The History of Jeans

Jeans (noun) hard-wearing casual trousers made of denim or other cotton fabric.

Originally designed for miners, jeans have been items of fashion since the 1950s when actors, such as Marlon Brando (1924-2004) and James Dean (1931-55), wore them in popular films. Rebellious teenagers adopted jeans and other denim clothing as signs of rebellion, but from the 1960s onwards, jeans became the typical clothing of the younger generation. Today, jeans are the most popular style of trousers in Western culture, worn by people of all ages. Although this style of fashion is relatively new, jeans have a longer history than one might expect.

The word “jean” allegedly comes from the French name for the Italian city of Genoa: Gênes. During the 16th century, textile workers in Genoa developed a fustian (heavy woven) cloth of “medium quality and of reasonable cost” suitable for everyday work clothes. The Genoese Navy commissioned trousers of this material for their sailors because they were suitable for wearing in both dry and wet conditions. In France, they developed a similar but coarser textile. The term “Denim” is a contraction of de Nîmes, meaning “from Nîmes”, a place in France. Traders considered Nîmes’s “denim” higher quality, which they dyed blue using indigo from Indian bush plantations.

A Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie – The Master of the Blue Jeans, c.17th century

The first recorded quantity of “jean fustians” arriving in the British Isles is from 1576, and by the 17th century, the working-class in Northern Ireland relied on the jean fabric for their clothing. Being cheaper, they typically used the Genoese material, which an anonymous artist, nicknamed The Master of the Blue Jeans, depicted in his paintings.

Jean and denim developed over time to resemble the fabric we are familiar with today. A third fabric of a similar nature appeared in India during the 17th century. Even cheaper than Genoese jean, the off-coloured blue or white fabric was worn by the poor people of the village of Dongri, near Bombay. It is from this name that we get the word “dungaree”.

Until the 19th century, “jean” was the name of the fabric rather than the style of trousers. In 1795, the Swiss banker Jean-Gabriel Eynard (1775-1863) travelled to Genoa in search of commercial ways to make money. André Masséna, 1st Duke of Rivoli (1758-1817), entrusted Eynard with making purchases for his French troops, who fought in the French Revolutionary Wars. Eynard commissioned Genoese textile workers to produce uniforms for the soldiers, including trousers made from a blue fabric called bleu de Genes. This garment style grew in popularity and became known in English speaking countries as “blue jeans”.

Levi Strauss

The man credited as the first manufacturer of jeans as we know them today is not Eynard but rather Levi Strauss (1829-1902). Born in Germany, Strauss moved to the United States at the age of 18 to join his brothers Jonas and Louis, who ran a dry goods business in New York called J. Strauss Brother & Co. After working for a while with his brothers, Strauss decided to move to San Francisco to live with his sister Fanny and her husband, David Stern (1820-75).

In 1853, Strauss became an American citizen and set up a wholesale business with his brother-in-law. David Stern & Levi Strauss, later renamed Levi Strauss & Co., imported material from Europe, from which they made clothing, bedding, handkerchiefs, tents and so forth. Using a canvas material, Levi Strauss & Co. produced sturdy trousers for farmers, factory workers and miners. After experimenting, Strauss and Stern discovered denim cloth was more suitable.

US Patent No. 139,121

In 1872, one of Strauss’ regular customers, Latvian-born tailor Jacob Davis (1831-1908), approached him with a proposition. For some time, Davis had produced trousers for working men from duck cloth, which he purchased from Strauss. To make weak seams and pockets stronger, Davis added copper rivets, which proved a great success. His trousers sold quickly, and before long, he could not keep up with the sales. Noticing Levi Strauss & Co. were selling trousers made from the more practical denim fabric, Davis asked Strauss for financial backing to make denim trousers with rivets and apply for a patent. After agreeing to become partners, Strauss and Davis worked together to produce these new trousers, later known as jeans. On 20th May 1870, they received US patent No. 139,121 for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings”.

The first jeans, or “waist overalls” as they were known at the time, had two pockets at the front and one at the back, in which workers could place various items when needed. As the trousers grew in popularity, men of other professions began wearing them. After this, Strauss added a third smaller pocket at the front for pocket watches. Initially, jeans were designed with men in mind and fastened with a zip fly down the front. When women started wearing jeans, the company manufactured female versions with a fly on the left side. Later, the fly was moved to the front of the trousers.

Levi’s 501

“Few pieces of clothing genuinely deserve the title of “icon.” The Levi’s 501 sits right at the top of that very short list. “

Jonathan Evans, Esquire

In 1901, Strauss added another pocket on the back of the jeans, taking the total up to five. Known as their 501 model, the style quickly caught on and became the standard design in the fashion industry. One-hundred and twenty years later, the 501 model is still going strong, although with minor alterations.

Ladies Iridescent Ranch Pants

The first line of jeans specifically targeted at women appeared in 1934. For some years, women had worn men’s jeans or “waist overalls”, but Strauss noticed they were not suited to the female figure. Levi’s 701, with a zip on the left side, were instantly popular amongst women who lived or worked on farms and ranches. For others, they were considered inappropriate and unacceptable, at least until the 1950s. Levi Strauss & Co. produced female jeans long before trousers became an acceptable fashion for women. For this reason, the company is recognised as a champion of women’s equality with men.

Until the 1950s, jeans were only worn by those working outdoors. After the release of film dramas, such as Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean, youths adopted jeans as a sign of rebellion. Yet, the more people who jumped on this bandwagon, the more mainstream jeans became. By the 1960s and 70s, jeans were an accepted form of casual clothing. Many fashion companies manufactured and sold styles based on the original designs by Levi Strauss & Co.

As of the 2010s, jeans are both a casual and fashionable item of clothing for both men and women. Manufacturers sell jeans for all occasions in a range of styles. Whilst some brands are expensive, most people can afford cheaper pairs of jeans dyed with synthetic indigo rather than a natural dye. Although blue is the traditional colour of jeans, they are now available in a range of different colours.

A sketch of Levi Strauss jeans © Sophie Glover

As well as experimenting with the style of jeans, manufacturers have made alterations to make the fabric more durable. When Levi Strauss & Co. sold their first range of jeans, people washed their clothing less frequently than today. When the electric washing machine arrived in 1908, people noticed that frequent washing caused the denim material to shrink. In 1962, Levi Strauss & Co. introduced pre-shrunk jeans, which would not shrink further when washed. Known as 505 jeans, they were identical to the iconic 501, except the company guaranteed the jeans would remain the same shape.

The process of pre-shrinking allowed manufacturers to produce specific cut jeans of varying sizes. In 1969, Levi Strauss & Co. introduced boot-cut jeans (517), which suited a slim waist but fitted over a pair of boots. Later, they designed another version with a lower waistline (527). As fashions changed over the decades, clothing companies altered their jeans to suit, for example, slim, skinny, baggy and tapered jeans.

Stone-washed jeans

“In 1965, Limbo was the first retailer to wash a new pair of jeans to get a used, worn effect, and the idea became a hit.” 

Michael Belluomo, editor of Sportswear International Magazine, Oct/Nov 1987

Although the shrinking issue had been addressed, washing machines altered the appearance of jeans by fading the colour. In 1965, a New York boutique called Limbo used this to their advantage, selling jeans with a washed, worn look. This new idea caught on, and textile makers started experimenting with various ways to create this effect.

Many consumers bought regular jeans and purposely altered the colour by frequent washing. Surfers in California bleached their jeans with saltwater and hung them in direct sunlight to fade. This lived-in appearance grew popular in the 1960s, but the process took weeks to perfect. Today, manufacturers use a pumice stone and chlorine to create the same effect, which they sell under the label “acid-wash” or “stone-washed”.

Snow wash jeans

In the 1980s, punk rockers used bleach to create faded patterns on their jeans. Rather than altering the colour of the entire fabric, this technique left sections of the original dark blue dye around the seams. Once again, fashion companies, including Levi Strauss & Co., caught on and manufactured similar jeans, which they labelled “snow wash” or “pre-washed”. This style grew popular, taking the association away from punk rockers.

Subcultures continued to find ways to make their jeans unique, such as adding embroidery, metal studs and rhinestones. Each time, manufacturers caught on and replicated the style. Even jeans with deliberate rips and tears became popular, often costing more than a regular pair.

Today, many styles of jeans are available, regardless of current fashions. Trends quickly come and go, often influenced by celebrities. During the late 2000s, skinny jeans were popular in youth cultures, but after Canadian singer Justin Bieber (b.1994) endorsed low-rise jeans in 2017, they became the latest fashion. On the other hand, rappers inspired fans to wear baggy or sagging jeans, often worn several inches below the waist.

Buying jeans can be confusing because of all the various names and styles. Cigarette jeans, for example, are similar to skinny jeans but are the same width from the knee to the ankle. Skinny jeans hug the calves, and straight jeans are the same width from the top of the leg to the bottom. To add to the confusion, some brands give these jeans different names.

Wide-leg is another term for baggy jeans, which are currently popular in “gangsta rap” subcultures. For centuries, baggy trousers have come in and out of fashion. In the 1500s, loose-fitting breeches were the norm until aristocrats wished to differentiate themselves from the masses, after which they wore tight clothing. Yet, when the general public adopted this new fashion, the upper classes reclaimed baggy trousers. During the early 20th century, baggy trousers were a sign of rebellion because they went against the prim-and-proper fashion of the day. The 1950s and 1990s saw a rise in baggy jeans amongst the general public, inspiring subcultures to adopt skinny jeans to differentiate themselves from mainstream cultures. Today, rappers wear baggy jeans to set themselves apart from the skin-tight jeans worn by “metalheads”.

Bootcut jeans regained popularity in the 2000s by those who did not wish to identify with either rappers or “metalheads”. By 2006, women’s bootcut jeans became thinner across the thighs, emphasising their body shape. Gradually, the material around the ankles also reduced until skinny jeans became the new norm. To compensate for this change in fashion, “metalheads” and rock stars began wearing even thinner jeans, known as super-skinny or drainpipes.

Jeggings

For many people, skinny jeans were not a comfortable addition to their wardrobe, but to keep up with the latest trends, they felt obliged to replace their baggy jeans. Realising this, jean manufacturers designed an alternative to skinny jeans. Jeggings, a portmanteau of the words jeans and leggings, appeared on the market in 2010. Whilst they have the appearance of denim jeans, jeggings have the comfort and feel of cotton leggings, which stretch easily over the leg.

Today, the average person owns seven pairs of jeans or items of clothing made from denim. Skirts, shorts, shoes and jackets have appeared as alternatives or accompaniments to jeans. Approximately 7.5 billion feet of denim is produced every year to keep up with the demand. Despite their popularity, jeans are not an appropriate form of clothing in some establishments. In recent years, some places of work have relaxed their rules about clothing to allow workers to wear jeans, so long as they appear smart. Posh hotels, restaurants and parties for distinguished guests continue to turn away people who arrive wearing denim.

Admittedly, jeans are not for everyone, and some people may have never owned a pair of jeans, let alone seven. Yet, everyone is familiar with the blue trousers and denim fabric. Nearly every clothing store stocks jeans, and it is impossible to walk through a town without seeing someone wearing denim. The history of blue jeans is relatively short, yet they have influenced the fashions of the (western) world. We must wait and see what jeans have in store for us next.


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Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

For the first time ever, the possessions of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo have left Mexico and arrived at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to help tell her powerful, yet tragic story, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Beginning with an introduction to her family and ending with an impressive collection of clothing, Kahlo’s personal belongings, which were not discovered until 2004, reveal how she assembled her personal identity and coped with her many hardships.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born on 6th July 1907 and would grow up to become a painter of surrealism and folk art based on her strong opinions about identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society. Unfortunately, life was not going to be easy for Kahlo, particularly where her health was concerned.

Kahlo’s parents were the German photographer Guillermo Kahlo (1871–1941) and Matilde Calderón y González (1876–1932) of indigenous descent. Although she had three sisters and two step-sisters, it appears that Frida was the favourite. Whilst her siblings went to a convent school, her father insisted she was enrolled into a German school. The reason for her father’s favouritism was on account of her disabilities as a result of Polio, which she contracted when she was six years old. As a result, her right leg was much shorter and thinner than the left.

Unfortunately, children were no better than they are today and bullied Frida about her defects. Isolated from her peers, her father took it upon himself to teach her about literature, nature, and philosophy, which set her in good stead for her political future with the Communist party. Guillermo also taught his daughter about photography, thus introducing Frida into the world of art and composition.

Frida Kahlo’s childhood took place during a time when women were not given equal opportunities and were regarded as weaker and lesser than men. Therefore, Kahlo’s determination to go to school to train to be a doctor shows her strength of character. Unfortunately, this dream of hers was never to be fulfilled. On 17th September 1925, whilst on her way home from school, Kahlo suffered near-fatal injuries after the bus she was travelling on collided with a street car. Lucky to survive, unlike many of the other passengers, Kahlo suffered fractured ribs, leg and collarbone and an iron handrail impaled through her pelvis.

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Plaster corset painted and decorated by Frida Kahlo

Kahlo suffered from pain and illness for the rest of her life as a result of the crash, however, it opened up an entirely new career path for her. During her recovery, Kahlo spent the majority of time in bed, her back held up by uncomfortable plaster corsets, some of which can be seen in the exhibition. Lying on her back with a specially crafted table over her legs, Kahlo stared at herself in a mirror positioned above her bed and began to paint her self-portrait.

Self-portraits make up the majority of Kahlo’s paintings, using them as a means of exploring her identity and existence. Although she never painted the terrible traffic collision, Kahlo expressed her feelings and pain through her artwork. Many of these are made up of several surreal elements, commenting on different aspects of her life.

The V&A does not display many of her paintings, however, except for a still life at the beginning of the exhibition, the few that are shown are self-portraits. These are spread throughout the gallery in order to expand upon the personal objects and periods of her life.

Frida Kahlo can be recognised by her black hair and a striking monobrow, as well as the fine black hairs between her nose and lips – an element many female artists would choose to omit when painting their self-portrait. Although she utilised make-up and carefully styled her hair, Kahlo was not one to be oppressed by female stereotypes. Her strong facial hair was a part of her and she wore it with pride and never let it bother her, even when some young American boys heckled her in the street, asking where the circus was.

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Selection of cosmetics owned by Frida Kahlo

A few of the cosmetics and medications Kahlo frequently used are in display cases along with her sewing box, hairbrush and jewellery. Visitors can also see remnants of paint tubes and brushes personally used by Kahlo shortly before her death in 1954.

These belongings open a window into Kahlo’s life, which the symbolism in her paintings does not quite achieve. Whilst her self-portraits are a visual description of her appearance and cultural identity, the personal items reveal the true woman behind the paintbrush.

Kahlo typically included Mexican components in her paintings as well as the occasional post-colonialism reference. The colours, style of clothing and atmosphere are the type she experienced growing up in Mexico, which she endeavoured to hold onto despite the rise in Americanisation. Kahlo often painted exotic plants native to the country in the backgrounds and foregrounds of her portraits and sometimes included likenesses of her pets, which were also endemic to Mexico, for instance, spider monkeys.

Whenever Kahlo was unwell, her paintings reflected the pain and frustration she was feeling. Kahlo represented herself as wounded and broken, or like a child, depending on how the circumstances affected her mentality. Toward the end of her life, expressing the pain she was in became a common theme for Kahlo.

In The Broken Column (1944), Kahlo paints herself in the nude, her stomach and torso split apart to reveal a broken column that could topple at any moment. Her arms and face are attacked by nails, which, although draw no blood, express the pain and distress she was under at the time. The metaphor of the broken column alludes to the state her spine was in by the 1940s. Her back had worsened to the point that she could no longer sit or stand for any length of time due to the pain and lack of strength in the bones. Despite undergoing several operations throughout her life, nothing had cured her spinal problems and she was soon due to undergo an operation to fuse a bone graft and a steel support to her spine in order to straighten it. Regrettably, this procedure was also unsuccessful.

Despite this, Frida remained mentally strong, as emphasised by her stoic facial expression in the painting and upright posture. The tears on her face represent how she is feeling inside, but the vacuous facial features do not give any of that away. Her eyes look straight ahead at the audience as though she is conveying her spiritual triumph through a glance, challenging herself and others to accept the situation as it is and learn to endure and live with it.

Whilst Kahlo was recovering from the bus crash, other people her age were finishing school and attending university. Although she had missed out on her chance to attend herself, once she was released from bed rest in 1927, she regained contact with her friends and joined them in their involvement with student politics. This quickly led to joining the Mexican Communist Party where Kahlo was introduced to many notable people, including the most successful Mexican painter at the time, Diego Rivera (1886-1957). As well as her politics, Rivera was interested in her artwork stating, “it was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.”

Despite the age gap, Rivera and Kahlo became a couple and were later married in 1929. Kahlo’s parents regarded the match as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove,” however, Kahlo’s father was pleased she had married a rich man who could support her expensive medical treatment. The pair moved to the state of Morelos where Rivera, as a mural painter, had been given a commission. Unfortunately, this meant Kahlo was exposed to the fighting of the Mexican civil war. It is believed this sparked her preference of traditional peasant clothing and Mexican style art, now that she was more aware of the importance of Mexican identity and history.

Rivera had to move around a lot depending on who commisioned him for a mural. In 1930, Kahlo went with him to San Francisco in the United States where she was introduced to a number of American painters. Whilst the trip was by no means horrible, Kahlo was unimpressed by American life, which she regarded as boring, and made her even more determined to express her own heritage in her artwork.

One of the paintings she produced at this time emphasises her longing for her home country. Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America (1932) shows the artist standing on an imaginary boundary stone between her country and the country in which she was currently residing. She paints herself in traditional clothing, holding a Mexican flag, indicating her loyalty to her country.

Facing towards Mexico, a handful of crops grow in the foreground, symbolising Mexico’s agricultural history, however, the background is the type of scene Kahlo saw whilst in America. Tall buildings obscure the sky and chimney stacks pollute the air with smoke. On the left, a pre-Columbian building lies partially ruined and being struck by lightning, suggesting that America has destroyed the indigenous origins of the country.

Kahlo’s marriage was not much of a happy one. A number of times, Kahlo fell pregnant but feeling unable to carry and care for a baby, had the pregnancies terminated. Later, she decided she would like to try to carry a baby to full term, however, in her weakened state, her body was unable to cope and resulted in miscarriages. Whilst the loss of an unborn baby can be hard upon a couple, it was Rivera’s womanising ways that caused the most strain. After he had an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister, she moved out and began affairs of her own, with both men and with women. This included Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) who was living in Kahlo’s house after seeking asylum in Mexico. Eventually, Kahlo and Rivera were granted a divorce in 1939, however, they remained on friendly terms.

The Two Fridas (1939) was painted shortly after the couple’s divorce. In this self-portrait, Kahlo has painted herself twice; on the right is Frida wearing traditional costume and on the left, she wears modern clothing. Both Frida’s are holding hands and their hearts, which are visible on top of their chests, are joined together by a single artery.

Kahlo admitted that the painting represents her broken heart and loneliness after her separation from her husband. Torn between her traditional Mexican values and the modern developments occurring throughout the country, she felt lost and unable to determine her own identity. Without Rivera, Kahlo had lost a little bit of herself.

Sadly, for Kahlo, divorce was soon to be the least of her worries. As previously mentioned, Kahlo’s spine was rapidly deteriorating during the 1940s, however, to make matters worse, in 1953 her right leg, already disfigured from Polio, developed gangrene and had to be amputated below the knee. She had a prosthetic leg made so that she could still move about, albeit slowly and in pain. The V&A displays her prosthetic wearing one of her bright red leather boots. Co-curator Circe Henestrosa declared, “this is my favourite object in the exhibition. It is really modern, and it symbolises her whole attitude. Far from letting herself be defined as an invalid, she intervened as a rebel act. She was comfortable uncovering her disabilities.”

On the night of 12th July 1954, Kahlo was in bed suffering from severe pain and a high fever. Having anticipated her death days before, Kahlo had produced a sketch of the Angel of Death annotated with the words, “I joyfully await the exit — and I hope never to return — Frida.” When Kahlo’s nurse came to check on her at 6am the next morning, she was dead.

According to Wikipedia, the Tate Modern has listed Kahlo as “one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century”, and art historian Elizabeth Bakewell concurs that Kahlo was “one of Mexico’s most important twentieth-century figures”. Kahlo’s fame has increased posthumously both as an artist and an unconventional personality. She is admired by feminists and people of the LGBT community on account of her bisexuality.

The V&A exhibition culminates with an extraordinary selection of Kahlo’s clothing, which was discovered in 2004 locked away in her personal bathroom of her house-cum-museum. All the outfits are full of bright colours and displayed on shop dummies created to look like Frida Kahlo, complete with her traditional braided hairstyle.

The style of dress is called Tehuana and comprises of several pieces. The blouses, or Huipile, were typical in Mexico and Central American countries and were usually made by hand. The embroidery is intricately beautiful and must have taken days or even weeks to produce; no doubt these items are one of a kind.

The skirts are floor length and equally delicately decorated. The material would have been perfect for Kahlo to cover up her disfigured leg and, later, the prosthetic leg. The skirt and Huipile were combined with various shawls or rezbos, which were wrapped around the shoulders. Although this was the traditional garb of Mexican peasants, the colours were fit for the elite.

“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
-Frida Kahlo

The V&A has done a wonderful job, as always, with Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Rather than concentrating on her artwork, the museum looks at her entire life from birth to death. With only a limited selection of paintings available, visitors learn more about Kahlo as a person rather than a painter. They discover her passionate determination, her background, the future she paved for herself and, most importantly, the way she wished to be seen by the world.

Most people who visit the exhibition will likely have already heard of and know a little about Frida Kahlo. This is a great benefit because the museum does not elaborate much on certain events of her life. Another downside, as overheard whilst walking around the exhibition, is some of the information about certain paintings or photographs is far too low and small to read for many people, resulting in crowds bending over to get a closer look. Whilst there are booklets with large print available, there are not enough for everyone, especially as the tickets are usually sold out by mid-morning.

The V&A will be showing Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up until Sunday 4th November 2018. Tickets cost £15 and can be booked online, which is strongly advisable to limit disappointment.