It's no surprise that denim jeans have had a stronghold in fashion for decades. The easy-to-style pant exists in nearly every American's wardrobe, often in response to cultural pressure. With the recent introduction of stretch fabrics in jean production, it's easier than ever to find a pair that fits you perfectly. Let's take a closer look at how jeans came to have such a strong cultural impact and progression throughout the years.
You can trace denim’s rich history back to Nîmes, France, towards the end of the 17th century. Back then, Nîmes predominantly specialized in silk production but looked to find a way to make a more durable fabric. They came up with a twill weave, which they created by weaving threads of indigo with silk and wool to produce an enduring textile. This was the first modern iteration of denim.
In the late 19th-century, denim jeans became associated with American culture through the collaboration between Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, who utilized metal rivets to reinforce the pockets on jeans, making them long-lasting. While miners and factory workers initially wore them, their durability and comfort enticed fashion lovers and would become a staple amongst young people in the mid 20th century.
HOW IT’S MADE
Let’s get technical. Denim is traditionally a cotton textile created by weaving a weft thread under at least two warp threads. This is what provides that classic sturdiness. The warp thread is traditionally dyed using natural indigo dye, while the weft is left white, which creates the classic textured denim look.
Nowadays, a pair of jeans is usually made by mixing denim and a stretch fiber like elastane to give a more form-fitting look that can fit a broader range of shapes and sizes. The dyeing process now more commonly uses synthetic dyes to keep production costs low.
Jeans rose to prominence amongst the general public through pop culture features, such as magazines, TV, and film. One of their most notable first appearances was in 1955 when James Dean, who was infamously known for his bad reputation in “Rebel Without A Cause,” popularized the coolness associated with donning denim. In his pairing of denim with a red jacket and white tee – he played into Americana culture and, in doing so, attracted the masses. Although jeans (then known as overalls) had already been popular by that time amongst younger people, this feature only worked to increase their prominence.
In the 1960s, Jeans were adopted as a wardrobe staple by several counterculture movements such as the Hippies and later bled into other subcultures in the 70s, primarily in California. Clothing companies began to see the value placed on their favorite pair of denim and started utilizing the fabric in new ways. The denim jacket became really popular and would often be worn with jeans of the same shade, known as a Canadian tuxedo. The push for American nationalism created the association between denim-on-denim looks and quintessential American style, which many European countries emulate.
In the mid-1970s, Calvin Klein changed the way people wore jeans by putting his name on the back pocket to signify that they could be worn as a designer piece. This created a new obsession with owning signature denim and broadened jeans’ popularity as they were no longer associated with youth movements but rather an older, style-conscious clientele. This trickled down to the mainstream public throughout the 80s and 90s and made jeans a staple in most people’s wardrobe, with a variety of fits offered to suit anybody.
The early 2000s were one of the first decades to get really experimental with jeans and reframe them as something more than a classic casual pant. The low-rise fit, rhinestone embellishments, and patchwork became a cultural movement, a staple of McBling. On the gaudy side of fashion, designers incorporated denim into every silhouette imaginable, which contributed to the decade being relentlessly mocked for being the worst in personal style.
Until the early 2010s, jeans would prominently feature contrast stitching, unique patterns on the pockets (like the True Religion jeans), and whiskering near the front pockets to make wearing jeans not just part of an outfit but THE look itself.
Despite fluctuations in popularity, jeans have no doubt remained a classic staple of American fashion and continue to show their importance with different cuts and washes becoming newly popular every few years.