From Cowboys to Catwalks
Most of us have at least one pair of jeans in the closet that makes the ranks of our top 5 wardrobe essential pieces. Many also consider jeans to be essential for any occasion or combination. What is it about jeans that makes them so cool and desirable to wear?
Jeans were invented by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss, of course, in 1873. According to historyofjeans.com, jeans are named after the city of Genoa in Italy, a place where cotton corduroy, called either jean or jeane, was manufactured.
Levi Strauss was born on February 26, 1829 in Buttenheim, Germany. He came from Germany to New York in 1851 to join his older brother who had a dry goods store. In 1853 he heard about the Gold Rush in the West. For those wondering what the Gold Rush was, it began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. The news of gold brought more than 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad. Levi Strauss also moved to San Francisco to establish a western branch of the family business. One of his customers was Jacob W. Davis, a tailor from Reno, Nevada. Davis made functional items such as tents, horse blankets and wagon covers.
One day, a Davis’ customer ordered a pair of sturdy pants that could withstand hard work. He made them from denim. The name “denim” derives from French serge de Nîmes, meaning ‘serge from Nîmes’. Denim was traditionally colored blue with indigo dye to make blue jeans, although “jean” formerly denoted a different, lighter, cotton fabric. Denim was bought from Levi Strauss & Co. When Jacob Davis wanted to patent them, he wrote to Levi Strauss and they became partners. They opened a larger factory and that is how jeans were born.
Jeans in the modern times
Before World War II, jeans were only worn in America’s western states. In the east, they were synonymous with romantic notions of the cowboy – rugged, independent and American but at the same time rural and working class.
When they did start to be worn as casual wear, it was a startling symbol of rebellion – the spirit captured by Marlon Brando in his 1953 film The Wild One and by James Dean two years later in Rebel Without a Cause.
Nowadays, they have become so mainstream that they are now a symbol of the ordinary, a garment people put on to feel comfortable and fit in. But while different people wear jeans in different ways, the most traditional styles remain among the most popular.
“They’re simple, they’re not complicated.” says Lynn Downey, archivist and historian at Levi Strauss & Co. of the original Levi’s 501 jean. “It’s just denim, thread and rivets.”