Or how ‘waist overalls’ for gold diggers, gun slingers and rebels without a cause got smart,
clothed the American Dream and conquered the world.
‘Denim’ is probably a corruption of the French serge de Nîmes, a twill-weave fabric made in Nîmes during the 17th century. Another European fabric – a ‘fustian’ made from a cotton, linen and/or wool blend – was known as ‘jean’ after the sailors of Genoa, Italy, who wore it. By the 18th century, as slave labour, trade and cotton plantations developed, jean cloth was being made entirely of cotton and was valued for its durability. Indigo blue, extracted from plants in the Americas and India, became a familiar colour for workwear.
Immigrant weavers from Yorkshire, England, produced heavy cotton fustians – cotton-twill jeans – from a cloth mill in Massachusetts as early as 1638. In 1789 George Washington toured a mill in Massachusetts that was weaving both denim and jean. By 1849 a New York manufacturer was advertising topcoats, vests and short jackets in blue jean. Mechanics and painters were wearing overalls made of blue denim; others wore more tailored trousers made of jean.
Early in 1848 James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter from New Jersey, picked up nuggets of gold from the site of a sawmill he was building by a river near Coloma, California. By August the Gold Rush had begun. In 1853 Loeb Strauss (who later changed his name to Levi) arrived in San Francisco from New York and set up a wholesale business. Demand from miners for hard-wearing work clothes was strong. The Pacific Rural Press of 28 June 1873 observed: ‘Nothing looks more slouchy in a workman than to see his pockets ripped open and hanging down, and no other part of the clothing is so apt to be torn and ripped as the pockets.’
In 1872 Levi Strauss received a letter from Jacob Davis, who had been making riveted clothing for miners in the Reno area. Davis had no money to file for a patent and offered Levi Strauss a deal if he would pay for the patent. Levi Strauss began to make copper-riveted ‘waist overalls’ (as jeans were then known). In 1886 Levi’s ‘Two Horse Brand’ leather patch, showing the garment pulled between two horses to prove its strength, was first used. By 1890 lot-numbers were being used for Levi products: 501 was assigned to copper-riveted overalls. In 1902 two back pockets were added.
During the 1930s Western movies from Hollywood elevated ‘authentic’ cowboys, who were often portrayed wearing the garment, to mythic status. Easterners headed west for experience on dude ranches, and brought denim ‘waist overalls’ back east with them. Customer complaints led to the restitching of the Levi back pockets in 1937 so that the rivets were covered and did not scratch furniture or saddles. Suspender buttons were removed, though all customers were still supplied with a snap-on set.
Restrictions on the use of raw materials during World War Two led to a decline in the production of ‘waist overalls’. The crotch rivet and back cinch were removed to save fabric and metal. As GIs fanned out around the world the ‘waist overalls’ they sometimes wore while off duty carried American style and abundance to countries devastated by war. Denim became less associated with work than leisure. In 1947 Wrangler introduced the first ‘body fit’ jeans. In 1948 an old pair of jeans was found in an abandoned silver mine in the Mojave Desert, California. The woman who found them patched them up and wore them for a while. Then she wrote to Levi Strauss, who bought them for $25 and a few new pairs. Made around 1890, they are said to be the oldest pair of blue jeans in the world.
After the war Levi Strauss began selling its products outside the American West for the first time. New rivals, such as Wrangler and Lee, began to compete for market share. Denim-clad ‘juvenile delinquents’ and ‘motorcycle boys’ featured in films and on TV; James Dean wore denim in the film Rebel Without a Cause. Some school administrators in the US banned denim altogether. In 1958 a syndicated newspaper report claimed that ‘about 90 per cent of American youths wear jeans everywhere except in bed and in church’. Teenagers used the term ‘jean pants’, and the name stuck. The bad reputation – and the healthy sales – of jeans grew still further when ‘college kids’ wore them during the protests of the 1960s and at the Woodstock music festival in 1969.
In 1964 a pair of Levi jeans entered the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. In 1969 American Fabrics claimed: ‘What has happened to denim in the last decade is really a capsule of what happened to America. It has climbed the ladder of taste.’ Embroidered, painted, sequinned and ‘psychedelic’ denim took an outing on city streets. US jean manufacturers claimed that they regularly received begging letters from ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ and as far afield as Pitcairn Island. Jeans became a symbol of ‘Western’ culture – or ‘decadence’ – and a weapon in the Cold War.
With the liberalization of world trade from the late 1970s onwards ‘sweatshops’ using cheap – usually female – labour in the South began to replace factories in the North. Jeans appeared on city streets – even on miners and rural labourers – in the South. In the North, the 1980s ‘designer jeans’ craze took the garment firmly up-market. Booming sales of branded ‘sports shoes’, often worn with jeans, reinforced the trend. Chain stores and fashion houses promoted their own lines of jeans. A vast number of new ‘labels’ appeared. Established brands often missed the latest fad, like baggy jeans, and went for nostalgia instead. Sales rocketed. But during the worldwide recession of the early 1990s the empire of jeans stopped expanding as its subjects became restless.
Encyclopaedia Britannica; Andrew Ross (ed), No Sweat, Verso, London, 1997; Lynn Downey, A History of Denim.
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