Jeans, or blue jeans, are casual trousers made most often of indigo-blue cotton denim with reinforced stitching at the seams and metal rivets placed at stress points. Though introduced as durable work clothing, jeans have become an almost universal part of modern culture, worn by people all over the world for all manner of occasions.
Blue jeans, or dungarees, were originally associated with the hardworking miners during the California gold rush in the mid-1800s and are most directly descended from the “waist overalls” developed by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis in 1873. Featured in Western movies in the 1930s and 1940s, jeans began to attain cult status. Military servicemen during World War II gave jeans further exposure by regularly wearing them while engaging in leisure activities. It was, however, the children of these servicemen who brought jeans to the forefront of popular culture. Banned from many public schools, hard to find in stores outside of the United States, and worn by rebellious movie characters in the 1950s, jeans emerged as a symbol of restless American youth in the 1960s. Eventually jeans became popular worldwide through U.S. servicemen stationed overseas and the international influence of American cinema and other mass media.
Levi's blue jeans were first sold in Europe in 1959. Now jeans can be found in virtually every country on the globe. The
manufacture of jeans is a worldwide industry, encompassing a wide variety of styles, colors, designers, fashions, and accessories. In 2008 Levi Strauss & Co. reported that it had sold 3.5 billion pairs of jeans since 1873.
Jean fabric, originally a tough and durable twill weave, can be traced to twelfth-century Genoa, Italy. Beginning in about the seventeenth century in Europe, the term jeans generally described a working man's outerwear. Modern blue jeans, however, are most often manufactured from denim and not jean fabric. The word denim, derived from the term serge de Nimes, refers to a finer-grade serge fabric, also a twill, which appears to have originated in Nimes, France.
Denim was originally a woven blend of wool and silk, but U.S. textile mills began using cotton as early as the mid-nineteenth century as a substitute for the more expensive imported wools and linens and as a means of gaining independence from foreign suppliers. This trend gained popularity and resulted in the continued use of cotton in both denim and jean fabrics. Denim tends to wear better than jean fabric, becoming softer with each successive wash, and it became the preferred material for the manufacture of work jeans.
Today jeans are generally associated with a line of denim trousers developed by Strauss in San Francisco in the 1870s. Popular myth credits him with the invention of blue jeans. He is imagined somewhat romantically as a figure who rose to the occasion of innovation during the California gold rush by using surplus tent canvas and surplus indigo for dye to create much-needed overalls for miners. In actuality, Levi Strauss & Co. archives attribute the invention of modern jeans to Davis, a Latvian tailor who immigrated to Reno, Nevada. According to company records, Davis invented a process whereby copper rivets were added to stress points in the seams, greatly enhancing their durability.
Davis's overalls were an immediate hit with the miners. Wanting to establish a patent for his process of riveting overalls but not having the money to do so, Davis reportedly approached Strauss, a successful dry goods merchant in San Francisco, and offered to share the profits with Strauss in exchange for his funding of the patent. Strauss agreed, and a patent was issued in 1873. Trousers made using this process were known as “waist overalls” until 1960, when the common term jeans was inserted into Levi Strauss & Co. advertising and literature. Initially a uniquely “working man's” garment, the first jeans developed exclusively for women were not introduced until 1934. Before that, women wore men's jeans.
Western movie stars of the 1940s and early 1950s such as John Wayne started the popular association of jeans with the myth of rugged individuals who helped build the American West while braving harsh elements and savage attacks. In 1947 Life printed pictures depicting a California conflict in which denim-clad rioters challenged police officers in California. These rioters became the model for Marlon Brando's performance in The Wild One (1953) and James Dean's in Rebel without a Cause (1955). The clothing worn in both movies was adopted by youths as a symbol of the carefree lifestyle they wished to emulate.
Jeans gained notoriety in American schools in part because of their association with rebelliousness. In the 1950s and 1960s, types of leisure wear such as jeans were thought to give students the wrong impression about the serious nature of school. There were also practical concerns: the original complaint against wearing jeans in schoolrooms seems to have stemmed from the copper rivets damaging wooden desks and chairs. Jeans were banned from many schools until the early 1980s, and this outlaw quality only fueled their popularity.
Jeans became a symbol of the antiestablishment movement of the 1960s. Certain people sought out clothing that would link them to the societal fringes, and jeans fit the bill. Jeans were elevated to the level of art in this era, as they were decorated, modified, and painted. This was when jeans truly became iconic. In fact, a pair of blue jeans was added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution in 1964.
Eventually jeans gained acceptance as casual wear and became fully integrated into mainstream American fashion, which led to an array of styles. The first big shift came when retailers began selling jeans that had already been broken in. Later, this would evolve through the process of stone washing, in which jeans were pretreated with stones or chemicals in order to create a worn-in look and to soften the denim fabric. Manufacturers also mimicked the 1960s-era practice of adding patches, paint, or other ornamentation to jeans. Companies began making jeans in increasingly varied styles, creating trend after trend. In 1976, for example, a Ramones album cover pictured the band wearing slim, ripped jeans, and a new style was born: pre-ripped jeans hit the market. In the 1980s acid-washed denim that was almost white became popular, as did bleach-splattered jeans. In 1991 Kurt Cobain and his bandmates in Nirvana helped to launch the “grunge look” when they appeared in concert clad in shabby jeans.
In addition to the condition, the fit and form of jeans have also undergone many transformations. Bellbottom jeans, which are fitted to the knee and then flare out, were patterned after naval uniforms and popular throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Fitted, tapered, or skinny jeans appeared in the 1970s on the legs of punk rockers who wanted to counter the hippie bellbottom fashion. This became a leading trend throughout the 1980s and again in the first decade of the 2000s. During the 1990s, in contrast, the dominant shape was baggy (differentiated from bellbottoms because the entire pant leg is wide). This style originated in impoverished communities where children often had to wear oversized hand-me-down clothes from their older siblings. Often associated with rap music, the style entered mainstream American fashion in the late 1990s. Each jeans style has endured its own transformations in fit, as well as ebbs and flows in popularity.
Once jeans arrived in the cultural mainstream, it was inevitable that designer styles would follow. Designer jeans are marked by their expensive prices, quality workmanship, and haute couture associations. Among the first designer brands were Calvin Klein, Jordache, and Guess, and now hundreds of labels exist. Levi Strauss & Co. even entered the fray: by 2012, it was producing more than fifty different fits. A risqué Calvin Klein advertisement in the 1980s featuring a teenage Brooke Shields gave jeans their sex appeal. Since then, upscale retailers have kept pace with and inaugurated jean fashions. Whereas a pair of basic Levi's cost about $45 in 2012, a pair of designer jeans could go for upward of $150.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their constantly evolving look and fit, jeans have become ubiquitous in American culture. Jeans are no longer relegated to the weekend or casual Friday—instead, they are a versatile part of daily life. Throughout the garment's history, it has been associated with any number of social movements—from the biker rebelliousness of Brando in the 1950s to the hippie counterculture of the 1960s to the urban angst of rap in the 1990s. While trends have come and gone, blue jeans have remained a staple.
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Owens, Richard, and Tony Lane. American Denim: A New Folk Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1975.
Sullivan, James. Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon. New York: Gotham Books, 2006.
Weidt, Maryann N. Mr. Blue Jeans: A Story about Levi Strauss. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, 1990.