The word “jean” started out in the 1800s, in reference to a twill cotton cloth used for trousers. But the textile soon became conflated with the garment it was commonly used for. Blue jeans, now called “denim”, were originally made from this fabric and manufactured in the French town of Nîmes (bleu de Nîmes). There is still debate over whether the word “denim” is an anglicised version of the French textile or whether the French name was given to an already existing English product to give it prestige. By the 20th century, “jean” was the term for a wide range of cotton or denim informal trousers.
The most recognisable, classic jeans as we’ve come to know them—made from indigo-dyed denim with pockets and sturdy riveting suitable for workwear—were patented in 1873 by Jacob Davis, a tailor, and Levi Strauss, owner of a wholesale fabric house in San Francisco. The copper rivets used to reinforce the pockets were appreciated by miners and other labourers, who complained about frequent pocket rips. Strauss and Davis initially made jeans in two types of fabric, brown duck and blue denim, but the creation of the denim 501 style in 1890 helped the latter fabric take off. Over the course of the decade, design improvements were made: Strauss added a double arch of orange stitching for further reinforcement and to identify them as Levi’s; belt loops appeared in 1922; zippers replaced the button fly on some styles in 1954. But when Strauss and Davis’s patent ended in 1890, other manufacturers were free to reproduce the style. OshKosh B’Gosh entered the market in 1895, Blue Bell (later Wrangler) in 1904 and Lee Mercantile in 1911. During the First World War, Lee Union-Alls jeans were standard issue for all war workers.
Hollywood helped romanticise the blue jean in the 1920s and 1930s by putting the trousers on handsome cowboy types played by the likes of John Wayne and Gary Cooper. This glamorous new image spoke to consumers who sought casual leisurewear to wear at the weekends and on holidays. Publicity photos of actresses like Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard wearing jeans helped convince women that the style was for them too. In the 1930s, Vogue gave their seal of approval, calling jeans “Western chic”. In 1942, the American designer Claire McCardell sold more than 75,000 of her denim “Popover” wrap dress.
Yet, it wasn’t until the 1950s that jeans came to be associated with rebellious, anti-establishment youth. Marlon Brando and James Dean popularised the image of the denim-clad teenage idol with huge sex appeal; rock’n’roll stars helped cement the style as cool; hippies and anti-war protestors wore jeans in the 1960s and early 1970s as a way to show support for the working class; while feminists and women’s lib organisers chose blue jeans as a way to demonstrate gender equity. By the 1960s, jeans had come to symbolise the counterculture. Some high schools banned the garment, which only served to further enhance its status.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s high fashion began to take an interest too. Fiorucci’s Buffalo 70 jeans were skin-tight, dark, expensive and hard to purchase—in other words, the exact opposite of the faded bell-bottoms preferred by the younger crowd. They became a hit among the Studio 54 jet set. In 1976, Calvin Klein showed blue jeans on the runway—the first designer to do so. Gloria Vanderbilt introduced her hit jeans in 1979. These designer jeans were not only a commercial success, but were also marketed with a racier image in mind. In the 1980s, Brooke Shields’s provocative Calvin Klein campaign and Claudia Schiffer’s sultry ads for Guess helped give the blue jean a new kind of seductive potential. By the 1990s, fashion houses such as Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Dior had also entered the jean market.
Over the decades, the types and styles of jeans became stratified among groups and subgroups: hip-hop styles of the early 1990s were characterised by oversized, low-slung baggy jeans; intellectuals and hipsters turned to dark denim as a way to get back to the style’s roots; pop stars favoured Diesel’s sandblasted and whiskered styles; aficionados paid high prices for vintage Levi’s and hand-dyed Japanese indigo. Today, almost all luxury labels and high-fashion designers have sent jeans down the runway; and they’re available at both ends of the price spectrum, in a multitude of styles: wide, skinny, high-waisted, low, light, dark or coloured. “I have often said that I wish I had invented blue jeans,” Yves Saint Laurent told New York Magazine in November 1983. “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity—all that I hope for in my clothes.”