Popular PBS show “American Experience” returns next month, kicking off with an in-depth look at the legacy of blue bloods’ favorite garment. Produced by Michael Bicks and Anna Lee Strachan, “Riveted: The History of Jeans” travels back to the origin of jeans and follows its journey to becoming the quintessential American garment, tracking its roots in slavery, growth through youth culture and the civil rights movement, and more.
“This unique moment in our nation’s history presents an opportunity to think about the stories we tell and the filmmakers we work with to tell them,” said executive producer Cameo George.
The documentary teaches that, while often clouded by images of cowboys and Western culture, the birth of jeans also includes darker undertones that are often left out of history lessons.
During the African slave trade, indigo-dyed cloth was considered so valuable that it was used to “purchase” an individual to enslave. Known as “negro cloth”—a lower-quality, indigo-dyed material—it was sewn and worn by slaves as workwear in the form of blue jeans and overalls. Later on, these pieces were worn by the Black community to show respect for their ancestors, and were viewed by some as an act of rebellion that formed the foundation for denim’s revolutionary reputation. For these reasons, it was often the sartorial choice for musicians, hippies and creatives alike.
The hour-long film addresses the fabric’s universal appeal, stating that at any given moment, “half the people on the planet are wearing [jeans],” and that they’re “worn by everyone from presidents and supermodels to farmers and artists.”
Jeans’ rich history and democratizing qualities lend well to the big screen. Designers and other influencers throughout the fashion industry have worked to share jeans’ evolution story, producing films like Levi’s 2016 documentary on the iconic 501, the first pair of blue jeans; “The Truth Is In The Details (2016),” which follows jean maker Jason Denham on his quest to make the perfect pair of jeans; “Weaving Shibusa (2017),” which looks at the craftsmanship involved in manufacturing Japanese denim; and “Common Thread (2019),” a documentary series that takes a personal approach to the denim industry and follows influential denim brands as they explore the historical, current and future landscape of denim.
More recently, denim’s sustainability has been profiled in documentaries and books like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign mini documentary and “Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment” by Maxine Bédat.
“Riveted: The History of Jeans” airs on Feb. 7 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS.