The history of denim jeans centres around not one but two fabrics, ‘jean’- originating from Genoa, Italy, which was worn by sailors during the 16th century, and ‘denim’, which most probably originates from ‘de Nimes’, a French town where the fabric was said to be first made during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. However, historians argue that de Nimes might have actually been made first in England, canny Brits using the French name to add cachet to their local product. Both fabrics were made using similar yarn, dyed using indigo grown in India, but de Nimes was slightly courser, considered of higher quality and was more readily used for over garments such as smocks and overalls, while jean was often used for industrial purposes such as protecting docked cargo. For decades the fabrics had limited popularity, were never worn by those above the lower working classes and production rates remained steady. We can see no early clue of the world domination that would follow.
The inevitabilities of world trade combined with frontier opportunism eventually saw North America become the centre for both jean and denim production, George Washington making a campaign appearance at a Massachusetts mill that manufactured both fabrics to the highest standards in 1789, much to the delight of his New England constituency. Despite this presidential endorsement, gradual growth in popularity was again the natural order for jean and denim. In 1873 our story encounters Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, who jointly patented a design for rivet reinforced work wear on 20 May 1873 – considered the birthday of modern jeans. Strauss was a dry goods salesman who retailed to gold miners, and it is thought that inventing a pair of extremely durable trousers might have seemed a nice sideline for the entrepreneur, after all a miner can only use one shovel at a time.
For many years after this momentous date, jeans were seen purely as the workwear of choice for those involved in the heaviest manual labour. Levi Strauss was sent a letter in 1920 by a disgruntled gold miner, shocked that after being worn every day except Sunday for three years straight, while engaged in the hardest and dirtiest work known, his jeans were starting to show some wear and tear. The letter has been preserved as an artifact. Jeans were also seen astride cowboys during this period, a vocation that also required a durable set of strides, given all the time they spent chaffing in the saddle, but once again mainstream appeal was minimal.
The notion of jeans as work-wear was upended when a strapping, brooding Marlon Brando inspired a spirit of denim-borne rebellion in the 1953 film ‘The Wild One’. James Dean then sent this notion of clothes-as-social-defiance into the stratosphere two years later in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. Teenagers of all social standing flocked to embrace the look with unrestrained enthusiasm, sticking it to the establishment by slipping into denim jeans all possible occasions. In response many middle class high schools banned the cursed fabric, a move that inevitably had the opposite than intended result.
It didn’t take long however for grandpa to clamber aboard the bandwagon, and jeans have long since lost their status as statements of rebellion and defiance, being seen on even the uncoolest of cats, George W Bush and Tony Blair famously flaunting well ironed jeans during their first summit, ‘just a couple of regular guys out for a stroll, nothing diabolical going on here folks’, being the intended statement. Research also uncovered a pic of a very hip looking Dick Cheney, pimp-rolling a pair of baggy, faded jeans, tucked in of course to an olive coloured shirt, brown leather belt, white running shoes, the very pinnacle of street cred in full flight. Proof that denim straddles the political divide can be seen in the wardrobe of Barrack Obama, also a dedicated jeans man.
While the free world was going crazy for all things denim following Hollywood’s 1950’s intervention, in other parts of the globe being seen as an American product had served as a severe branding disadvantage. Throughout the Cold War many markets behind the iron curtain were closed to obvious symbols of western capitalism. Jeans were smuggled into the USSR, but this was a dangerous business, with real threat of judicial recrimination for those caught in the trade. Russian jean label ‘Rokotov & Fainberg’ is named after two currency traders who were executed for economic crimes in 1961, trafficking jeans listed amoung their many heinous offences. Of course the Cold War ended, capitalism won the day, allowing a thousand sweatshops to bloom, cheap pairs of jeans were churned out in their millions, and the rest is history.
As a lesson in western consumer goods conquering the globe, the denim jean must go down as history’s most successful export, with a sugary cola sold in a red bottle probably running a very distant second. So will denim jeans ever by replaced as THE go to fashion item? No. Civilisation as we know it might crumble, but the denim jean will live forever.
A microbiology student at the University of Alberta, Josh Le, conducted an informal experiment in which he wore the same pair of raw denim jeans for 15 months without a single wash and then tested their bacterial content. A retest two weeks after washing them found the bacterial content to be almost identical. Washing jeans causes the precious indigo dye to fade and the garment to lose its shape, which famously conforms to its wearer like no other item of clothing, so why wash them at all? Freezing jeans overnight, a short stint in a hot oven, methods to avoid washing abound. Most jeans manufacturers agree that washing should be done as infrequently as possible, and the heat method would seem the more effective in killing off odour causing bacteria.