Thrifting 101, Part 29: The history of jeans

Photo via DenimBlog
Ah, jeans. It's easy to forget that they began as utilitarian clothing, evolved to rebel-wear (see: James Dean) and finally moved into everyday wear. Practical, simple, and easily dressed up or down, jeans are an integral part of any woman's wardrobe. Yves Saint Laurent said the only piece of clothing he wished he could have invented was blue jeans. Nobody knows exactly when the practice of dying cotton with indigo and sewing it into pants began, but a bit of research reveals some possibilities.

The word denim originates from the French term serge de Nîmes, deriving from the name of a bolt of fabric called a serge, originally made in Nimes, France. Originally called serge de Nîmes, the name was soon shortened to denim. The fabric is marked by its use of a single weft thread passing through two or more warp threads creating a specific type of sturdy twill material. The diagonal twill pattern created in this process can be seen on the inside of a pair of jeans either running from right to left or left to right. Denim is always made from cotton and is typically marked by a colored warp yarn (most often indigo blue) and a white weft yarn.

Image via WikiCommons

The word jeans derives from the phrase bleu de Gênes, literally the blue of Genoa.  While serge de Nimes was being produced in Nimes, denim trousers were being sold through the harbor of Genoa, long an important naval and trading power. The Genoese Navy required all-purpose trousers for its sailors that could be worn while working on ships. Denim material met this need. These trousers were laundered by dragging them in nets behind the ship, and the sea water and sun would gradually bleach them to white.

In the 20th century, the denim center of production crossed the Atlantic to the U.S. by way of shopkeeper Loeb (better known as Levi) Strauss. In 1853, Strauss, a 24 year-old German immigrant,  started a wholesale business supplying clothes to miners. He partnered up with tailor Jacob Davis, who suggested adding copper rivets to the jeans as a way of reinforcing points where the material suffered wear and tear. The two worked to market to all mining communities of California, where it was purchased by Gold Rush participants.

A pair of Levis from the 1880's pictured with a wearer of that era.

In 1864 Webster's Dictionary added the word denim, referring to it as a coarse cotton drilling used for overalls. In 1873, Levi Strauss and Company received a patent for an 'improvement in fastening pocket openings' – putting rivets in jeans for strength. The U.S Patent Number was no.139,121 and this date is now considered the official birthday of blue jeans.

In 1901 the US Navy issued boot-cut denim pants to sailors as replacement for their traditional uniforms.

By the 1950's, jeans are less associated with work wear and more with rebellion and individuality. American teenagers started wearing 'jean pants' everywhere except 'in bed and in church'.

From there the popularity of denim spread outward, later adopted by cowboys and James Dean and Marlon Brando. After James Dean popularized them in the movie Rebel Without a Cause, wearing jeans by teenagers and youth and/or young adults became a symbol of youth rebellion during the 1950s. Because of this, they were sometimes banned in theaters, restaurants and schools.  In the 1960's, different styles are introduced to complement fashion and hippy style: embroidery, paint and psychedelic designs become popular, as did a new bell-bottom shape with an exaggerated flare from knee to hem.

In 1977, the very first pair of 'designer jeans' by Calvin Klein are born. By 1978, Klein claimed sales of 200,000 pairs of his famous jeans the first week they were on the market. 

Ten years later, Gloria Vanderbilt and Guess and a number of other 1980's clothing designers popularized high-waist jeans with a tapered leg. Unfortunately, these designers failed to understand just how unflattering small back pockets are. Twelve years ago we reached the age of premium denim with the debut of 7 For All Mankind, ushering in the cultural zeitgeist of jeans as designer pieces. The market for high-end designer denim has ballooned since Seven's first hit the scene in 2000. In 2006, jeans sales totaled $15.8 billion, up from $15.2 billion a year earlier and $14 billion in 2004, according to market research firm NPD Group Inc. Currently, the average price of a pair of 7 For All Mankind jeans is $165.00. As a contrast, in 1885 jeans could be bought for $1.50 (approximately $37 today.)

The perfect jeans are incredibly subjective, as everyone's body and tastes are different, and what works for me might not work for someone else. What I want in a pair of jeans is relatively simple: a moderately low rise and cut that's as slim as possible in the hips and thighs, but falls straight through the knee and lower leg. (The puddle of fabric that some skinny jeans deposit around their wearer's ankles has never been my thing. It's just not flattering to a petite woman.) I want a bit of stretch, which makes jeans fit better and feel more comfortable, though too much stretch results in bagginess in high-traffic areas such as knees and the seat. When I'm wiggling into a pair of Joe's Jeans in the Nordstrom Rack dressing room, I'm not looking to be intrigued by a unique cut or an unusual silhouette. I want to pull them on and think nothing but these jeans make my ass look smokin'.

What are your favorite brands of denim? Do you have any memories associated with jeans? Are you loyal to a certain style or brand? What does your ideal pair look like?

(Missed any previous parts of my Thrifting 101 series? Up to this point, the series has focused on tips for newbies and those dealing with the squick factor, advice regarding how to shop at a thrift store,thrifting for the clothing snob, recommendations for finding the best thrift and consignment stores, tips for determining what days are the best for thrifting, a post where I explained my love for thrifting, advice regarding thrift store etiquette, tips for cleaning vintage leather, a post of my favorite thrifting and vintage blogs, tips for identifying and cleaning thrifted jewelry, advice for storing vintage and thrifted garments, and tips for shopping for vintage online. I also discussed influential periods in fashion - the 1920's through the 1950'sthe 1960'sthe 1970'sthe 1980's; and the 1990's, and myfavorite books on thrifting and vintage. For other parts, please do a search for Thrifting 101! )


  1. It's so interesting to see something we consider as part of our everyday lives is really only 30-40 years old (at least from when mass market buyers started wearing jeans).

    I really like American Eagle Jeans, and, of course, Levi's.


  2. I knew there was history with jeans, but wow! Thanks for a great post. I myself like skinnies with some stretch, and soft, dark denim.

  3. Good day! I just want to give you a huge thumbs up for the excellent information you've got here on this post. I am returning to your web site for more soon.
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