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The Remarkable History Of Denim (How It Became an Icon in Fashion)

by Boris Hodakel  • August 24, 2019 • 9 min read

history of denim old man

Denim is a fabric that is used in clothing all over the world such as jeans, jackets, and shirts. However, the history of denim is rich and varied and dates back further than you might realize. There are few materials that can claim to have traveled as far as denim has.

However, the actual history of denim is shrouded in mystery. Not many people know the true history of this fabric and how it came to be in the form that we know today. We’re going to be taking a look at the history of denim to try and understand how this fabric came from humble beginnings to a giant of the clothing industry that is estimated to produce $129.8 billion of retail sales by 2021.

Where Did Denim Come From?

denim fabric

Denim fabric has its origins in France. This nation, as you may know, is considered to be one of the fashion capitals of the world, so it’s no surprise that one of the most significant clothing trends of the past century came from there.

Initially, denim began life as a fabric known as "serge de Nimes." As keen-eyed readers will notice, ‘de Nimes’ bears a resemblance to denim, which is what this fabric would eventually come to be known as. It was created to be a long-lasting and robust fabric that was initially conceived in Italy. This material was known as ‘jean’ or ‘jeane,’ and it became the initial blueprint for Levi jeans.

Interestingly enough, the initial attempt to replicate this French fabric in Italy was a failure. However, it was in the process of trying to do so that textile manufacturers discovered denim. At the time, the only color available was blue, which is in part thanks to the organic indigo dye which was available at the time. This is why modern jeans are primarily available in shades of blue.

History of Jeans

levi strauss jeans

So, the fabric is in place. The stage is set. But it wouldn’t be for quite some time that the clothing we know as jeans would come into prominence. In 1853, a man named Levi Strauss found himself in San Francisco trying to start a branch of his family business. He sold a cotton fabric known as denim, which was picked up by a man called Jacob W. Davis.

Up until then, the idea of blue trousers that were made of denim wasn’t that big a deal. They’d been around since at least the 1800s as workwear for people doing harsh labor and intensive tasks. However, it was this new brand of denim trousers that would become popular, and it was all thanks to Mr. Davis.

Davis was a tailor, and he started using the fabric Levi sold to make things like wagon covers, tents, and blankets. However, one day he was asked to create something new: A pair of trousers explicitly designed for hard work.

Using Levi’s denim and copper rivets to reinforce key stress areas, Davis made the very first pair of jeans. Because the material was such an essential part of the final product, he went into business with Levi.

These two men went on to found one of the most important companies in the world that still produces denim jeans to sell to the public. It would be a while, however, before the denim pants made by Levi and Davis would be known as "jeans;" originally, they were called "waist overalls."

Denim as Workwear

Long before the dawn of blue jeans, denim pants were used as workwear in a variety of applications. During the 19th century Gold Rush in California, a greater and greater need arose for durable men's workwear to clothe gold miners while they were on the job.

At this time, denim didn't have the "rebel without a cause" connotation that it would take on a century later. Rather, this fabric was used exclusively for its durability, and it was used to make long-sleeved shirts as well as pants.

Since it's made from cotton, denim is natural and highly breathable, but the thick twill weave of this fabric makes it highly resistant to abrasions and tears. Denim is also easy to wash and patch, and its blue color makes it easily identifiable as workwear.

Jeans: A Modern Trend

modern denim jeans

So, the question in the minds of many is this: How did a rugged pair of work clothes end up becoming one of the most fashionable and everyday clothing items in the Western world?

Up until the Second World War, denim jeans still weren't highly popular. Jeans were seen for being what they were at that point: A work clothing option that was rugged and comfortable to wear. It was only when residents of eastern states started to travel to the American West for vacations that the concept of jeans caught on.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, it was fashionable to go to the western states for vacations to experience a whole new way of life: that of a working cowboy. For the people of the eastern states, who lived in suburbia, this life was intoxicating, and jeans were part of the package. So of course, they took them back home, and these types of pants got big.

Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marlon Brando: They all wore jeans during the early days of their popularity. Being worn by either a famous singer or a heartthrob "bad boy" type does wonders for a garment's reputation, so jeans found themselves catapulted to the top of stardom alongside the men who wore them. While it wouldn’t be common for women to wear jeans until the 1960s, the ’50s were a period of bad boy looks and devil-may-care attitudes, and jeans were the focal point of all of this.

However, it was soldiers in WW2 who spread the jean look outside of America. While stationed across Europe and in Japan, the men of the U.S. armed forces would wear jeans while off-duty. With whisperings of the rebellious look already stirring, it was easy to see how jeans would spread to British soldiers and the other Allied troops who served with them.

Top Denim Clothing Garments (And Why They're So Popular)

To this day, jeans remain the most popular types of denim garments. From skinny jeans to bell bottoms, there are tons of different styles of jeans to choose from, and these types of pants are equally popular among young people and old folks from the United States to Germany to India and beyond.

Jeans come in all sorts of different colors, but the most popular color for these types of pants remains indigo blue. Some blue jeans are quite dark, but others have been washed to create a faded look. Jeans are also offered in colors like maroon, black, and gray.

In addition to jeans, denim is also used to make a number of other garments. For instance, denim skirts and shorts are both popular, and some consumers even like to wear denim jackets.

Overalls made from denim have lost popularity in recent decades, but they are still sometimes worn in agricultural applications and as retro apparel. Lastly, it's also possible to find long, sleeveless dresses that are made entirely from denim.

Denim garments remain popular in part due to their durability. A high-quality pair of jeans can last for years or even decades, and these types of pants look better as they age, which adds to their appeal. Plus, denim has become associated with Americana and the developed world; while this fabric no longer evokes the "bad boy" mystique, denim still denotes the luxury of the modern industrial age of global trends and spreading international prosperity.

Denim in Contemporary Fashion

The uses of denim have changed a lot since the days that this fabric was used to clothe workers during the Gold Rush. Denim wearers of the day could never have envisioned the rise of skinny jeans, and they would have looked upon the trend of "distressed" jeans with holes in them with, well, distress.

These days, denim can be used to make practically any garment. This fabric's use in jeans has gone through many evolutions, and fashion designers around the world continue to devise new ways to make denim into pants. It's also relatively common to see denim used in avant-garde designer apparel that models flaunt down runways across the world.

Influence of Denim on the Fashion Industry

Denim's status as a counter-cultural fabric paved the way forward for many youth style trends that continue to shape the fashion industry. This fabric remains an iconic image of Western clothing, and the adoption of jeans by Western women has also caused these types of pants to serve as symbols of women's liberation.

Jeans transcend all age and economic classes. They are equally enjoyed by the rich and the poor as well as the old and the young. It's possible to buy a pair of denim jeans for less than $25, but designer forms of these pants can cost hundreds of dollars per pair. High-quality designer jeans are now seen as status indicators, and the high degree of customizability associated with these types of pants makes it possible to produce jeans that appeal to each consumer class.

Most Influential Denim Wearers

Elvis Presley was one of the first celebrities to popularize denim jeans. This rock and roll icon also frequently wore denim shirts and jackets, and movie star James Dean quickly followed suit and started wearing denim jeans as well.

Steve McQueen, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift also helped popularize denim jeans throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, and pop icons like Madonna and Michael Jackson kept the popularity of denim alive throughout the 1980s. During the 1990s, celebrity icons like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp continued to popularize denim, and many celebrities continue to wear this fabric to this day.

How Is Denim Manufactured?

Denim is made from cotton. While some types of jeans may be made from other materials, the only type of material that can be used to make true denim is all-natural cotton.

This plant-based substance is made from the fibers that grow on cotton seeds. These fibers are separated from cotton seeds, and they are then packed into bales. Once these bales arrive at a production facility, they are broken open, and the fibers are carded, which results in long strands of fiber.

Next, these strands are spun into yarn, and this yarn is loaded onto spools. Cotton may be dyed with the traditional indigo blue color of denim after it is spun, or denim manufacturers may wait to take this step until the fabric is woven.

Denim is a twill fabric, which means it is woven with multiple weft passes for each warp pass. This process creates the diagonal weave that is part of the iconic appearance of denim jeans from Calvin Klein, Lee, or Wrangler.

After it is dyed and woven, denim is in a form called "raw denim." In some cases, raw denim may be sold as-is, but this fabric is usually subjected to a process called stone washing to make it easier to wear. After the fabric is washed, it is cut and sewn into jeans.

The Modern Jean

And so, Levi jeans took on the form we know today all because of that original failed attempt to replicate a fabric and the luck of Levi Strauss & Co. These days, you’ll see jeans in most places you go. They are symbols of comfort, and they also have the potential to be somewhat professional in the right situation. In addition, they are symbols of flexibility as they appeal to all walks of life. That’s part of their popularity, and it contributed to the explosion in popularity of jeans during the 1950s.

All in all, denim has had a vibrant and exciting history. What began life as a failed fabric grew into a firmly established part of modern fashion. The durability of denim coupled with all the colors it can be dyed means that there are styles and choices for almost everyone. The history of jeans is one that has left its mark on the world: We all have a pair of jeans or two in our wardrobes. However, you can’t help but notice the rich and varied path that denim has taken to get to where it is now; it’s pretty incredible when you think about it.

If you’re looking to add denim to your next collection, check out this article: Working With Jeans Manufacturers To Create Your New Denim Collection

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.