When applied to clothing, the term “second skin” can only conjure one image. The most beloved item in any wardrobe, the most worn and in many ways therapeutically comfortable, our mistress and apologist for less-than-perfect butts, we love our jeans.
Denim, and its quintessential application, blue jeans, have a long history that predates it’s most well-known handmaiden, Levi Strauss, by centuries. Whether you’re of the school that traces its roots back to the Genoese “jeans”, the French cotton/wool right-handed twill known by its place of origin “de Nimes”, or the Hindi incarnation of the rough, yet durable fabric “dungaree”, its overwhelming cultural influence began in the United States with a cash-poor frontier tailor and that fabric-rich Bavarian immigrant.
Since the boom of trans-Atlantic shipping and trading routes in the 16th century, more effective and durable fabrics for sails were in high demand. Merchants in Genoa, Italy were able to sell their heavy cotton/flax fustian to the dominant British and Spanish sea powers in great quantities. Around the same time, French textile companies were developing their own version of the Italian twill which would take on the name, denim. Furthermore, India was producing its own brand of heavy-duty, multi-purpose fabric, dungaree.
Shortly after discovering denim’s amazing integrity and wear resistance, naval powers and industrialists alike applied its strength to their workforce’s uniform needs. Most laboring men in Genoa were reported to sport the utilitarian fabric, thus becoming indelibly entwined in the history of “jeans.” The word itself is a take on the common vernacular “Genes” to identify a Genoese national. The rapid spread of use of the fabric brought it to American shores and with it the potential to become one of the most enduring symbols of American individualism and toughness.
Necessity reared its needy head during the gold rush of 1849 when miners and railroad workers frequently found their “assets” laid bare due to substandard clothing responding to their demanding physical jobs. Prospectors lost pocketfuls of gold and workers lost heartfuls of dignity until Reno, NV tailor, Jacob Davis, sought out one Leob “Levi” Strauss, an entrepreneur and German immigrant, with his revolutionary improvement to work clothes, the copper rivet. Mr. Davis had been using the copper rivet in horse blankets as reinforcements since the late ‘fifties. Davis didn’t envision this new application until a harried woman complaining of her obese husbands’ penchant for ripping his pants turned on the light bulb in his brain. Successfully addressing the problem expanded Jacobs’ vision to a point where protecting his innovation became of utmost importance. Unfortunately for him, legal protection costs money; money he didn’t have. He sought out a partner. A businessman in San Francisco caught his attention. Leob Strauss, later renamed Levi, had trekked out west from New York City to meet the growing need of durable clothing fabric, of which he had plenty. Immediately successful and comfortable in his new position, he welcomed Jacob Davis’ invention and gladly funded the venture for a new and improved take on the utility uniform. Together they would apply for and receive patent #139121 in 1873, thus heralding the beginning of the modern jean. Levi’s 501’s were born.
It’s relevant and important to note here the relationship the fabric has with its most common color. Denim is unique in its singular connection with the indigo dye still overwhelmingly used in its production. The warp yarn is traditionally dyed with the blue pigment obtained from the indigo flower. Until the introduction of synthetic dyes at the end of the 19th century, indigo was the most significant natural dye known to mankind; it was linked with practical fabrics and work clothing. Indigo had been harvested from the leguminous flowering plant for millennia, a common practice even among the Egyptians of the First Age. The universal use of indigo in denim production has led to a fashionable aversion to any other coloring process. The late 1980’s and early ‘90s excepted, indigo has been the only fashionably acceptable tint applied to denim.
The new waist-high overalls were an immediate success and brought with them a number of commercial clients as well as individual customers. Over the next couple of decades denim overalls, waist-high or otherwise, would become permanently identified as the only garment worthy of daily use for the working public.
The markets that were open to the Levi Strauss Company were innumerable and sought after by several early adapters. Lee Dungarees and Wrangler jeans would eventually help define the quintessential and romantic image the world has of the American frontier. Cowboys, or cattle wranglers, would popularize the denim pants and would swear by its enduring comfort through days and weeks in the saddle. At the turn of the century, the American Navy would commission the production of tens of thousands of pairs for use as Navy fatigues. Most notable about this development was the creation of the bell-bottomed pant. This cut was particularly practical for seamen who needed to roll up their jeans while swabbing the deck.
The crossroads in the history of denim is squarely situated on the corner of Marconi and Edison. Motion pictures created the myth and romance that surrounded the American frontier and all of its heroes wore blue, indigo blue. Up until this point, denim was a necessity, a means to a practical end. Once it became a universal hallmark of the sun-drenched, sweaty and heroic Western frontier, the ignoble shackles of class prejudice were released from its image.
What followed was a ramping up from its workhorse past to a bright, couture future. By the 1920’s, jeans-cut denim was universally considered the outfit best suited for any non-professional work environment and became the souvenir of choice for Eastern vacationers returning from the Western territories. They became forever linked with middle-class leisure, a huge leap for the product once only associated with the working poor. Cultural icons such as Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemmingway and others of the Jazz Age helped cement the free-wheeling, liberally adventurous American attitude that would soon be the most immediate connection to the unassuming garment. In 1935, Levi’s, once again on the forefront of denim’s cultural advancement, would make the first pair of women’s jeans.
The 1940’s brought the horrors of World War II with a double shot of patriotic fervor manifested in the general public’s zeal to emulate the “boys over there.” Denim was by this time the official fabric of the American armed forces and only available to those involved in the war effort. The textile became a symbol of pride for women and men alike. Women joined the workforce and iconic images of Rosie the Riveter and Norman Rockwell Americana dominated the popular consciousness: iconic images of Americans, in their humble blue collar glory, wearing jeans.
Already a cultural powerhouse within our borders, jeans were to become an export to the world that symbolized the very things we consider our greatest pride. Freedom, adventure, individuality and American grit had run in the sweat of the leathery American pioneer. It boiled over and exploded on the pelvises of the American teenager.
Around the waists of the new cowboy, the idealistic, disenfranchised American youth, denim became a flag not lowered in the face of the stars and stripes. Jeans were banned again and again from public places such as restaurants, theatres and concert halls. It was worn as armor against the adolescents’ worst nightmare, becoming their parents.
es Dean is a name too short to encapsulate the immensity of his contribution to popular culture, with a life to match. He, in effect, created the image of the American teenager (at the age of 24) though he never got to see any of his three films before his untimely death – careening into a car while behind the wheel of his Porsche Spyder. “Live fast and die young” became a mantra that spawned a decadent age full of sexual and ideological revolution. “Rebel Without a Cause” introduced the mass viewing public to what was already circulating through the beatnik counterculture as the only digs worthy of a hep cat, blue jeans. They were practical, comfortable, usually dirty, and a deep blue “F” you to those not down with the scene. The liberation and ebullience of this newfound market – young people who yearned to belong with their peers against the Wildean threat of growing old – a million Dorian Grays sent the fashion industry into overdrive. For the first time, denim made a revolutionary statement no other fabric could match, and that statement would be merchandised.
First on the boards were the old guard denim “designers” caught unawares by the unintended pedestal they were thrust upon. Levi’s, Wrangler, Lee, Dickie’s Brand and others saw sales skyrocket in the post-war era while still crafting clothes intended solely for the workforce. On the couture front, a maverick and brilliant designer traversing the Dior-dominated industry pioneered the changes that defined the American woman. Claire McCardell will rightly go down in history as the inventor of women’s sportswear. She incorporated denim into her designs for jeans, dresses and jackets alike, and was the first to approach denim as a fashionable fabric. Jackie Kennedy further placed the blue jean in a higher tax bracket by donning them stylishly in family videos and publicity reels.
Strangely enough, opening the jeans market to women and popularizing denim as a cultural phenomenon didn’t spark a trend towards true “designer jeans” until the mid-seventies. In the early sixties, space age-influenced fashion set the tone for the ultimately style conscious while the counterculture (and gainfully underemployed) were more than happy to sport their cheap Levi’s – again a thumb behind the teeth to the institutionalized and fashion hungry. The Mod movement’s striped, patterned synthetic fabrics and faux-formal pencil thin suits and ties kept the eventual designer jeans explosion at bay, for a while. In many ways, the growth of the designer label was fought against since the Dean/Brando/Elvis era the same way young hipsters would protect their counter-cultural “treasures” for decades to come. Keeping its independent and insurgent aura helped the sale of black market jeans in the Soviet Union, the badge of a similar underground movement that would eventually bring down a political and military superpower.
The successful co-opting and re-branding of jeans culture was accomplished with the help of a pubescent model and a beautiful heiress. Gloria Vanderbilt, headliner and legend from the age of two, lent her name to the Murjani Corporations’) (later to be connected with Tommy HilfigerTommy endeavor to produce a line of expensive female form-fitting jeans, turning the denim industry on its head. The product was sexy, scandalous and worn by”nouveux rebelle” intent on gaining sexual freedom and equality in expression. The floodgates were open and a few bold designers took up the banner of denim as high fashion. The Nakash Brothers, responsible for the Jordache brand and Calvin Klein responsible for, well, Calvin Klein, made huge leaps into an unknown territory of marketing jeans as sex symbol, making many a man want to challenge Brooke Shields’ credo “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.”
An interesting macro-economical engine that boosted jeans sales in the late seventies was the Oil Crisis of 1976. America celebrated its bicentennial amidst the panic of skyrocketing gas prices which affected petroleum based fabrics such as polyester – wildly and in my opinion, uncomfortably, popular until that point. Economics aside, the demand for designer jeans revamped the entire structure of the denim industry’s hierarchy. Gone were the days of the Levi’s hegemony (though they are still the most popular brand of jeans worldwide), the Age of Aquarius brought with it a boutique atmosphere where superstars names were made and printed on our asses.
The ’80s saw an era of experimentation with the fabric. Different colors and wash schemes were tried and made popular. Acid and stonewashed jeans were introduced with Girbaud, Pepe and other fashion houses leading the way. Improved and safer manufacturing and dyeing methods were employed. Experimentations being what they are, several innovations stuck while others were shuffled into the forgotten pile of fashion embarrassments. Several companies even began a strategy of hastening the wear so lovingly embraced by jeans wearers worldwide. Hidehiko Yamane San, owner of Evisu (named after the Japanese god of money) bought antique Levi’s looms and started to create vintage “throwback” jeans with a decidedly worn look. These jeans aged the way only the antique pre-Hollywood pairs could. Each pair became an individual in itself. Hidehiko found the soul of the modern jean curled up in the corner of its blue collar roots. Seeing as the process to create these jeans was much more expensive than the mass-production being used by their Levi’s and Wrangler cousins, the ticket prices stayed in the stratosphere regardless of the ethic.
Denim has undergone a renaissance of sorts in the last decade. Scores of designers have continued and expanded the designer-based trend started in the mid-70s. There are too many notable entries here to do a list justice, but suffice to say if it can be done to a pair of denim jeans, it’s being done. Washes, dyes, treatments and deconstructions are harking back to halcyon days when your jeans could constitute a sound byte about who you are, what lifestyle choices you’ve made and who you want to be. Individualism is stressed in today’s denim market and the options are myriad.
Along with the bevy of wash and treatment choices, the options for cut and style have been offered in cornucopias variety. Boot cuts, throwback flares and bell-bottoms have been resurrected, as well as mid to low (to ultra-low) rise jeans accentuating the hips and lower abs as the physical aphrodisiac du jour.
It seems fitting that the fabric that got us to these shores, festooning the masts of clippers and corvettes, would be the one to define an ethic, a culture and several revolutions. When we consider our favorite pairs hanging in our closet, (or more likely, crumpled on the floor in the corner of our bedroom) each scuff, tear, fray and faded knee tells a story as rich as any bruise, scar or imperfection we cherish on our own bodies. It’s the one relationship whose passion grows as each wear brings us closer together, fitting better each time, welcoming us again and again as the best of lovers do.
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