The Long Journey of Blue Jeans
A farmer shows off his trusty blue jeans in Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940. Photo courtesy of Russell Lee/Library of Congress
Before we had low-rise, straight-leg, skinny, selvage, stretchy, resin-coated, lotion-infused, or mom jeans, there was simply jean—the fabric. The name likely originated from gênes, referring to Genoa, Italy, where sailors wore a twill blend of cotton, linen, and wool that came in a variety of stripes and colors.
Today’s jeans are made from heavier, all-cotton denim woven in a combination of indigo-dyed vertical yarn and natural horizontal yarn, resulting in the fabric’s white-speckled surface and pale underside. And although the original name for denim came from Nîmes, France—as in, de Nîmes—the fabric was most likely first produced in England.
Once the United States emancipated itself from British rule, the former colonists stopped importing European denim and began producing it themselves from all-American cotton, picked by slaves in the South and spun, dyed, and woven in the North. The Industrial Revolution was largely fueled by the textile trade, which almost singlehandedly upheld slavery. When the cotton gin mechanized processing in 1793, prices, already subsidized by slave labor, dropped dramatically. Cheap goods drove demand, and a vicious cycle ensued. In the period between the invention of the cotton gin and the Civil War, America’s slave population shot from 700,000 to a staggering 4 million.
After the Civil War, companies like Carhartt, Eloesser-Heynemann, and OshKosh slung cotton coveralls to miners, railroad men, and factory workers. A Bavarian immigrant named Levi Strauss set up shop in San Francisco selling fabric and work-wear. Jacob Davis, an entrepreneurial Reno tailor, bought Strauss’s denim to make workingman’s pants, and added metal rivets to prevent the seams from ripping open. Davis sent two samples of his riveted pants to Strauss, and they patented the innovation together. Soon after, Davis joined Strauss in San Francisco to oversee production in a new factory. In 1890, Strauss assigned the ID number of 501 to their riveted denim “waist overalls.” The Levi’s 501 blue jean—which would become the best-selling garment in human history—was born.
Initially, jeans were proletarian western work-wear, but wealthy easterners inevitably ventured out in search of rugged cowboy authenticity. In 1928, a Vogue writer returned East from a Wyoming dude ranch with a snapshot of herself, “impossibly attired in blue jeans… and a smile that couldn’t be found on all Manhattan Island.” In June 1935, the magazine ran an article titled “Dude Dressing,” possibly one of the first fashion pieces to instruct readers in the art of DIY denim distressing: “What she does is to hurry down to the ranch store and ask for a pair of blue jeans, which she secretly floats the ensuing night in a bathtub of water—the oftener a pair of jeans is laundered, the higher its value, especially if it shrinks to the ‘high-water’ mark. Another innovation—and a most recent one, if I may judge—also goes on in the dead of night, and undoubtedly behind locked doors—an intentional rip here and there in the back of the jeans.”
Around this time, jeans were a nostalgic souvenir from an increasingly closed and diminished western frontier. By the 1930s, the buffalo was all but extinct, the vast majority of Native Americans had been put on reservations, and western farmers had divided up and fenced off the once vast, wide-open land. Levi’s were unavailable east of the Mississippi, making them the quintessential California brand. To the rest of the country, it barely mattered whether the real cowboys wore blue jeans, when movie stars like John Wayne, Will Rogers, Gene Autry, and William S. Hart did.
Workers on the Alexander plantation in Arkansas picking cotton in 1935. Photo courtesy of Ben Shahn/Library of Congress
In the South, as sharecropping was just dying out, jeans carried a different set of connotations. A 1941 fashion spread in Life magazine titled “Doris Lee Offers the Southern Negro” featured a series of the artist’s Maira Kalman-esque sketches of African-American women in midriff-baring halter tops, turbans, and colorful skirts, juxtaposed against photographs of white women in similar outfits. The text read: “[The artist] reports that these ‘low-country’ Negroes, more primitive than elsewhere, have a flair for color, a ‘proportion oddity,’ great resourcefulness and ingenuity especially in their adaptations of castoffs.” One pair of images included “faded coveralls… readily adapted into clam-digger-style blue jeans.” The spread suggests that, like the blues, American blue-jean styles were adapted—or stolen—from African Americans. It’s little wonder that jeans didn’t catch on in black fashion for decades. Southern blacks had no use for clothing that harked back to a brutal history of violence, oppression, and exploitation.
During World War II, off-duty American servicemen wore their jeans while overseas, exporting their appeal like Western-style democracy. From there, blue jeans’ allure continued to increase internationally. For instance, East German authorities noted the prevalence of “cowboy pants” at a workers’ revolt in 1953. Jeans represented a similar kind of rebellion in the postwar US. But brands weren’t ready to associate their products with antiauthoritarian delinquents like the 501-clad Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Instead, they viewed this semiotic shift as a disturbing departure from the clean-cut movie-poster cowboys of the past. The Wild One was, after all, based on a real motorcycle riot in California. Newspapers made sure to mention when criminals wore blue jeans, and high schools banned them. Rather than exploiting the bad-boy image and embracing what could have been an easily executed marketing campaign, denim manufacturers tried to whitewash it with slogans like “Clean Jeans for Teens” and “Jeans: Right for School.” They even formed an organization called the Denim Council to hold wholesome “blue jean queen” beauty contests and outfit JFK’s first Peace Corps volunteers. But it was all for naught.
By the late 60s, actors like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Dennis Hopper smoldered onscreen in movies like Cool Hand Luke and Easy Rider, while the counterculture assimilated into the mainstream, and teenagers became a market that wielded serious buying power. “That mass consumerism, with all the standardization it implied, could somehow be reconciled with rampant individualism was one of the smartest tricks ever pulled by Western civilization,” wrote historian Niall Ferguson in 2011’s Civilization: The West and the Rest.
Ferguson’s point was observable on an international scale, as a Cold War-era sociological conundrum: As cheap, widely available proletarian clothing, jeans were the ultimate paradoxical symbol of consumer culture for the USSR. He summed it up nicely: “Perhaps the greatest mystery of the entire Cold War is why the Worker’s Paradise could not manage to produce a decent pair of jeans.”
When bikers and beatniks embraced jeans, denim companies tried to whitewash their image by showing clean-cut youth donning blue jeans. Photo courtesy of Levi Strauss & Co.
Life observed the results of this back in 1972. “Fashion-sensitive Russians might be forgiven for viewing blue jeans as an international capitalist conspiracy,” the magazine reported. A pair of contraband Levi’s could fetch $90 on Russia’s black market, and American travelers financed European holidays by selling extra pairs. Soviet officials even coined the term “jeans crimes” to describe “law violations prompted by a desire to use any means to obtain articles made of denim.”
By the 70s, jeans began to enter the realm of high fashion. And the fit had to be perfect. American designers like Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Geoffrey Beene, and Calvin Klein transformed jeans into a status commodity and promptly cashed in on their handiwork. Klein in particular understood the sexual potential of a tight butt in an even tighter pair of jeans. After his first denim attempt failed commercially in 1976, he adjusted the fit: raising the crotch for emphasis on the package beneath and pulling up the back seam to accentuate the buns. Three years later, Klein had cornered 20 percent of the designer market.
A 1980 Calvin Klein print and TV ad campaign infamously featured a 15-year-old Brooke Shields (“You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?”). Klein quickly turned $25 million into $180 million. This was before stretch denim flooded the market, so these jeans were not only unusually high-waisted and skintight, they were also thick and unforgiving: so tight and rigid that women had to lie on their backs and use pliers to pull up their zippers. As distracting and perhaps painful as they must have been to wear, it was also the final realization that jeans could be more than just clothing.
If a sexy fit defined the 70s and early 80s, the next phase in denim culture was all about the finish, achieved with an array of tools like stones, bleach and acid washes, scissors, and safety pins. The look may have started in the street, but soon enough, designers like Vivienne Westwood and Dolce & Gabbana sent punk-inspired denim down their runways. In 1988, Vogue’s new editor in chief, Anna Wintour, put a model in stonewashed Guess jeans on her first cover.
By the mid-90s, denim’s ass was outright owned by high fashion. Tom Ford embroidered, beaded, and feathered jeans for Gucci. Torn and slightly oversize, they hung from models’ hips and sold for more than $3,000. “Before they were even in stores, the first shipment sold out through advance order,” the New York Times reported. “Winona Ryder, Mariah Carey, and Helen Hunt ordered the skirt; Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett, the jeans. The singers Lil’ Kim, Janet Jackson, and Madonna ordered both.”
For all of its potential guido pitfalls, Diesel was the first brand to successfully bring Italian-designed, artfully distressed designer denim to suburban consumers. The brand paved the way for flared legs and whiskers (those faded crease marks that fan out from the fly) with $100 price tags. Seven for All Mankind, Habitual, Citizens of Humanity, Paper Denim & Cloth, True Religion, Chip & Pepper, Earl, Yanük, Frankie B., and too many more to name here followed suit with stretch yarns woven in, to better allow for low-slung, thong-exposing waistlines.
Calvin Klein may have sexualized blue-jeans advertising with Brooke Shields in the early 80s, but Gucci was no slouch either. Photo courtesy of Advertising Archives
And now, in the midst of the Great Recession, we have come full circle, with the fairly recent demand for nostalgic “heritage” jeans that recall the hardscrabble industrialism of the Great Depression: work shirts and overalls faded to shades of cornflower blue, and rough-hewn, no-nonsense, deep-dyed dungarees. Like their precursors from the 20s and 30s, these jeans seem imbued with a sad nostalgia for a bygone country (but maybe this time with a better fit). We’ve entered the Dorothea Lange era of fashion—clothed in flecked wool cardigans, formidable flannel shirts, and sturdy work boots, Depression-era from head to toe.
The look is cataloged in magazines like Free & Easy from Japan, which is where much of the aforementioned heritage denim originates. In the 70s and 80s, efficient American mills perfected cheap, voluminous product. The Japanese went the opposite direction, working with premium designers, employing old-fashioned shuttle looms and less consistent yarns. The resulting fabrics have the kind of selvage (the unfrayed woven finish along the material’s narrow edge) fetishized by denim snobs everywhere. They wear out with much more character than the fuzzy, overwashed denims of recent decades. A new breed of bloggers are obsessively documenting their jeans’ disintegration, extensively cataloging brands, ages, washes, and wears. The phenomenon is similar to the recent barrel-aged cocktail trend, observable at any number of artisanal “speakeasies” across the country.
The vast majority of Americans cannot afford bespoke, ring-spun, resin-coated dream jeans, however seductive and special. Most buy their jeans at places like Walmart, where a two-pack of house-brand Faded Glory jeans can be had for around $22. Adjusted for inflation, that’s the same price the Vogue writer paid for one pair of jeans in 1928. Of course, these cheap jeans come with the hidden cost of US jobs. Cotton Incorporated reports that only about 1 percent of jeans available in the US were manufactured domestically. By 2009, most American denim factories had been closed, with manufacturing moving to plants in China, Mexico, and Bangladesh.
Perhaps a nation of unemployed Americans in $11 jeggings is our dystopian eyesore of a future. Glenn Beck, of all people, addressed the issue last year by launching his own line of American-made jeans ($129.99 a pop) with a jingoistic PR campaign after he was upset by Levi’s ads he felt glorified “revolutions and progressivism.” Beck is by no means the first Levi’s customer to conflate his own values with his blue jeans’ branding, but no matter how nostalgically we clutch our denim, it’s no longer just about us.
The US market for blue jeans has been left in the dust; Latin America and Asia drive the future of denim. That said, there is a small, healthy designer-denim production chain alive in Los Angeles, and one of Levi’s early suppliers, Cone Denim, still weaves fabric in North Carolina, where small-scale manufacturers like Raleigh Denim market their product. Maybe one of these operations will be able to grow to an economy of scale and make “Made in America” accessible to its masses once again. Or it’s possible that blue jeans will just live on as America’s greatest contribution to the global closet. Until then, they’re still here. Faded, whiskered, and stretched. But still here.
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