Denim - Iconic Fashion for the Eternally Young

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Ever wondered where the world's most popular piece of clothing originated?  Well, come with us into the history of the fashion culture classic...

Denim is far more than a simple cotton fabric; it inspires long and varied opinions from historians to movie stars.  In 1969 a writer on American fabrics magazine declared,

"Denim is one of the world's oldest fabrics, yet it remains eternally young".


Roots in Europe

There are a few schools of thought on the origins of jeans, but by far the most popular is that prior the 17th century in a town in France called Nimes, a fabric made of silk and wool called serge de Nimes was exported to England.  It is believed that at some point in the 17th century the fabric's full name was shortened to 'Denim'.

At roughly the same time, another fabric made of a cotton, linen and / or wool blend called 'jean' was being produced in Genoa, Italy, which was also imported into England.  Jean was used to make 'all purpose' trousers for the sailors in the Genoese navy.  They could be worn wet or dry and the legs could easily be rolled up to wear whilst swapping the deck.  These trousers made of jean would be laundered by dragging them in large mesh nets behind the ship, and the seawater would bleach them white.

Both these fabrics proved to be most popular and though the two fabrics were very similar in some ways, they did have one major difference: denim was made of one coloured thread and one white thread; and jean was woven of two threads of the same colour.

Over the Pond

In the late 18th century American textile mills started to produce their own denim fabric on a small-scale, mostly as a means of becoming independent from foreign producers (mainly the English). From the start cotton fabrics were an integral part of the American mills' production line.

Research shows that jean and denim were two very different fabrics in 19th-century America.  They also differed in how they were used.  Fine trousers the average working man were produced in jean where as overalls and trousers make the mechanics, painters and other manual labourers were made in denim.

The First Blue Jeans

in 1962, the magazine American Fabrics ran article that stated,

"If we were to use a human term to describe a textile we might say that denim is an honest fabric - substantial, forthright and unpretentious".

So how did this unpretentious fabric become the stuff of legends that it is today? How did trousers made out of denim come to be called jeans, when they are not made out of the fabric called jean?

For this we can only thank Levi Strauss.  Born 'Loeb' Strauss in Bavaria in 1829, he sailed to New York from Germany in 1847 with his mother and two sisters.  In New York, the young Loeb's half-brothers ran a wholesale white goods business - selling bolts of cloth, linen, clothing, etc. Loeb worked his brothers from few years and by 1850 had changed his name to Levi.

In 1853, after of attaining his American citizenship, he undertook the hazardous journey to San Francisco to take advantage of the recent gold rush. His mission was to open the West Coast branch of his brothers wholesale dry good business, which he started as soon as he got off the boat.  Levi worked hard and, over the next two decades, acquired a reputation for quality products.

In 1872, he received a letter from Jacob Davis, a Reno-based, Nevada tailor. Davies had come up with a great idea to improve the strength of the trousers he made his customers.  He added metal rivets to areas that were subject to more wear and tear such as pocket corners and the fly. This had proven to be a big success and he wanted to patent the idea - but he didn't have the money needed to file papers.

Davies wrote to Levi, saying that if Levi would pay the application, the two men could make rivetted cloathing together and, as Davies put it in his letter, "make a very large amount of money". Levi knew a good business opportunity when he saw one, and in 1873 he and Davies received a Patent for an 'Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings'.

Levi brought Jacob Davis to San Francisco to oversee the first manufacture of their copper rivetted 'waist overalls', the original name for Levi's Jeans. The trousers were made from brown cotton duck (heavy cotton) and blue denim. Knowing that the rivetted trousers were going to be perfect for workwear, Levi and Davis chose to make them out of denim, rather than jean, as denim was a sturdier fabric and more appropriate for workwear.

Levi Strauss died in 1902, at the age of 73, leaving his thriving business to his four nephews and a surname destined become one of the most recognised brands in the world.

From Workwear to Catwalk

by the 1920s, Levi's waist overalls were the leading product in men's work trousers in the western states.  In the 1930s, Western movies captured the American imagination.  Authentic cowboys wearing Levi's jeans were elevated to a mythical status and Western clothing became synonymous with the life of independence, rugged individualism... and virility! Denim was now associated less often with labourers and more with the rugged American now symbolised by Hollywood's golden spaghetti western boys, e.g. John Wayne.

Levi Strauss & Co. Began selling its product nationally from the first time in the 1950s. Easterners and midwesterners finally got the chance to wear a real Levi's jeans. Up to the end of the 1950s, the famous copper rivetted pants were referred to as 'overalls'. When a customer went into a small clothing store and asked for a pair of overalls, and they were given a pair of Levi's jeans. 

It was small, inspired cultural steps, that led the virile on-screen presence of rugged John Wayne to be replaced with the 1950 sex sybmol of rebelious youth James Dean; all 'jeaned up' and ready to smoulder. At the end of World War II, Levi Strauss & Co's customer base had change dramatically, from working adult men to leisure-loving teenage boys and their older college-age brothers who called the product "jeans". By 1960, the company decided it was time to adopt the new name, since these new, young consumers had adopted the product and the updated Levi's jeans image was consolidated into the ideal recipe for an icon fashion brand.

From the 1960s onwards jeans became more than a make of trousers.  They became an established attitude about clothes and lifestyle.  This attitude could be seen very clearly in the 'decorated denim' craze of the 1970s, which included beaded, embroidered, painted and sequinned jeans.  A feminine fashion statement which is back in vogue, with a modern, sophisticated interpretation.

The Modern Jean

Nowadays you can't walk down the street without seeing a pair of jeans, if not several.  They have become the fashion item of choice, with the average American owning at least seven pairs.  Where once you could only buy Levi's jeans; now hundreds of designers have taken this classic piece of clothing and added to their own unique touches.

Many different types of jeans are now available, with thousands of funky and alternative designs.  Jeans have become wholly accepted in all aspects of life - from hard working maual labour to the sexiness and glamour of the red carpet...

Now if only you could find the perfect fitting jeans for you...

By Delfi
@ Pimp My Strides

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Copyright 2006 Pimp My Strides. All rights reserved. Designated trademarks and brands are the property of their respective owners.Links to this article are welcomed, but any part, or all, of this article may not be used for any other purpose, without written permission.

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