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Denim: History of Jeans and American Culture

Denim is one of the most versatile and durable fabrics on the market. Transcending gender, age and economic class, the tough fiber features in most ready-to-wear collections – both luxury and high-street. It’s an incredible concept considering denim started out as a uniform for American workers two hundred years ago.

An intricate cloth, denim is a rugged cotton twill weave, crafted as the weft passes under two or more warp fibers. This technique forms the signature diagonal ribbing known on the reverse side of the fabric – setting denim apart from regular cotton fabric. The twill-weave, which ensures the material’s strength, is also crafted using different colors, allowing for one hue only to feature on the fabric surface.

Textile historians have put decades of work into researching today’s opinions about the birth of denim. Most reference books say that denim is an English play on the French “serge de Nimes;” a serge fabric from the town of Nimes in France. Associated with the André family, denim was made of silk and wool. The Italian fabric ‘jean’, which was a fustian or cotton, linen, wool blend, competed with denim at the time. Denim was stronger and more expensive than jean and although they looked similar, denim was made of one colored thread and one white thread, while jean was woven of two threads of the same color.

American textile mills starting producing cotton textiles in the late 18th century, becoming independent from foreign producers, like the English. From the very beginning, denim fabrics were an important component. One of the first citing of the word ‘denim’ was in 1789, when a Rhode Island newspaper reported on the local production of denim. Then in 1792, a book – ‘The Weavers Draft Book and Clothiers Assistant’ – published technical sketches of the weaving methods for a variety of denims. In 1864, Webster’s Dictionary officially defined the word ‘denim’, referring to it as “a coarse cotton drilling used for overalls, etc.”

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With the American gold mine boom in the 1800s, prospectors needed clothes that did not tear, would breathe and could be easily washed. A young German immigrant arrived in California at this time to sell canvas to make tents and wagon covers. Named Strauss, the producer made his first pair of jeans from his traditional canvas at the demand of the miners, before switching to denim for a softer touch. The blue jean known today was bowed in 1873, when Strauss and a Nevada tailor, Jacob Davis co-patented the idea of using rivets to add strength to the jeans. And the jean house, Levi Strauss, was born.

The Thirties saw American cowboys parade the blue jean in feature films, cementing their place in popular culture. And Levi’s had to keep up. The Forties and cloth rations of WWII meant less jeans were made, but American soldiers who wore the casual pants became unknowing models to foreigners, introducing jeans to the world when off duty. In the post-War years when denim demand was returning, Strauss’ competitors Wrangler and Lee rose up to tap into the international market, too.

Denim started to get a rebellious association in the Fifties with James Dean. Young people flocked to denim as a way of expressing themselves. The Sixties introduced different denim styles such embroidery, paint and psychedelic prints, before the Seventies revolutionized the classic straight cut of denim, launching the flare leg.

The Eighties saw denim being produced by luxury brands including Gucci, Versace and Calvin Klein – pushing jeans into the realm of fashion decadence, especially in the West. No longer a working class or rebellious fabric, different types and styles of jeans were created. The sweeping flares from last decade were stopped, surpassed by the punk-inspired skinny jeans, which lead eclectic colours like acid wash and heavier blacks, to emerge. And the concept of denim making its way onto other wardrobe pieces exploded at this time, especially with the cropped denim jacket.

Like the Fifties, rebellion crept back into fashion in the Nineties, which saw youths hold a disdain for denim; a fabric worn originally by their parents. At the ticking over of the century, denim came back in 1999, as big name designers Calvin Klein, Dior, Chloe and Versace returned to the bluish twill-weave for their Summer collections.

The Naughties kept the denim trend alive, to the point that luxury denim-only labels were launched. From Diesel to 7 For All Mankind, Nudie to True Religion the denim market remained strong with every consumer seeking out their favorite pair.

Come 2015, denim is witnessing an Eighties revival with men’s and women’s wear labels designing everything denim: coats, jackets, shirts and skirts, as well as the token jean. And reverting back to its Strauss roots, made-to-measure denim is a growing trend.

The biggest extravagance for denim makers is sourcing selvedge denim from mills in Japan and Turkey, before making the collections. As denim becomes more of luxury cloth this decade, more brands such as Paul Smith and Levi Strauss are creating bespoke denim services, making the jean to fit the individual, just as a you would a pair of suit pants.

By Benjamin Fitzgerald

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