Let’s admit it: denim is a staple in most of our wardrobes. You may think that this makes you an expert on denim, but there’s still a lot to learn about this versatile fabric.
The origin of denim can be traced back to the 1700s to two locations: Genoa, Italy, and Nimes, France. In Genoa, Italian sailors wore durable cotton trousers that were called gênes (translated as jeans) by the French. In trying to replicate the fabric, French weavers produced a twill-woven cotton that was heavier and absorbed moisture quickly. The fabric became known as serge de nîmes, meaning ‘from Nimes’. For many years, the fabric would be associated with workers.
In the 1850s, German-born Levi Strauss immigrated to the United States to join his brother in selling dry goods. After hearing about the Californian gold rush, he set up a sector of the business in California and met a tailor named Jacob Davis. In the 1860s, Strauss and Davis developed sturdy pants for miners using denim fabric that was dyed with indigo because it was cheap and long lasting. Inspired by the gênes, the original design, Design 501, had flared bottoms. Strauss’ blue jeans were an instant success and it was not long before many companies wanted to enter into this market, hence the development of multiple jean brands.
Between 1890-1930, jeans remained most popular among male workers. However, in 1930, Vogue magazine created an advertisement of two women in tight jeans, resulting in department stores supplying Levi jeans in the women’s section. In the late 1940s, jeans became the clothing choice for America’s working women. In addition, during and after World War II, blue jeans gained a global audience, as American soldiers would wear them off-duty in Japan and Europe.
By the 1950s, denim was considered highly fashionable. It gained rebellious associations among youth because of iconic figures like James Dean and Marlon Brando who wore blue jeans in movies. Jeans were also connected with ‘bad boys’ like Danny Zuko and the Thunderbirds of Grease, who sported jeans with leather jackets, Converse shoes, and aviator sunglasses. Double denim, or wearing blue jeans with a denim jacket, became especially popular because of Elvis Presley.
In the 1960s, wearing jeans at American public demonstrations and protests symbolised identification and connection. Oftentimes, jeans were decorated with patches, paint, or group symbols. Although jeans were still reminiscent of the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll style and rebellious spirit, the ’60s saw hippies adopting flared jeans, adding colorful embroidery to create a chilled-out, non-conforming attitude. In England, double denim also became more popular; the most iconic example of double denim featured Ringo Starr of The Beatles on the cover of the Abbey Road album.
The style of the 1960s bled into the ’70s, with bell bottomed and high-waisted jeans still the most popular fad. The jeans were often paired with platform shoes, a look often associated with disco singers. Designer jeans, like Calvin Klein, also became popular, appearing in high-end shops.
In the 1980s, designer jeans continued to be marketed, with the entrance of jeans by designers like Gloria Vanderbilt, Ralph Lauren, and Jean-Paul Gaultier. When jean manufacturers observed that young people were putting holes in their jeans, they created distressed and torn jeans only to find that people preferred to make their own rather than buy them. George Michael and Guns N’ Roses were some of the iconic figures that favored the distressed jeans style.
In the 1990s, denim was at its least popular, but new denim trends still managed to enter the fashion realm. Low-rise jeans were among the new fads; these jeans still had a tight fit but weren’t as high-waisted as the pants of the ’60s and ’70s. Toward the end of the 1990s, baggy jeans, denim jackets, and overalls were still trendy looks.
The 2000s was the time of blue jean short shorts, mini skirts, and denim tops. Stars like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake made the double denim trend widely popular for younger generations. Denim hats and matching denim blazers were also the new craze.
From 2010 to today, almost all fits and styles of denim are present and available. Fitted denim shirts and boyfriend jeans, which are loose fitting but still considered chic, are most popular. In the last few years, there has also been the resurgence of denim skirts and denim paired with dark pants or leather jackets. Today, jeans can also be dressed up or dressed down with a number of accessories.
After acknowledging the history and evolution of denim, it’s easy to see it as the timeless artifact of the fashion world. Denim is never out of style, and trends from the past are constantly being recycled and refreshed for modern day.
It may come in faded forms, but denim is forever enduring.