The History of Denim

Denim at its most basic is a simple cotton fabric – but it’s created one of the most enduring and beloved fashion items in recent history – jeans. Denim inspires debate and passion amongst designers and fashion lovers, and there is equal passion in the debate around its beginnings.

The first use of denim as a cotton material dates as far back as the 17th century, when it appeared in upholstery, work pants and awnings, ship’s sails and cowboy jeans – the fabric of hardworking, honest labour. The origin of its name is widely believed to be an Anglicism of the French for ‘serge de Nimes’ – the serge fabric, made in Nimes, France.

By the 18th century, denim cloth was made only of cotton and was used to make strong and durable men’s clothing – valued for the way it lasted repeat washing. The famous Levi Strauss Company was created in 1873, with a patented denim jeans process featuring the famous Levi metal rivets. Levi had noticed that miners in the San Francisco gold rush needed strong and sturdy work pants, and he worked with his partner Jacob Davis to produce their patented designs of ‘waist overalls’ with copper rivets, in the famous blue denim, and also duck – which was a thick material which fell out of decline in favour of denim, as it was said to feel like ‘wearing a tent!’. These overalls proved to be a great success – and Levi and Jacob moved into producing jackets and outwear, as well as muslin shirts. When Levi Strauss died in 1902, he passed the successful business to his nephews.

Over time, demand outstripped supply and the Strauss’ needed to find a new denim mill, as competition from the South was causing their New England supplier to struggle. By 1915 it was buying most of its denim from North Carolina and by the 1920s Levi’s waist overalls were leading the mens’ work pants market in America. This only increased further in the 1930s, when the era of Hollywood westerns arrived, and Levi jeans became a high status fashion item, associated with the freedom and individualism of cowboys and the glamorous actors that played them. Heavy advertising spread their popularity across America and overseas.

In the Second World War, American GIs were known to take their favourite jeans overseas for action, to keep them safe! After the war, Denim pants became increasingly associated with leisure activities of American people. Zippers began to be used in the 50s, and jeans became associated with teenage rebellion – being featured in films of the time, and banned from many schools and colleges. During this same decade, the company began to export its products worldwide as word spread. This new youth market was reflected in the name ‘jean’ being formally adopted by Levi’s in the 60s, as jeans flooded Europe and Asian markets, and became a symbol of youth, ideas, individuality and leisure.
By the 70s, flares and bell-bottom jeans were king, with heavy advertising and marketing continuing to increase the market. Decorated jeans became an early craze in 70s America, making jeans the canvas material for expressing personality. In the 80s, bleached, ripped, skin tight and faded jeans came into fashion – and the designer jean was born – nowadays the world’s biggest celebrities all wear jeans, and this staple item is featured in innovative new ways in every catwalk collection.
A huge range of small boutiques are producing exciting new jeans ranges – often focusing on either urban, sports, traditional or glamorous looks for both men and women. Some of the most exciting new brands are coming out of Asia, such as One Green Elephant – a Japanese company which produces fashion-forward and cutting edge jeans using a variety of new and experimental techniques. Their range features key styling attributes such as organic cotton, distressed finishes, twisted seams, reverse stitching and contrast hemming – with jeans produced in all fits from relaxed to stretch and a range of rinses and finishes. The look is very much about cutting-edge, urban living with an emphasis on youthfulness, creativity and urban nightlife.

It will be fascinating to see where these cultural emblems go next – only one thing seems certain, and that is that jeans will continue to inspire design innovation and fashion – and will never go out of fashion.