Origins: Genoa, Italy & Nimes, France
The origins of modern denim fabric can be traced back to Genoa, Italy and Nimes, France. A sturdy cotton indigo-dyed fabric called bleu de Gênes (blue from Genoa) was produced in Genoa, Italy. When weavers in Nimes, attempted to replicate the cloth from Genoa, they produced a serge fabric (heavier, twill woven fabric) called serge de Nîmes (serge from Nimes). Bleu de Gênes is the origin of ‘blue jeans’ and serge de Nîmes is the origin of the word ‘denim’. By the 17th century, the fabric was vital to the working class in northern Italy. Early cargo lists indicated that these low-cost, durable fabrics were shipped beyond the local regions to northern Europe.
Levi Strauss & Co
On May 20, 1873, Nevada tailor Jacob Davis and San Francisco dry goods merchant Levi Strauss were granted a US patent for copper rivet reinforced work pants leading to the first modern blue jeans. Early on, the sturdy trousers, called “waist overalls”, proved very popular with factory workers, ranchers, miners and farmers.
Jeans remained popular in the west and competitors who produced denim trousers and overalls for cowboys and laborers soon followed. Among the early 20th century manufacturers were the HD Lee Mercantile Company and the Great Western Garment Company (a Canadian company, which was fully acquired by Levi’s in1972).
The 1930’s and 40’s saw the spread of blue jeans beyond the West and beyond just utility as just a work pant, thus crossing classed divisions. Jeans were a hard-wearing, easy-to-clean play-wear pant for for children and also men and women adopted blue jeans as casual wear.
Visitors from across the country and from Europe would vacation at ‘dude ranches’ and this help spread the popularity of blue jeans. Eastern stores would stock blue jeans for the vacationers to take West. Western movies and novels also helped popularize the rugged trousers. A June 1935 issue of Vogue magazine featured blue jeans in there pages hinting at the future when denim would be considered part of fashion.
Just as western movies brought jeans to more of the public in the 1930’s and 40’s, music and film added another cultural dimension to blue jeans in the 1950’s. This time movie icons such as James Dean, Marlon Brando, Elvis. Marilyn Monroe added an edgy, rebellious and sexy allure to jeans which particularly appealed to the teenage/youth culture. Pivotal movies that helped these icons further transform how denim is worn include Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits (1961).
Counter-Culture & Mainstream
The 1960’s and 70’s saw the next generation of youth culture and blue jeans. The look of blue jeans was diversified to include bell bottom styles and paints, prints patches and embroidery. Influencers include popular music and the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s. For example, Sonny and Cher helped popularize bell-bottoms in the 1970’s. But it wasn’t just ranchers, manual laborers, vacationing dude-ranchers, rebellious youth and the counter-culture that wore denim, Jeans, in one form or another, were now casual wear for the masses.
Luxury Brand Jeans
By the 1980’s, blue jeans had become a commonly worn garment. So it seems inevitable that the next step in the evolution of the blue jean was the adaptation of this once work pant as a high fashion piece. The luxury jean came into full fruition in the 1980’s. Designers that offered these high-end jeans included Calvin Klein, Versace and Gucci.
Popular culture and counter-culture still held sway over blue jean trends. The punk music subculture inspired skinny jeans and the mottled snow wash look on denim.
Pop Music Icons
The firmly established dominance of youth subculture and the continued influence of popular music shaped blue jean trends in the 1990’s and 2000’s.
Grunge and hip-hop music heavily influenced jean styles.Distressed denim, overalls, baggy jeans and denim-on-denim are signature looks from this era. Pop stars such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera sorted ultra low-rise jeans in the early 2000’s, at the tale-end of the 90’s era.
The 2000’s saw the crest of a reiteration of blue jeans as high-end apparel. While the 1980’s heralded the rise of the luxury brand jean from fashion labels such as Calvin Klein and Gucci which offer a full range of apparel, the new premium blue jeans were from denim-only brands such as True Religion, 7 For All Mankind, Citizens of Humanity and Diesel.
Sustainable fashion came to the fore in the early 1990’s and by the 2000’s had become a practice used by many labels including makers of blue jeans. The skinny jean re-surged aided by new technology in stretch denim fabrics.