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Denim: A Riveting History

Denim: A Riveting History

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, the US would export its denim and its flag-waving brand of democracy and freedom to the world. From humble origins, it began as a lowly workman's fabric that clothed labourers, pioneers, and frontiersman. Now it is a ubiquitous style that can be pick 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 relatively short space of time. This is the short and riveting history of a fabric with a life of its own: denim.

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Strauss & Davis: The Birth of a Legend

You cannot tell the story of denim without mentioning one brand, Levi's, and their story starts with two men. The first is the Bavarian-born Levi Strauss, who moved to San Francisco in 1853 at the age of 23 to expand his family's dry goods business to the West Coast during the lucrative Gold Rush. The second is the less well-known Jacob Davis, a fellow immigrant from Riga in the Baltic.

In 1870, Davis was set a seemingly run-of-the-mill task in his workshop in Reno, Nevada. A local woodcutter's wife commissioned him to make a pair of sturdy trousers for her unusually-sized husband that would survive a season of hard labour. Davis accepted the job and the advance that it paid, setting to work with a roll of white cotton duck 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 from a previous job. 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, which they were then called, 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 and in 1872 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, setting out in black-and-white the creation that would secure Strauss and Davis's place in denim history.

After the Gold Rush

Strauss and Davis pressed home their early advantage, but their patent expired in 1890. With the legal protection removed, other brands quickly cottoned onto this superior design and suddenly being first wasn't so important. Levi Strauss & Co was formally founded in 1873, yet it entered a marketplace packed with competitors, some who were larger and others who had been producing denim work clothing for longer.

One such rival was Eloesser-Heynemann's 'Can't Bust 'Em' brand, which had been operating in Levi's back yard of San Francisco since 1851. At the time, however, denim production was small-scale and localised, allowing for a range of companies to co-exist. Also, the surging demand for denim workwear to clothe America's ever-growing workforce meant there was plenty of business to go around.

It was also around 1890 that the first identifiable version of the iconic Levi's 501, then simply called the XX, appeared. These first versions were close cousins of the modern 501, yet while certain signature details, such as the stitched arcuate, were ever-present, others were improvements added over time. The leather brand patch (1896), a second rear pocket (1901), and belt loops (1922) were all added as the humble jean morphed from utilitarian work clothing into a more fashion-conscious product.

How The West Was Won

As the twentieth century progressed, denim moved out of the 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 of memory and national mythology.

As railways replaced wagon trails and cowboys hung up their spurs, Hollywood began to present their glossy Cinemax version of the Old West to paying audiences hungry for nostalgia. The first cowboy movie, The Great Train Robbery, was a ten-minute short released in 1904, but 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 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-mass to dude ranches in California to get a taste of the cowboy lifestyle, and a pair of jeans acted as their passport to this Wild West pantomime.

Similarly, former cowboys were brought in-house by the emerging denim giants (Levi's on the West Cost and Lee on the East Coast and Mid West) as consultants. In 1941 Lee enlisted the help of rodeo star Turk Greenough (left) to improve the fit of their jeans. His wife Sally Rand - an exotic dancer - 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.

Bing's Denim Tux

An anecdote from 1951 best illustrates denim's shift from low status workwear into fashionable casual clothing worn by the great and the good.

The story begins when Bing Crosby, then America's most popular actor and singer (almost a white prototype Will Smith), went to check-in at the Vancouver Hotel in Canada. Earlier that day Crosby had been out hunting with a friend and both were wearing their denim hunting gear when they arrived at the hotel. Being a respectable establishment, the hotel clerk took one look at their denim clothes and flatly refused the pair service. It was only when a more observant member of the hotel's staff recognised the Hollywood megastar that the mistake was remedied.

News of this embarrassing incident soon hit the papers and spotting a good PR opportunity, Levi's set about creating Bing a custom-made denim tuxedo, as a playful comment on denim's changing status. The suit, which sported a handmade bouquet on the lapel made entirely of Levi's red tabs, was presented to Bing at a celebration in Elko Nevada, where he was the honorary mayor.

Rebels Without a Cause

The 1950s saw denim transform once again, this time from a flag-waving symbol of national pride characterised by the noble cowboy, into a middle-finger-to-the-flag 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).

Two years later in 1955, Rebel Without a Cause, the film that would shine a spotlight on the emerging cultural gap between the restless angst of America's youth and the conservatism of their parents, also gave birth to another American icon. Although James Dean would tragically die in a fatal car crash less than one month before the film's commercial 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. Newspapers railed against "juvenile delinquents" and "motorcycle boys", while denim was banned from classrooms as teachers feared that just wearing a pair of jeans would incite rebellion.

Set against this social change, Levi's began selling their jeans nationally for the first time in 1950 and, in a shrewd marketing move, changed the name of their product from the out-dated 'overalls' to the more fashionable 'jeans', engaging with their new young customers.

Summer of Love

In the summer of 1967 over 100,000 individuals descended on the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco with a collective purpose. They came to share music, ideas, creativity, and no small amount of psychoactive drugs, with the aim of 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 and the mood of optimism, experimentation, and joy that it radiated, 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.

Against this backdrop of social change, the US denim giants expanded their scope and as America dominated the world economically their denim was introduced to Europe and Japan, acting as an ambassador for the modern American way of life.

Designer Denim

The late 70s saw the beginning of the designer denim boom that would dominate the next twenty years, eventually suffocating the industry. No longer the fabric of the outsider, denim became cheap and ubiquitous at one end of the scale and high-fashion at 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.

Calvin Klein, who produced their first pair of jeans in 1977 went on to sell a staggering 15 million pairs in 1981, just four years later. Their provocative adverts with the then 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.

Denim Depression & Hip Hop

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.

Denim Renaissance

The heritage trend that is currently thriving in the denim market can be traced back to 1993 when Levi's launched their "Send Them Home Search" to find the oldest pair of Levi's in the US. The winning pair dated back to the 1920s and this signalled Levi's new focus on heritage. In 1996, again suggesting that the best way to move forward is to look backward, they launched Levi's Vintage Clothing as the brand's vintage collection, producing pieces that engaged with the label's rich workwear history.

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. In 2003 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 is apt that Levi's said it best with a tagline from one of their 80's campaigns â€" 'quality that never goes out of style'. The most striking thing about denim is its chameleon-like ability for reinvention and that new styles seemed to form around it. Over its history it has clothed miners, cowboys, movie stars, rebels, bikers, hippies, yuppies, punks, rockers, and rappers, and has been adored by each.

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.

To learn more about denim washes, finishes and terms, read our in-depth Denim Glossary. Also, discover the tips and techniques on how to look after your jeans in our Raw Denim Care Guide.