History Matters: Forever in Blue Jeans

History Matters: Forever in Blue Jeans

Your Levi's have a history of their own.

If your working-class ancestors wore blue jeans, chances are they lived in the western United States—Levi’s, the best-known brand, didn’t expand east of the Mississippi until the 1950s. And even so, only relatively recent relatives could’ve worn these iconic American pants, as Levi Strauss made its first rivet-pocketed denim jeans in 1873. The company waited to incorporate until the same year it introduced the 501 label, 1890—125 years ago.
 
If the now-omnipresent jeans—a term Levi’s didn’t adopt for what it previously called overalls until 1960—are historically recent, the fabric from which they’re made dates back centuries. As a writer for American Fabrics magazine romantically put it, “Denim is one of the world’s oldest fabrics, yet it remains eternally young.” Most sources trace the term denim to the French serge de Nimes, a fabric from the city of Nimes made as early as the 16th century. Confusingly, however, that fabric was made of silk and wool, not the quintessential cotton of modern denim.
 
And jean originally referred to a competing fabric, a cotton, linen and/or wool blend (called a “fustian”) made in Genoa, Italy, and imported to England in the 1500s. From Genoa came jean. A series of paintings in the 17th century depict working-class people wearing Genoese jean.
 
By the 18th century, both fabrics came to be made of cotton, with the denim name perhaps simply appropriated for a different material. Jean was woven from two threads of the same color, however, while denim combined one colored and one white thread.
 
In America, a Massachusetts factory was weaving both jean and denim by 1789, when George Washington toured the mill. Jean, dyed blue with indigo, was used for tailored clothing, while working men’s clothes were fashioned from more durable denim.
 
The man who made “jeans” from denim was of course Loeb Strauss, who changed his name to Levi after emigrating from Bavaria in 1848 at age 19, along with his mother and two sisters. The family reunited with his half-brothers in New York City, where they ran a wholesale dry-goods business.
 
The California Gold Rush soon beckoned. In 1853, the year he became a US citizen, Levi Strauss headed west—not to search for gold, but to sell clothes to miners. The story that he promptly saw the miners’ need for sturdy pants, dyed some brown canvas and invented blue jeans is likely apocryphal.
 
By 1873, however, Strauss had a thriving dry-goods business in San Francisco and was able to take advantage of a proposition from a tailor in Reno, Nevada, named Jacob Davis. The pockets of work pants tended to tear out, a problem Davis had solved with copper rivets. But Davis needed $68 to patent his invention and a partner to manufacture his “waist overalls.”
 
Regional competitors also made overalls. In New York, the Sweet-Orr company was founded in 1871 and may actually have predated Levi’s in commercial production. After Levi’s rivet patent expired in 1908, the business grew crowded. Wisconsin had Osh Kosh B’Gosh, Michigan had Carhartt and North Carolina produced Wrangler (originally the Hudson Overall Co.). In Kansas, H.D. Lee Mercantile Co. began making workwear in 1911, eventually leading to Lee Dungarees. (The term dungaree also has foreign origins, a corruption of a dockside village in India, Dongri, known for a coarse cotton cloth often dyed blue.)
 

Levi Strauss died in 1902, bequeathing the company and most of his $6 million estate to four nephews surnamed Stern. He missed the first of several trends that would elevate his pants to cultural icons: In 1915, silent film star William S. Hart became the highest-grossing actor in America by playing jeans-clad cowboys. By 1939, when John Wayne wore jeans in the classic Stagecoach, the identification of jeans with the all-American cowboy was complete.

During World War II, off-duty soldiers and sailors brought blue jeans around the globe, where the pants came to epitomize the confident and casual American style. “Throughout the industrialized world, denim has become a symbol of the young, active, informal, American way of life,” one observer wrote.
 
After the war, that look got a bad-boy boost from jeans-wearing motorcyclist Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Marilyn Monroe also got into the act, showing off jeans-clad curves in River of No Return (1954). A New York Times critic commented, “It is a toss-up whether the scenery or the adornment of Marilyn Monroe is the feature of greater attraction.”
 
The association of jeans with what newspapers called “motorcycle boys” got the pants banned in many schools. A 1957 Levi’s ad depicting a clean-cut boy wearing jeans with the headline “Right For School” drew furious rebukes for “bad taste.”
 

Product improvements added to jeans’ allure, too. The zipper had been used for clothing as early as 1925 and had already been adopted by other jeans makers. But Levi’s didn’t offer it as an option until 1954, in response to

complaints from new customers out east who didn’t like the traditional button fly. Women’s jeans initially featured the zipper down the side.
 
In 1965, a boutique in New York’s East Village called Limbo introduced the idea of prewashing new jeans to give them a used look. (The stone-washing technique came some 20 years later from the Great Western Garment Co.) Limbo also hired artists to embellish jeans with patches and decals, boosting price tags to an unheard-of $200 and foreshadowing both the adoption of jeans by the “counterculture” and the development of pricey designer jeans.
 
Heiress Gloria Vanderbilt introduced her denim jeans in 1976, leading comedian Gilda Radner to crack, “She’s taken her good family name and put it on the asses of America.” Five years later, 15-year-old supermodel Brooke Shields shimmied into Calvin Klein jeans and teased, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”
 
Jeans had come a long way from the humble workingman’s wear created by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis.
 
Timeline:
1853 | Levi Strauss moves to San Francisco to sell clothes to gold miners
1873 | Strauss and Jacob Davis patent an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket Openings”
1890 | Levi’s renames its original “XX” waist overalls to “501”
1920 | Lee introduces the Buddy Lee doll in advertisements
1943 | Blue Bell acquires the Casey Jones Work-Clothes Co. and the rights to the Wrangler brand
1953 | Marlon Brando wears jeans in the film The Wild One
1967 | Paul Newman portrays jeans-clad Cool Hand Luke
1976 | Gloria Vanderbilt introduces “designer” jeans
 
 From the September 2015 Family Tree Magazine

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