This blog was originally posted November 11, 2011 and has since been edited and updated.
Denim has transformed over time from being a simple, utilitarian cotton fabric to one of the most enduring and beloved fashion staple in history: jeans. The passion and debate inspire by denim amongst designers and fashion lovers is mirrored by its turbulent beginnings.
The Working Man's Pant
The first use of denim as a cotton-based material dates as far back as the 17th century. Around this time, it was used as primarily in industry as upholstery, work pants, awnings, and sails. Denim was known as the fabric of hardworking, honest labor.
By the 18th century, denim had been positioned as the material for strong and durable men’s clothing due to its durability against repeat washing. By this point, denim was constructed solely of cotton. During the Gold Rush, the Levi Strauss Company added the revolutionary metal rivets to its denim pants to provide strong, sturdy work pants for miners.
With the arrival of Hollywood Westerns in the 1930s, jeans became a high status fashion item associated with the freedom and individualism of cowboys and the glamorous actors that played them. This popularity was pushed further by an insurgence of heavy global advertising. During WWII, denim jeans became associated with leisure around the world because American troops would often wear them while they were off-duty.
In the 50s, zippers were popularized and jeans became associated with teenage rebellion due to their affiliation with popular film icons like James Dean. Although jeans were banned from many schools, the insurgence of a new youth market for jeans resounded globally. In order to appeal to this new market, the name ‘jean’ became formally adopted by the denim industry in the 60s.
In the 70’s, flared and bell-bottom jeans were all the rage. These ornamental jeans gave way to the rise of designer jeans.
Today, jeans are worn by celebrities around the world and are commonly featured on the runway. The fashion industry has witnessed designers create fashion lines around denim in a wide range of shapes, finishes, embellishments, and colors. Small boutiques, like Marc Nelson Denim, have popped up that specialize in denim jeans for various lifestyles.
Through all the changes in trends, it seems jeans will never go out of style due their versatile style from daywear to nightwear and season to season. Surely, designers will continue to be inspired to create denim fashion in new, innovative ways.