Hard wear: A short history of blue jeans
True fit, true grit, denim will never quit
Words— Gregory Vodden
Blue jeans are one of the Western world’s most beloved and iconic garments. Adopted from the beginning by prospectors and ranch hands, later by Hollywood, rockers, rebels, hippies and punks. These days, tech magnates, children, runway models and even presidents putting on blue-collar airs wear jeans. In short, nearly everyone has a pair of jeans. The meteoric rise of blue jeans as a ubiquitous garment was never a guarantee though and the story of its development is a strange and unlikely one.
Blue Jeans are emblems of Americana but the story of their development begins with Denim, birthed overseas in 16th century Europe. Both the cities of Genoa, Italy and Nîmes, France produced a similarly tough, cotton textile prized for its durability and dyed with indigo, a natural dye from the East Indies, which was newly abundant in Europe owing to Vasco de Gama’s recent discovery of a viable sea route between Europe and India in the mid 1500’s. It is widely believed that of the two cities, Nîmes was likely the first city that began manufacturing what we would readily recognize today as denim. (The city also gives the fabric its name, from the French "serge de Nîmes.") Genoa, on the other hand, was reputed to make a somewhat higher quality garment than its French counterpart and it was such that in 1800, when the city was tasked with outfitting a small army of Napoleon’s troops stationed in the city; the Genoese tailors provided them with hardwearing blue uniforms similar to the uniforms they had been outfitting their sailors with for generations. The French were impressed with the garments, and dubbed them “blue de Gênes.”
Denim first appears outside of Europe as a particularly popular working garment among the poor dockworkers of a small fishing village named Dongri in India. The fabric, called “Dungri” in Hindi proved a valuable export and soon made its way back into the British home islands in England which would prove to be denim’s launching point into the new world.
Once the dust had settled from the American Revolution, a newly independent United States of America struck west in earnest, simultaneously solidifying the national identity on the ever-advancing frontier and incidentally creating the conditions from which denim would evolve into a global phenomenon.
Modern blue jeans as we know them were born on May 20th, 1873, the product of a joint venture between Jacob W. Davis, a Reno, Nevada based tailor and Levis Strauss, A San Francisco fabric wholesaler. The two men filed a patent with the United States Patent Office, detailing a pair of sturdy denim work trousers of a design that was already common enough amongst frontier types.
Up until this time, jeans were becoming increasingly common, but only among a certain class of Americans. They were not considered “respectable clothing” in any context other than that of hard, manual labour. That all changed overnight though with the release of the 1955 film, Rebel Without a Cause—featuring a young, handsome James Dean dressed in a red bomber jacket over a white tee-shirt and, definitely, a pair of blue jeans. The quintessentially American flag coloured red white and blue outfit proved a rebel yell that a host of new generations would go on to answer. Into the ’60s, '70s and '80s these new generations would spawn a multitude of counter cultures opposing everything and everyone and incredibly, they would all choose to adopt blue jeans as their uniform.
Early women's liberation activists adopted jeans leaning heavily on the history of jeans that began during the second world war where jeans were worn equally by both men and women working in support of the war effort. Many members of the civil rights movement also adopted jeans but of an older coverall style that historically served as the common clothing of poor sharecroppers to highlight how little had changed since reconstruction efforts after the Civil War. Conversely, black panthers adopted jeans, paired with black leather jackets, black sunglasses and black berets to conveying the deadly serious militancy they were prepared to use to fight the institutionalized racism in which they lived.
By the 1980s, punks began wearing skinnier jeans than any other social group. The jeans were dyed dark and often ripped, torn, sometimes stained or splattered in bleach, covered in patches or held together with safety pins. Many punks wore jeans to connect themselves with the working class and the conscious DIY alterations of their clothing highlighted the growing economic inequality of the 1980s and represented punk ideals of radical free expression.
Back in America, hip-hop culture exploded out of American inner cities during the 1980s and early 90s. This new subculture adopted excessively baggy jeans as a reference to the prison system in which Inmates were often provided ill-fitting clothes without belts resulting in pants that would sag low and hang off their wearers. The 80s and 90s also saw the rise of designer jeans with major fashion houses contributing versions of acid washes, stone washes, and low-rise styles that would at various times, dominate the high fashion runways around the world. As blue jeans dove into the breach of the high fashion world, they catapulted into the upper echelons of the coveted world of luxury commodities, soon keeping company alongside diamonds, fine wines and Swiss watches — commanding exorbitant prices without question and effectively reaching the peak of their incredible global spread.
Today, blue jeans are ubiquitous. From their origin as working pants, through their symbolic transformations during the midcentury youthquake movements and into the present day. Jeans will without a doubt continue to evolve aesthetically and culturally but the present generation faces the sobering reality of humanity's' environmental impact and as such, it is clear that the next immediate evolution in the history of blue jeans will necessarily be one of ecological responsibility and sustainability.
Presently, the fashion industry at large is the second-largest polluter of water and dirtiest industry in the world behind oil. It is incumbent on us that we reimagine how we make and wear the jeans we love. Denim is currently one of the most polluting fabrics to produce, (the manufacturing process of a single pair of jeans averages more than 10,000 litres of water) but the denim industry has also taken to leading the charge in making denim sustainable.
The fashion industry is advancing with new manufacturing methods such as nano-bubble treatments, ozone washes and laser distressing procedures coupled with circular denim recycling and the encouragement of conscientious consumer practices. With luck, these steps will prove to be the opening salvos in a fight to ensure that we can continue to enjoy and reinvent blue jeans as a cultural touchstone and beloved article of clothing moving forward into the future of our collective human endeavour.
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