We all have a denim “go-to” piece in our wardrobe. Like a faithful friend, it’s our fail-safe mainstay, dressed up or down, we have our favorite denim jeans, shirt, or jacket. Denim has been used or re-worked in pants, dungarees, bottoms, tops, skirts, outerwear, purses, aprons, kimonos, and even on occasion the upholstery of cars. But where did this venerable and hard-wearing fabric come from?
Although denim jeans were first popularized by the youth counter-cultures and infamous rebels of the 1950s and 60s (think Marlon Brando in The Wild One and James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause), denim started with an entirely different look and purpose, which dates to more than a hundred years earlier. What was denim used for?
Workwear and to cover goods at sea. First produced in France in the 17th century, in particular the city of Nimes, denim (a heavy twill-weave cotton fabric), a type of serge fabric was originally developed to be used for workman’s clothing, military uniforms, and to cover goods used by seaman due to its durability and low cost to produce. The name denim is derived from “serge de Nimes” (serge from Nimes) where the fabric was manufactured. The modern use of the name “jeans” may have come from “Genes,” the French name for the Italian city Genoa, where a similar fabric was produced. The denim fabric and denim-type fabrics started out as a staple clothing for the poorer classes in Italy and France.
Denim has been in use in North America since the mid-19th century as workwear. The original denim outfits covered the entire body and had sleeves, much like a pantsuit or today’s “onesie;” a completely different look from today. The coverall even had a small pocket inset, today called the 5th pocket, or “5-pocket.” In 1873, Jacob Davis, a tailor in Reno, Nevada, had the idea to use copper rivets to reinforce points of strain on the lower half of the coveralls, such as on the pockets and the base of the fly. While the newly “reinforced riveted” denim coveralls were extremely popular with his customers, (over 200 pairs sold), Davis didn’t have the money to file a patent and was struggling to keep up with demand. Instead, he approached the dry goods wholesaler from whom he had been purchasing the denim fabric with a proposal “to patent the design of the rivet-reinforced denim coverall, with Davis listed as inventor, in exchange for certain manufacturing rights.” The wholesaler was Levi Strauss & Co. based San Francisco, California.
Strauss, a mercantile businessman and recent immigrant from Bavaria, immediately recognized the potential of the denim rivet-reinforced coveralls (“onesie”), and hired Davis to oversee mass production in San Francisco, CA. It was 17 years later, in 1890, when the company pioneered a new look. They cut its popular coverall “onesie” in half, removed the shirt, and created its first pair of “bottom only” or “pants only” 501 jeans. They were officially called “waist overalls” back then, because they started at the waist. The waist overalls (pant style, bottom only) denim jean remains the signature of the company to this day.
Style & Design Evolution
The new half-onesie or “waist coveralls” (called jeans today) evolved in design over time.
1890s – Original waist coveralls sells for $1.29 (the denim Levi pant) for men, named the “501,” a second rear pocket is added
1920s – Zippers first appear in denim jeans (“waist coveralls”) in other brands
1922 - Belt loops are added to Levi’s brand jeans
1930s – The “Dude Ranch” craze is abound in the USA. East coast vacationers return home from the West coast with sought after denim samples and jeans piled in their luggage. Jeans are not sold on the East coast.
1937 – Levi jeans are designed for women and hit the market successfully
1939-1945 – Full circle: During World War II, denim was considered so important that overalls and pants were reserved for factory workers and military uniforms only, thus denim reverts back to its original use for workwear and military wear. Metal is rationed and rivets are temporarily removed from the design.
1954 – Levi’s adds a zipper fly close, and this marks the first time 501s were officially sold in the East coast USA.
2016 – A pair of denim jeans can be purchased for $5 (on sale), or $1.3 million (diamond studded)
2016 – One original pair of highly coveted 1920s Levi jeans “waist coveralls” sell for US$60,000.
Inspired: HEY – HO! Let’s Go!
An explosion of jean popularity resurfaced between the 1950s and the 1980s with a succession of sub-cultures when worn by Greasers, and then Hippies. The frenzy heightened and sales ignited when jeans were worn and styled on music-driven Mods and Punk Rockers, including spirited and iconic punk bands such as The Ramones. Jeans and denim today are not only the ever-present “go-to” staple of clothing for everyone, but have become a forefront of style and inspiration, catapulting infinite trends.
Today, jeans are manufactured in numerous countries, distributed and sold world-wide direct to consumers, in boutiques, flea markets, vintage stores, and online. They come in an assortment of styles, colors, sizes, and trends.
So, the next time you reach for a favorite pair of jeans or skinnies, or throw on your favorite denim piece, remember the original “onesie,” and the denim-jean evolution. You’re wearing nearly 400 years of history.
Images from levi.com, inspirationla.com, the Smithsonian Image Gallery, and Pinterest