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

by Boris Hodakel  • February 16, 2019 • 4 min read

history of denim old man

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

However, the actual history of denim is one which is shrouded in mystery. Not many people know about it, 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 origins in France. France, 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 this the past century came from there.

Initially, it 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 it would eventually come to be known as. It was created to be a long-lasting and robust fabric which was initially conceived in Italy. This material was known as ‘jean’ or ‘jeane’, and became the initial blueprint for Levi Jeans.

Interestingly enough, the initial attempt to replicate the fabric in Italy was a failure. However, it was in the process of trying to do so that they discovered denim. At the time, the only colour 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.

The 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 called 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.

Now 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 labour and laborious tasks. However, it was this new brand of denim trousers which would become popular, and it was all thanks to Davis.

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

Using Levi’s denim, and copper rivets to reinforce key stress areas, David made the very first pair of jeans. Because the material was such an essential part of the whole thing, he went into business with Levi. They went on to found one of the most important companies in the world, producing denim jeans to sell to the public.

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 make it to one of the most fashionable and everyday clothing items in the western world?

Well up until the Second World War, they didn’t. Jeans were seen for being what they were at that point - a choice of work clothing which was rugged and comfortable to wear. It was only when residents of Eastern states started to travel to the West for a holiday that the jeans caught on.

You see, in the 1940s and early 1950s, it was fashionable to go to the West and experience a whole new way of life - that of a working cowboy. For 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 they got big.

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

However, it was soldiers in WW2 that spread the jean look out of America. While stationed across Europe and Japan, the men 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.

The modern jean

And so, Levi jeans became what we know today, all because of that failed attempt to replicate a fabric and the luck of Levi Strauss. Now you’ll see jeans in most places you go. They are symbols of comfort and also have the potential to be somewhat professional in the right situation. They are also a symbol of flexibility, as they appeal to all walks of life. That’s part of their popularity - as well as an explosion in popularity 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 colours it can be dyed, means that there are a style and choice for almost anyone. The history of jeans is one which 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 our 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.