The Modern History Of Denim And The Origins Of Jeans


Denim jeans have become an integral part of everyday life, so much so that most of us never stop to question where our favourite pair came from, how they were manufactured, nor their history.

Despite the range of innovative materials available, denim remains one of the most versatile, durable and highly sought after fabrics on the market. Jeans transcends gender, age, and class – with most people owning more pairs than there are days in the week. Their appeal will always be timeless but the design and the fabric technology involved will forever evolve with the times.

Now, new forms of ‘sustainable’ denim are emerging as manufacturers respond to the consumer demand for ecological fabrics as well as environmentally sound production processes.

The Origins Of Jeans

Where does the name Denim originate? The word “denim” comes from a twill fabric called “Serge de Nîmes”, first woven in Nîmes, France.

While historians still debate the birth place of denim, the fabric was classified as a twill weave fabric using one coloured thread and one white one. A widely held view is that it was ‘born’ in Nîmes, France.

Serendipity played its part. During an unsuccessful replication attempt of a hard wearing cotton fabric known as ‘jeane’ (named after the city of Genoa, in Italy ) the fabric weavers of Nîmes realised they had developed a unique and sturdy fabric unlike anything else.

This fabric was made using a twill weave, with the weft passing under the warp threads. The weavers used indigo to dye the warp threads blue, but left the weft threads their natural white colour. This process gave the fabric a unique blue colour on one side, with white on the other. They called it Serge de Nîmes (translated to ‘twill of Nîmes’).


About Indigo

Synonymous with the classic image of the denim jean, indigo is among the oldest dyes to be used in textile dyeing and responsible for the iconic blue hue.

Formulated from an organic dye with a distinctive blue shade; indigo was originally manufactured and exported from India (where it was given its name) during the Greco-Roman era. A natural dye extracted from the leaves of certain plants, this process was important economically because blue dyes were once rare. Originally made from the plant called indigofera tinctoria, it became a highly prized commodity leading to Persian, Levantine, and Greek exporters imposing heavy tax duties. As such, this classic blue hue became a rare luxury in Europe.

It was only after the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India in 1497, that indigofera tinctoria entered the markets of other colonies. Importers could now avoid the heavy duties imposed and consequently, the use of indigo in European clothing manufacture rose significantly

In 1865, the German chemist Adolf von Baeyer began working on the synthesis of natural indigo. He finally succeeded in doing this in 1883, paving the way for the first industrial mass production of synthetic indigo in 1897. Significantly cheaper to produce, synthetic indigo was also more reliable, due to the longer lasting colour which offered permanence and durability.

The Origin of Levis Strauss & Co.

Levi Strauss had moved to San Francisco during the 1853 California ‘gold rush’ to start a Western branch of his family’s dry goods business. He was a German immigrant to the USA, moving to New York in 1851 to work with his brother.

Levi sold many products. One of which was a sturdy imported cotton fabric, denim.

One of his customers was a tailor called Jacob W. Davis. Originally from Reno, Nevada , Davis had bought Levi’s denim fabric for his business, where he produced rugged items like tents, horse blankets and wagon covers. He was commissioned by a gold mining company to create trousers which were strong and could withstand hard work.

Davis improved the strength and durability of the denim workwear using metal rivets; because Levi’s fabric was so integral to them he proposed a partnership . They became partners and on May 20, 1873, the two men received U.S. Patent 139,121 from the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The patented rivet was later incorporated into the company’s jean design and advertisements. The manufacturing of denim overalls began in the 1870s and the company created their first pair of jeans in the 1890s.

It was only after the 19th century that competitors for the denim market began to appear: namely Wrangler (1905) and Lee (1911).

Vintage denim work-wear advert

Early 20th century – Denim as Workwear

In the early 20th century, denim was adopted as the preferred workwear fabric choice for western cowboys, miners, farmers in the US. Not only was the fabric cheap, but denim was more durable and sturdy than the popular alternative – ‘jean’ (traditionally made from cotton, linen and wool). After Levi’s & Strauss patented the metal rivets to make them more hard-wearing, they began producing the iconic denim blue trousers that became a common feature among working men.

Jeans & American West

The classic symbol of the American West is now a staple in wardrobes. Modern jeans began to appear in the 1920s, but sales were largely confined to the working people of the western United States, such as cowboys, lumberjacks, and railroad workers. It’s thought that Levi’s jeans were first introduced to the East during the dude ranch craze of the 1930s.

Dude ranches arose in response to the romanticisation of the American West that began to occur in the late 19th century. Today, tumbleweed, rodeos and Wyatt Earp are as much symbols of our Western ideal as the humble denim jean. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner stated that the United States frontier was demographically “closed” which in turn conjured feelings of nostalgia for bygone days. With the ruthless lifestyle of the Wild West now gone, this nostalgia could be explored without the risk of gunslingers and shoot-outs. It was an era when the Wild West could be commercialised and romanticised.

The Western adventures of famous figures were made available to paying guests from cities of the East, who were referred to as ‘dudes’.

Some guest ranch visitors expected a somewhat sanitised and more luxurious version of the “cowboy life”, while others were more tolerant of the authentic odours and timetable of a working ranch.

Another chapter unfolded during World War II, when blue jeans were declared an ‘essential’ commodity and were sold only to those engaged in defence or military work.

1940s – Denim During the War

In the 1940s, the American GIs brought their beloved denim pairs with them overseas. Although the production of denim workwear (or waist overalls as they were known at the time) declined during the war, due to shortage of the raw materials needed to produce them, the end of the war marked a change in their perception. The denim jean became less associated with workwear and more closely linked to leisure wear.

Women welders wearing denim overalls on the way to their job, circa 1943, at Todd Erie Basin dry dock

1950s – Denim’s Rise to Fame

The dark hue and stiffness of denim made it a popular fabric for trousers in the 1950s. Zippers were incorporated for the first time in 1954 and the younger generation began to wear denim trousers as leisurewear. As more and more you people began wearing denim they began referring to them as ‘jeans’ rather than denim overalls. Meanwhile, movie star icons such as Marilyn Monroe were reimagined the denim jean as an empowering and moderately sexualised style.

James Dean and Marlon Brando redefined the humble denim jean forever with their highly stylised roles in cult movies such as ‘The Wild One’ and ‘Rebel without a Cause’. Naturally, everyone wanted to emulate these idols. Culturally, jeans became a symbol of the youth rebellion during the 1950s and 1960s as college students started wearing them as a protest against the Vietnam War and the formality of the establishment. At the same time, the denim jean became popular among motorcycle boys and juvenile delinquents, largely influenced by these screen idols. Straight-legged jeans became associated with these rebellious figures, which led to many US schools banning them from being worn. It seemed that nothing could slow down the popularity of denim jeans as one newspaper quoted: “90% of American youth wear jeans everywhere, except in bed or church”.

Other countries quickly started to get accustomed to wearing jeans too. American servicemen on duty in Europe and Japan would often wore them when off- duty to show that they were Americans. The denim jean became a cultural signifier. The trousers showed the world a happier way of life; something that people needed, especially after what they had endured during World War II.

1960s – The Hippie Revolution

From the late 1950s, denim was readily associated with rebelliousness, individuality and self-expression. Students began wearing jeans to college and the humble jean trouser became an unofficial uniform at protests, discos and all range of social activities. At the same time, women were starting to embrace sexual liberation through their clothing. Their denim jeans came to reflect this spirit as they wore bolder styles with slimmer waists and wider, ‘bell-bottoms’

1970s – Jean Americana

As demand grew for flared and bell bottom styles, the trend spread from the US to Europe and was no longer associated with the niche hippie movement. Denim jeans became the go-to style for youths in all areas of life.

Decorated denim also rose in popularity as people chose to customise their jeans with sequin, embroidery, paint or beads. Denim jeans became a sartorial route to individuality.

1980s – The Rise of Designer Denim

In the 1980s, denim managed to sneak itself into other subcultures such as punk, grunge and rock. New finishes such as acid wash became popular and the denim skirt and ripped jeans make their mark in the sector too. The 1980s was also a pivotal point for denim as more fashion designers began incorporating the fabric into their collections. Brands such as Calvin Klein and Armani launched designer jeans for the first time, ushering in the age of premium denim. Adriano Goldschmied, the father of premium denim, also helped popularise a new denim fit in ‘80s – the skinny fit (hello stretch denim!) Some designers followed in his strides with jeans so tight that customers would need to lay down in order to zip them up.

1990s – Hip Hop denim

The 1990s ushered in another era in denim culture and styling with the emergence of baggy jeans and dungarees. Pop groups such as TLC, the Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child helped boost these styles amongst their fans. The 1990s also saw the rise of the ‘boot cut’ – a slimmer, more subtle denim flare more suitable for daily wear – as well as the wide-legged JNCO style, which were extremely wide from the waist down. Oversized denim jackets, paired with jeans of a contrasting shade of indigo, became a key look with celebrities during this era.

Denim Facts:

  • In the 50s, jeans were seen by many as a form of rebellion, leading them to be banned from schools, theatres and restaurants.
  • Jeans originated in America but became popular outside of the US when off-duty soldiers wore their jeans while off-duty overseas.
  • One bale of cotton contains enough raw material to produce 325 pairs of jeans.
  • Jeans were originally created as practical work wear, and their indigo colour was chosen so that it would better hide the dirt when worn by miners and labourers.
  • The term “jeans” gained popularity in the 50s. Before then, they were usually referred to as waist overalls.
  • Levi Strauss patented his idea on May 20th 1873, and nowadays this date is considered to be the birthday of blue jeans.
  • The most common colour of stitching on jeans is Orange, which was originally done to match the copper rivets that were used to construct Levi’s jeans.
  • The smaller pocket inside the front pocket of a pair of jeans was originally designed for a pocket watch. Nowadays, wristwatches are far more popular, but the watch pocket remains on most jeans as a stylistic touch and a nod to their history.

2000s – DIY Denim

In the 2000s, customised denim became a hot trend since it enabled wearers to express themselves creatively through their style, a big part of the Millennial mind-set. Ripped jeans, embroidered and pinned together – DIY jeans were officially in. High-rise styles gave way to low-rise ultra-skinny models, as seen on the likes of Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and Jarvis Cocker.

2019 Denim’s Timeless DNA

Our current decade has seen the return of every denim style, cut and wash imaginable – and then some. While most people are reluctant to let go of their skinny jeans, high-waisted denim, flared jeans and straight-legged styles have all made a comeback.

The 2010s have also seen a return of raw selvedge denim – which requires wearing in – as well as light, softer denim created using environmentally friendly technologies. Utility and workwear are once again becoming key trends and denim-focused menswear brands such as Jack & Jones are honing in on this demand for value, price and comfort. Today, most mass market fashion brands offer their own denim range, although Levi’s, Wrangler and Lee still remain iconic household names for their heritage status. Meanwhile, premium denim brands launched in Los Angeles continue to steer the fashion market, with labels such as Paige, Citizens of Humanity, MUD, J Brand and Hudson leading the pack.

The Future of Denim

As we edge closer to a new decade, we ask ourselves ‘what the future of denim will look like?’ Mirroring the direction take by the fashion industry as a whole, brands are being steered by consumers’ concerns over whether or not their products are sustainable and the denim manufacturing market is responding to this.

While many premium brands have honoured sustainable practices for some years, the launch of denim ranges from rapidly growing fast fashion etailers and a strong performance from those pioneering premium brands is also helping the breadth of the denim industry to thrive.

Wrangler’s Icon collection is made from 20% recycled denim, while Jack & Jones relaunched its low-impact denim range last year. Meanwhile, Primark – the fast-fashion pin-up of the industry – has launched jeans made from 100% sustainable cotton.

Sean Gormley, creative director of Wrangler, says, “We’re finding that buyers want to be able to give their customer a better, more sustainable product, […] Increasingly, you can’t call yourself a premium product unless your credentials are sustainable.”

So, it seems that the future of the classic indigo blue denim jean will be green in spirit but classic in form. Forever in blue jeans, indeed.