear but show-stopping, “like it or loathe it” red carpet attire.

Denim today

Denim on rack

In 2021, it would nigh-on impossible to find someone who doesn’t have a pair of jeans in their wardrobe. As it stands, the global denim jeans market forecast to be worth around 85.4 billion U.S. dollars in retail sales by 2025, without even counting our enthusiasm for denim jackets, dungarees or skirts. Whether you’re a bootcut babe, a high-waisted connoisseur or a fierce defender of the “mom jean”, we’ve all adapted to denim as an essential fabric, and once that perfect fit has been found, many of us stay brand loyal for life.  

With a much-needed emphasis on sustainability, industry thoughts are now turning creative as a means to find ways to make denim production more ethical. Given that the Oxfam estimate that it takes as much as 180,000 gallons of water to grow the requisite amount of cotton to weave a singular pair of jeans, many brands are moving towards recyclable schemes and “make do and mend” techniques that incorporate patchworks designs and sustainable dyes, encouraging buyers to really consider their purchases. 

 The future of denim, it seems might involve looking to the past—revisiting old styles you can repurpose, shopping second-hand, and investing in a pair-for-life. As Levi’s themselves state, “The next time you see someone wearing a pair of Levi’s jeans, remember that these pants are a direct descendant of that first pair made back in 1873. That year, two visionary immigrants—Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis—turned denim, thread and a little metal into what has become the most popular apparel on earth.” We might no longer be wearing jeans just for workwear, but we still need to find ways to make both them and our planet last. 

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