From workwear to do-it-yourself embellishments, denim has been a canvas for creativity and personalization among subcultures for close to a century.
At New York Denim Days Saturday, Andrew Luecke, co-author of COOL: Style, Sound, and Subversion, and Amy Leverton, author of Denim: Street Style, Vintage, Obsession tackled the topic of subcultures, the unique ways they adopt denim into their uniform and how their styling has transpired into some of the most relevant trends in today’s fashion.
Luecke defined subcultures as any group that sets itself apart from the mainstream society. “Often they’ve been marginalized,” he said. “Occasionally they are dissatisfied by mainstream culture.”
And one of the main ways subcultures differentiate themselves is by customizing their clothing. “Denim is such a fertile material for that,” Luecke said. “Everyone knows that you can just wear denim, and it customizes to your body. It’s also easy to sew. You can sew your own patch onto denim and it looks great, even if you haven’t done it that well.”
“Denim is such a versatile fabric that it can be anything to anyone,” Leverton added.
From cowboys to hippies, here’s a look at how three subcultures from history continue to influence denim fashion.
The rugged men of the American West may have been the first influencers, according to Leverton. With their jeans, denim shirting and flair—which Luecke pointed out was plucked from vaqueros, the original Mexican cowboys—western wear became an aspirational look for men working on the railroads in the 1920s.
Hollywood’s adaptation of the West fueled the look. Around the 1920s and 1930s, Leverton said, Hollywood would produce 100 western pictures a year. “Hollywood, at this time, is starting to have a big effect on things. Hollywood was the Instagram of the era,” she quipped.
The popularity of western films led to dude ranches, which Leverton said were basically vessels for escapism where folks from the East Coast would go to vacation like cowboys. It was here where denim transitioned from workwear into a sought-after souvenir from the West.
“The general public were obsessing over something that was really authentic and ended up making it leisure wear, so a trend is formed,” she said.
Nowadays, she added, cowboy fashion lives on in collections like Ralph Lauren’s 50th anniversary collection chock-full of western hardware, blanket fabrics and rugged denim, Isabel Marant’s French girl goes West styling and Calvin Klein Jeans’ sturdy yet minimalist denim shirting.
Hot Rodders and Car Clubs
What sums up the definition of “cool” better than cars and denim?
As the auto industry expanded and the teenage population emerged post World War II, so too did car clubs and hot rodding. “Custom cars became a full fledge subcultural lifestyle,” Luecke said. “People in Southern California would take their Model Ts, strip them down for speed and take them to the dry lake beds and race them.”
It was a subculture that appealed to both men and women. Car club members wore custom jackets with embroidery and felted lettering that Luecke pointed out eventually played a larger role in denim customization.
And during a time where most men wore their jeans with a large cuff, car club members in the late 1950s opted for smaller cuffs. “Customization and personalization can be as simple as a styling trick,” Luecke noted.
The hot rodder look set the foundation for what Leverton said would become one of the biggest trends in denim. “It’s the look of the rebel teenager,” she said, referencing James Dean’s blue jean style from Rebel Without a Cause. At this point, Leverton said denim went from being “accidentally cool” like the cowboy, to being a purposefully rebellious look.
The trend, she said, perks up from time to time. Ralph Lauren hosted his Fall ’17 runway show in his private garage. Tommy Hilfiger’s Spring ’18 collection combined logo mania with checkerboard prints, cuffed denim and boxy jean jackets. And Martine Rose’s Spring ’19—though a touch ’80s-inspired—had a hot rod vibe with racer stripes and knits with the word “Speed” blazoned across the front.
The hippy subculture that emerged in mid ’60s marks one of the biggest shifts in denim fashion. “To me this is one of the most major and eventually mainstream subcultures to take denim and turn it into an everyday fashion item,” Luecke said.
Around this time, Leverton says everything changed—in denim and society. Stretch denim was invented, introducing tighter silhouettes for men and women. Boot cut, flare and bell bottom silhouettes became fashionable. If hippies couldn’t find or afford the new jean silhouettes, they made their own by inserting a triangle of corduroy or suede in the seams. “Kids created it and the brands emulated it,” Leverton said.
Hippies also customized their denim with patchwork, embroidery, buttons and hand painting—details that were photographed for the first time at Woodstock in 1969 and shared across the globe.
The look is still relevant in the current politically charged environment. However, it’s taken a high-brow turn.
“Roberto Cavalli always taps into a bohemian, hippy look, though the jeans are five grand,” said Leverton. And as glammed up as Gucci may be, Leverton says the style is referencing hippy fashion. “It’s seen from a modern lens,” she said, “so it’s done in a slightly different way, but it is absolutely impacting fashion today.”