In our "A Buyer’s Guide to Denim" we tried to provide you with all the information you need to make an informed decision about your next pair of jeans. But, all that research and discussion has gotten us a bit nostalgic for the origins of modern day blue jeans. As usual, we were curious.
If you go anywhere in the world, chances are that you will be able to spot somebody wearing blue jeans. More likely, you’ll be surrounded by lots of people wearing jeans. Why? Let’s contextualize a little bit.
In the late 17th century, weavers in Nimes, France, accidentally made the first modern denim, a course, sturdy, cotton fabric, while trying to replicate the process of producing another popular heavy duty fabric called serge. Textiles made during this time were often named based on where they were first manufactured. So, they called the new material “serge de Nimes” meaning literally “serge from Nimes.” Legend has it, over time, as the fabric became more widely used, English and French merchants shortened the name to “denim.”
Meanwhile, Italian textile workers in Genoa had been producing a fabric made with indigo dyed wool and cotton. It was somewhat similar to denim fabric, and was favored among sailors and other members of the working class. They made all types of clothes from this durable cloth, from trousers, to overcoats, to long dresses, and they called all of these items “blue jeans.” The term “jean” is a shortened term for Genoa. So, technically speaking, jean and denim were two distinctive fabrics.
In mid-19th century America, jean fabric was used for trousers and overcoats and was solid colored, usually indigo, olive, or brown. Denim, on the other hand, was always spun from both white and indigo yarn, and was used exclusively for workwear for miners, mechanics, cowboys, and farmers that required the toughest materials.
AN AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY
In 1848, a man named Levi Strauss emigrated to the US from Bavaria and began working with his brothers selling wholesale dry goods in New York. He soon decided to head west to San Francisco, which was in the thick of the California gold rush. Once there he began selling sturdy work pants to the thousands of miners who were hoping to strike gold. They needed pants that could withstand weeks and months of daily wear, without shredding to rags. Denim fabric was thick. The stitching was heavy. It could protect you from scrapes and cuts. Strauss’ sturdy denim pants were a hit.
Even still, the real innovation happened later. After two decades of building a prosperous business, Strauss partnered with Jacob Davis, a tailor, to secure a patent for the construction of a denim workwear pant that was riveted around the pocket seams, the place where Strauss’ original pants, though sturdy, usually ripped. In 1873, the design patent was granted and modern American denim blue jean was born.
In all reality, the moniker blue jeans didn’t become specific to denim pants until much later, in 1950’s America. Previous to this, denim pants were usually called “waist overalls” or just plain old overalls, and were only worn by blue collar workers. Then, in the 1950’s, denim exploded in American culture.
The rise of Hollywood made sure that celebrities like James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Marilyn Monroe wore denim pants on the silver screen. Films like Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild Ones, and The Misfits quickly convinced most of the baby boomer generation that denim was what you wore if you were a badass. It was the vast teenage audience who decided they were wearing “jeans,” not “waist overalls.” From there, the beatniks and then the hippies continued wearing jeans, and rebelliousness became the dominant theme of youth culture all, fueling the counterculture.
Seriously, we’re not kidding. Even as late as the 1970’s jeans were seen as a protest against traditional authority and codes of behavior. Ironically though, what started as rebellion, became a popular, socially acceptable staple of the American wardrobe by the 1980’s. Basically, we wear jeans today because our parents and grandparents thought they were cool.
The point is, before they were cool, miners and cowboys and farmers were pretty much the only folks wearing jeans. This is why blue jeans, even though they technically originated in Europe, are also undeniably tied up in the mythology of the American west. The nostalgia for the frontier, for individuality, for self-determination, and for bucking the system.
THE RISE OF CONTEMPORARY DENIM CULTURE
During the recession of the 1970’s, American manufacturers began moving their operations overseas, a trend which continued through the 1980’s and 1990’s. Even today, with the “made in the USA” movement taking hold, a very small percentage of the clothes we wear are made here. (Some statistics say as little as 2%). And, because of the demand for jeans as an everyday staple, manufacturers changed the way jeans have been made. The jeans from large-scale manufacturers typically come pre-washed to be softer and more comfortable right away. They aren’t as sturdy as earlier jeans, because they aren’t typically made as workwear.
The resurgence of true denim in America began in the late 1990’s and 2000’s, with a few denim heads discovering that Japan—who has a passionate interest in post-WWII American culture—had been flourishing for decades. Japanese denim manufacturers catered to a niche audience of denim connoisseurs, making jeans out of raw and selvedge fabrics made on old shuttle looms to create inborn character imperfections into the material. Responding to the decline in quality of American denim, by the 1970’s and 80’s, Japanese brands like Evisu, Denime, Japan Blue, Samurai, Fullcount, Studio D’Artisan were pioneering and perfecting techniques that preserved the vintage American-inspired denim manufacturing process. Still to this day, die-hard denim lovers will tell you most of the best denim in the world is made in Japan. At Ellicott & Co., as much as we love our American made goods, we’d be mistaken to not tip our hats to the way these Japanese companies preserved the denim tradition while American manufacturers were sleeping at the wheel.
THE FUTURE IS TINTED INDIGO
But, over the last ten years, the Maker’s Movement in the US is inspiring a revival of American made denim. There are dozens of startups and companies working to rekindle quality denim in the states, and that is something we can get behind.If you didn’t catch our first post on this subject, check it out: A Buyer’s Guide to Denim