Somewhere along the line, we all decided as a society that it was perfectly acceptable to wear blue pants with EVERYTHING. Men, women and children alike happily don denim jeans for both casual comfort and style. In some cases, a pair of well-tailored jeans can even complete a dressier look. How did the look become our go-to uniform as a society, and why blue and not black?

History

In 1873, Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss patented the use of blue-colored denim as a fashion textile. However, material was in use long before that. Sailors from Genoa, Italy wore uniforms which were made out of wool-cotton-linen blend “gene fustian.” This is the origin of our word “jean.” Denim was a French material that came from Nimes, or in French “de Nimes.”

Originally, jean cloth was made from a mixture of denim and cotton. The material was strong and did not wear out, so it was ideal for workers. It got its dark blue color from indigo dye, which was used because of how it bound to materials. Other dyes penetrate cloth, while indigo stays on the surface. After each washing, the dye molecules are stripped away, taking some of the cloth with it. As a result, jeans become softer and more fitted over time, another property valued by the workers wearing them.

Blue Jeans (Closeup / Nahaufnahme)
Close-up view of jeans material with fading indigo dye

During the California Gold Rush, jean pants were popular with miners. The pants were not as durable as they’d hoped, however. The pockets, for instance, always tore away from the material. Jacob Davis came up with a way to fasten pockets on with metal rivets, but he didn’t have enough money for a patent. Meanwhile, Levi Strauss had just moved to San Francisco to seize his opportunity in the wholesale clothing market. Davis wrote to Strauss: “The secratt of them Pents is the Rivits that I put in those Pockots,” he wrote. “I cannot make them up fast enough…My nabors are getting yealouse of these success.” Levi agreed to pay for the patent and began selling his copper-riveted “waist overalls.”

As a Status Symbol

Here, jeans came to symbolize the rebellious and opportunistic nature of the American West. The rest of the nation was introduced to jean culture by the cowboys of 1930’s Western films. Americans who vacationed in the Wild West brought pairs of jeans home as souvenirs.

The 1950’s saw the cultural invention of the teenage rebel and naturally, these young ‘outlaws’ chose to dress like the cowboys. They shied away from the stodgy term “waist overalls” and began referring to the pants as “blue jeans.” In the 1960s, many more students were wearing jeans. They demanded different designs and cuts to match the trends of the times, hence bell bottoms and embroidery.

Jeans became high fashion fodder in the 1980s. The up-and-coming entrepreneurs and tech elites loved nothing more than to flaunt their new wealth and prosperity, so big-name designers sold expensive jeans with their names emblazoned on the labels. The pants that had once symbolized the American Counterculture were now being used as a status symbol of American Capitalism. Nevertheless, jeans sales exploded and haven’t slowed down since.

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