Denim is the ultimate pop culture survivor. It’s survived centuries (yes, centuries) of cultural, political and economic change and is now at the top of the fashion food chain. You’ve worn it since you were a baby, and you’re probably wearing it right now.
When you think about the history of jeans, your mind probably wanders back to American cowboys—before today’s designer James Jeans, before nothing got between Brooke Shields and her Calvins, before bell bottoms changed the world, and even before James Dean made his rebellious fashion statement. But what you may not know is that the history of jeans actually spans centuries.
Flashback to 16th century Genoa.
The Genoan navy wore clothing made of a denim-like cloth. They could roll them up, get them wet, wash them in the sea—whatever mother nature threw at them, their denim clothing could handle it.
FYI: The word “jeans” actually comes from the French phrase blue de Gênes, meaning blue of Genoa. The fabric itself, denim, is named after Nîmes, the French town in which it originated (de Nîmes).
It wasn’t until after the 19th century gold rush that denim became popular in America. In 1872, German immigrant and wholesale good supplier Levi Strauss (ring a bell?) teamed up with Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor who couldn’t afford to patent his idea for copper rivets—those little metal fasteners that strengthen the pockets of jeans. Together, they patented the design and began producing ridiculously strong overalls beloved by miners, lumberjacks, farmers and teamsters.
Credit: eBayHow strong, you ask? Check out this 100-year-old pair of Levis discovered in a Nevada mining town in 1998. These jeans are the oldest and rarest ever found, and sold for a whopping $46,502 USD on eBay. The winner of the auction? Levi Strauss and Co., who proclaimed them an important piece of their company’s history.
At the turn of the century, denim overalls were a staple of the American workforce.
The next era of denim was ushered in by 1930s Hollywood cowboys—the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry generation. America fell in love with the look and sales soared, even during the depression. In 1936, Levi’s produced the first-ever ad campaign featuring a lovely lady in denim overalls and a sombrero.
Sales dipped in the 1940s due to the war, but rose again in the 1950s. Teenagers were the first to pick them back up (James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause probably had a little something to do with it) but society wasn’t loving it. Jeans were banned in some schools, restaurants and theatres because they were a seen as a sign of general thuggery and rebellion. But still, jeans wormed their way into pop culture’s heart.
From Cowboys to Catwalks
In the 1960s, the fashion jean craze began to explode. Behold:
Today, jeans are a wardrobe staple. In fact, a ShopSmart poll found that the average American owns 7 pairs! But even if you’re wearing brand-new designer denim (and not a $46,502, century-old pair of jeans), you’re still wearing a piece of history. You’re wearing what your father wore, what your grandfather wore, and what your great-grandfather wore. There’s nothing like a pair of jeans!