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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