NI: Global Issues for Learners of English > The Issues > Jeans > History of Jeans

logoThe history of jeans

The beginnings

Denim and jeans - where do the names come from?

The word jeans comes from a kind of material that was made in Europe. The material, called jean, was named after sailors from Genoa in Italy, because they wore clothes made from it. The word 'denim' probably came from the name of a French material, serge de Nimes: serge (a kind of material) from Nimes (a town in France).



The 18th century

At first, jean cloth was made from a mixture of things. However, in the eighteenth century as trade, slave labour, and cotton plantations increased, jean cloth was made completely from cotton. Workers wore it because the material was very strong and it did not wear out easily. It was usually dyed with indigo, a dye taken from plants in the Americas and India, which made jean cloth a dark blue colour.


PLANTATION: (n) a large farm where a single crop is grown

DYE: (v) to change the colour of something. (n) a chemical used to change something's colour

The 19th century – The California Gold RushMiner panning for gold

In 1848, gold was found in California (not too far from San Francisco) and the famous Gold Rush began. The gold miners wanted clothes that were strong and did not tear easily. In 1853, a man called Leob Strauss left his home in New York and moved to San Francisco, where he started a wholesale business, supplying clothes. Strauss later changed his name from Leob to Levi.


WHOLESALE BUSINESS (n) buying large amounts of something & selling it to shops



A big problem with the miners' clothes were the pockets, which easily tore away from the jeans. A man called Jacob Davis had the idea of using metal rivets (fasteners) to hold the pockets and the jeans together so that they wouldn't tear. Davis wanted to patent his idea, but he didn't have enough money, so in 1872, he wrote to Levi Strauss and offered Strauss a deal if Strauss would pay for the patent. Strauss accepted, and he started making copper-riveted 'waist overalls' (as jeans were called then).

In 1886, Levi sewed a leather label on their jeans. The label showed a picture of a pair of jeans that were being pulled between two horses. This was to advertise how strong Levi jeans were: even two horses could not tear them apart.


RIVET: (n) a strong metal fastener

PATENT: (v) if you patent something it is legally your invention and other people cannot steal it.

OVERALLS: (n) a loose fitting garment that covers the legs and chest

How jeans became popular

The 1930's: WesternsDude ranch

In the 1930's, Hollywood made lots of western movies. Cowboys - who often wore jeans in the movies-became very popular. Many Americans who lived in the eastern states went for vacations on 'dude ranches' and took pairs of denim 'waist overalls' back east with them when they went home.


DUDE RANCH: (n) a holiday resort in the western US where people can ride horses and pretend to be cowboys

The 1940's: War

Fewer jeans were made during the time of World War 2, but 'waist overalls' were introduced to the world by American soldiers, who sometimes wore them when they were off duty. After the war, Levi began to sell their clothes outside the American West. Rival companies, like Wrangler and Lee, began to compete with Levi for a share of this new market.


OFF DUTY: (v) time when a soldier is not working

RIVAL: (n) something in competition with you

The 1950's: Rebels

In the 1950's, denim became popular with young people. It was the symbol of the teenage rebel in TV programmes and movies (like James Dean in the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause). Some schools in the USA banned students from wearing denim. Teenagers called the waist overalls 'jean pants' - and the name stayed.


BAN: (v) forbid; order people to stop doing something

The 1960's: Hippies & the Cold WarHippy with guitar

In the 1960's many, many university and college students wore jeans. Different styles of jeans were made, to match the 60's fashions: embroidered jeans, painted jeans, psychedelic jeans...

In many non-western countries, jeans became a symbol of 'Western decadence' and were very hard to get. US companies said that they often received letters from people all around the world asking them to send the writer a pair of jeans


EMBROIDERED: (adj) a brightly colored sewn design

PSYCHEDELIC: (adj) clothing with brightly colored patterns

DECADENCE: (n) actions that show a lowering of moral standards

The 1970's: Sweatshops

As regulations on world trade became more relaxed in the late 1970's, jeans started to be made more and more in sweatshops in countries in the South. Because the workers were paid very little, jeans became cheaper. More people in the countries of the South started wearing jeans.


SWEATSHOP: (n) a place where people work very hard for very low pay. Sweatshops in Mexico

The 1980's: Designer Jeans

In the 1980's jeans finally became high fashion clothing, when famous designers started making their own styles of jeans, with their own labels on them. Sales of jeans went up and up.



The 1990's: Recession

In the worldwide recession of the 1990's, the sale of jeans has stopped growing.


RECESSION: (n) a period when the economic situation gets worse

And the 21st century......?


This material was taken from the article, The blue jeans story, in the New Internationalist, June 1998. (Information sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica; No Sweat 1997 Andrew Ross (ed) Verso, London; A History of Denim Lynn Downey.)

© 1998: the New Internationalist

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Last Modified: 25 Sept 1999

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