The History Of Blue Jeans

  • by Vivienne Austin

Blue jeans are ubiquitous in contemporary fashion and culture, from Calvin Klein’s provocative advertising campaigns to Lana Del Rey’s love song, blue jeans are a symbol of freedom and individuality today. But how did this simple piece of clothing become what it is today? In this blog post, we wanted to bring you a bit of a fashion history lesson, to explain this fashion piece's widespread and evergreen popularity.

The origins of blue jeans

Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant and dry goods merchant, arrived in San Francisco in 1853 to establish a West Coast branch of his family's New York business. Over the following two decades, he transformed his enterprise into a thriving venture, establishing a reputation as a respected businessman and local benefactor. A tailor named Jacob Davis was among Levi's clients. When a local labourer's wife requested durable trousers, Jacob devised the idea of reinforcing them with metal rivets. The riveted pants were an immediate success, prompting Jacob to seek a patent and a partnership. Levi Strauss, recognising the innovation's potential, collaborated with Jacob, and they secured patent #139,121 on May 20, 1873. This day is, in fact, considered the birthday of blue jeans!

With the patent in hand, the duo began producing and selling this piece of clothing, crafting the first jeans from denim, the traditional fabric for men's workwear. The jeans, initially termed "waist overalls" or "overalls," initially served as durable workwear for miners and labourers facing demanding work environments. However, their popularity grew beyond the labour sector, transitioning into a fashionable garment.



The iconic status of blue jeans as a symbol of rebellion and counterculture was solidified when Hollywood legends like James Dean and Marlon Brando sported them on screen. These actors embodied the rebellious "bad boy" persona, making jeans a statement of defiance against societal conventions for the younger generation.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the popularity of blue jeans continued to soar as they were embraced by a diverse range of individuals, including hippies and rock stars. Blue jeans evolved into various styles, from bell-bottoms to skinny jeans, during this period.


Over the past century, denim jeans have significantly influenced popular culture, leaving their mark on music, film, and fashion. Bruce Springsteen in particular, stands out as a cultural icon associated with denim, embodying a rugged, working-class style that denim is often linked to. Springsteen's music, notably his 1975 album "Born to Run," drew inspiration from his New Jersey roots, where denim jeans were a symbol of the working class. The album's title track and its cover art featuring Springsteen in tight jeans leaning against a vintage car, epitomised the rebellious spirit of rock and roll at that time.



Apart from Springsteen, denim jeans have influenced numerous cultural figures, such as James Dean, Steve McQueen, and Kurt Cobain. Each of them represented different values like rebellion, individuality, and authenticity, all encapsulating the enduring ruggedness and durability associated with denim culture.


During the 1980s, designer jeans surged in popularity. Fashion houses such as Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt introduced high-priced denim jeans featuring bold logos and decorative elements. These jeans became a symbol of status, donned by both celebrities and affluent individuals.


Blue jeans & Women’s fashion

It might appear as a modest step in the broader journey towards gender equality, but Levi’s blue jeans made a significant impact when they introduced the first-ever line of jeans for women in 1934. Before Levi’s created women's jeans, Western women often borrowed men’s Levi’s 501 jeans. Recognising the necessity for women's work pants, LS&Co. launched Lady Levi’s, which was revolutionary considering that women’s pants weren't widely accepted until many years later.


During the 1930s and 1940s, women wearing denim Levi’s jeans was deemed inappropriate, except for a few bold exceptions, as pants were considered men's attire. The introduction of Lot 701, Lady Levi’s, showcased Levi Strauss & Co.'s support for women in roles traditionally held by men, presenting women's ability to engage in "men’s work." Lady Levi’s jeans marked a shift towards individuality, as women were not typically seen in denim publicly during that era. The button-fly design was particularly unconventional, as pants with a front zipper were already considered daring.


Lady Levi’s jeans gained popularity during the heyday of dude ranches, becoming both a fashion statement and a political statement, empowering women to express themselves freely. In fact, it was from the birth and spread popularity of women wearing pants that women fashion then evolved into more daring pieces, such as the birth of the mini skirt, chinched waist, off-shoulders, and so on until today’s total freedom of expression.


The origins of denim

Last month, a new exhibition opened up in Paris, showcasing the "Master of the Blue Jeans". Interestingly, the artwork on view does not belong to Levi Strauss, the founder of the renowned clothing brand and inventor if the blue jeans, but to a 17th-century Italian painter. This exhibition at Galerie Canesso presents two paintings by this enigmatic artist, who worked in northern Italy during the 1600s and is only known by his "master" title. The artist's oil paintings capture early versions of the sturdy blue fabric that is popular today, as seen on Italian peasants. 


Of course, while blue jeans are an invention of Levis Strauss and were born in the USA, these paintings are the proof that denim had been around and used for workers clothes much longer. How long exactly? We don’t know. But definitely one of those exhibitions that are worth a visit if you happen to be in Paris in the new few months…


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