As with many modern American icons, denim can trace its origins back across the Atlantic to Europe. But it was in the New World of America - the land of opportunity - that denim would become much more than a humdrum fabric, but rather a living and vibrant cloth with innate qualities: youth, freedom, rebellion, and heritage.
Its history is the history of America and, as the USA grew to become the dominant world superpower, it would export its denim and its flag-waving brand of democracy to the world. From humble origins, it began as a lowly workman's fabric that clothed labourers, pioneers, and frontiersman. Now it's a ubiquitous style that can be picked up in supermarkets for £5 or designer stores for £500.
Worn by everyone from pensioners to presidents, denim has come a long way in a short space of time. This is the riveting history of a fabric with a life of its own.
You cannot tell the story of denim without mentioning Levi's, and their story starts with two men: The Bavarian-born Levi Strauss, who moved to San Francisco in 1853 to take advantage of the lucrative gold rush, and the lesser-known Jacob Davis, a fellow immigrant from Riga in the Baltic.
Davis was set a seemingly run-of-the-mill task in his workshop in Reno, Nevada. A woodcutter's wife asked him to make a pair of sturdy trousers for her unusually-sized husband that would survive a season of hard labour. Davis set to work with a roll of white cotton fabric purchased in San Francisco from none other than Levi Strauss.
So far, so ordinary; but Davis's eureka moment came when his eyes fell onto a pile of copper rivets that happened to be in his workshop. The idea to attach them at key stress points, creating a more rugged and hardwearing product, was a flash of genius. He sold a further ten pairs that summer and the reputation of his superior 'waist overalls' spread fast.
In need of a business partner, Davis's thoughts turned to the man who had sold him the initial fabric all those years ago - so he penned a letter to Strauss.
On 20th May 1873 the two men were granted patent number 139,121 for the "Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings". The patent was the birth certificate of the modern jean. Levi Strauss and Co was formally founded.
This was the year that the first identifiable version of the iconic Levi's 501 (then simply called the XX) appeared. Close cousins of the modern 501, improvements including the leather brand patch (1896), a second rear pocket (1901), and belt loops (1922) were added over time, transforming the jean from utilitarian work clothing into a fashion-conscious product.
As the twentieth century progressed, denim moved out of factories and ranches and into the wardrobes of regular Americans. The years after 1900 saw the Wild-West life of the American frontier change from a harsh reality into a romanticised pastiche.
The first cowboy movie, a ten-minute short entitled The Great Train Robbery was released, offering a first glimpse of Hollywood's glossy Cinemax version of the Old West.
The years after 1930 were the glory days of the Western, personified by John Wayne with a Colt 45 in hand, a Stetson hat, and of course - a pair of dusty denim jeans.
Meanwhile, denim brands switched their advertising strategies to focus on cowboys, playing upon this emerging national myth. Tourists headed en-masse to California's dude ranches for a taste of the cowboy lifestyle, and a pair of jeans acted as their passport to this Wild West pantomime.
Former cowboys were brought in-house by the emerging denim giants (Levi's on the West Coast and Lee on the East Coast) as consultants. Lee enlisted the help of rodeo star Turk Greenough (left) to improve the fit of their jeans. His wife re-tailored a standard pair of Lee jeans with a tighter fit and a slight flare for her husband's riding boots - the resulting "boot cut" quickly became the jean of choice across America.
The 1950s saw denim transform once again, this time from a flag-waving symbol of national pride into a symbol of rebellion and juvenile delinquency, as bikers and teens formed their own bond with denim.
Comparisons between the cowboys of the Wild West and motorcycle gangs of the 1950s are easy to make, and Hollywood certainly glorified them in the same way. Sensationalised reports of a riot at a motorcycle rally in Hollister, CA, in 1947 became the basis for one of the iconic films of the era, The Wild One (1953).
Levi's began selling their jeans nationally for the first time and in a shrewd marketing move, changed the name of their product from the out-dated 'overalls' to the more fashionable 'jeans' to engage with their young customers.
The 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause shone a spotlight on the emerging cultural gap between the restless angst of America's youth and the conservatism of their parents, and gave birth to an American icon – James Dean. Although Dean would tragically die in a car crash just before the film's release, the image of him as Jim Stark in his white t-shirt and Lee 101 jeans would prove to be immortal.
As a symbol of youthful rebellion jeans now had power; youngsters wearing them were fearless and adults seeing them felt afraid.
Summer of Love: 1960-1973
Over 100,000 individuals descended on the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco with a collective purpose: to share music, ideas and no small amount of psychoactive drugs, expanding their minds and opening themselves up to new experiences. What became known as the Summer of Love was the defining moment of the 60s – its mood of optimism and experimentation permeated everything from music through to clothing.
Denim presented the uninhibited youth with a blank canvas for their self-expression. Along with new fits and cuts, this was the time when embroidery, beading, and all kinds of personalisation matched the wider mood of self-expression. In recognition of this, Levi's sponsored a Denim Art Contest in 1973 to find the most expressive denim, with over 2,000 entries submitted from across the 49 US states.
Designer Denim: 1975-1985
Calvin Klein produced their first pair of jeans in 1977, and by 1981 they were selling a staggering 15 million pairs per year. Their provocative adverts featuring a 15-year-old Brooke Shields set the tone for the decades that followed. The tagline of one TV spot asked, 'you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing', and was duly banned from some of the more uptight TV channels.
No longer the fabric of the outsider, denim became cheap on one end of the scale and high-fashion on the other. As designer labels produced their sleek and upmarket versions of this functional classic, prices began to climb, fuelled by the hollow economic extravagance that characterised the 80s.
Denim Depression & Hip Hop: 1990-2000
The swollen bubble of the 80s burst in spectacular fashion with the economic depression of the 90s. This hit denim sales hard, and Levi's - the world's largest manufacturer - were forced to close eleven of their North American factories.
The problem, however, was deeper than economics, as the 80s denim boom had wounded the youthful anti-establishment reputation of the jean. Youngsters growing up in the 90s wanted to break away from this denim explosion and now looked to new styles such as khakis, combats, and branded sportswear.
Set against this denim malaise, innovation came from another emerging subculture that would adopt the fabric as its own. The 90s saw hip hop move firmly into the mainstream, as pioneers like Public Enemy, De La Soul, and Gang Starr handed over to hungry young talents and future household names such as Nas, Wu Tang Clan, and Dr Dre. Alongside the music, hip hop introduced a loose and relaxed denim fit that would dominate the late 90s and 2000s.
Levi's launched their "Send Them Home Search" to find the oldest pair of Levi's in the US, sparking off the the heritage trend that's currently thriving in the denim market. The winning pair dated back to the 1920s, initiating a focus on the brand's archive styles.
Levi's Vintage Clothing was launched, recreating iconic pieces from the brand's past – suggesting that the best way to move forward was to look backward.
Today, authenticity is the watchword for denim and a whole range of elaborate ageing processes, washes, and finishes have been devised to give jeans that authentic heritage look. Set against the all-consuming global financial crisis, an appreciation of tradition, quality, and longevity is understandable.
Levi's celebrated the 130th anniversary of the invention of jeans by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, combined with the 150th anniversary of the brand's founding.
Denim has come a long way in 130 years, and it's apt that Levi's said it best with a tagline from one of their 80's campaigns: 'quality that never goes out of style'. The most striking thing about the fabric is its chameleon-like ability for reinvention. Over the years it has clothed miners, cowboys, movie stars, rebels, bikers, hippies, yuppies, punks, rockers, and rappers, and has been adored by all.
Providing a pithy conclusion to its story is like trying, in one line, to summarising the history of America; the two are inseparably-bound together, woven into each other's fabric.