Like so many great inventions and innovations in history, blue jeans were created for a simple reason: there was a need for them. In a story that is truly American, blue jeans are put together with fabric from the other side of the world and they were invented thanks to the efforts of an immigrant running his own store, a creative western tailor in a mining town and an annoyed wife. So why were jeans invented? Because one wife had just had enough with pants that weren’t tough enough.
Really Tough Pants
Tailor Jacob Davis was working in Reno, Nevada in the late 1800s. Back then, Reno was a western mining town. One day in 1871, a miner’s wife came into the tailor shop. She was angry. She wanted to know why her husband’s pants were always wearing out, particularly around the pockets and the button fly. There were always tears that she had to fix constantly.
She told Davis to do better and create a tougher pair of pants, the type of pants that could actually withstand the harsh conditions in the mines.
Davis told her he’d do his best and he started to think about the problem. He thought about the metal fasteners used on harnesses to add strength to their overall design. That’s when he came up with the idea for a pair of riveted pants. In his design, the high-stress areas of the pants were strengthened with rivets. He made the pants out of tough cotton canvas material.
He didn’t know he was holding a multi-billion-dollar idea in his hands. But a retailer in San Francisco immediately saw the potential.
A Business is Born
Jacob Davis needed tough fabric to make more trousers, so he went to a store owned by German immigrant Levi Strauss. He showed the pants to Strauss, who took an interest in the design. Together, the two filed a patent and began a business. When their patent was issued on May 20, 1873, it was the beginning of the blue jean industry.
Putting the Blue in Blue Jeans
So, blue jeans were created by two entrepreneurs living in the American west trying to fulfill a demand for tough, rugged clothing suitable for gold miners. What an American story, right? Oh yeah, they’re also made with a pretty blue material that comes from Nimes, France.
It’s true. Though blue jeans have a distinctly American history and they are a totally American look, denim itself is as French as it gets. At least, it used to be.
In the late 1700s, Nimes was a bustling textile city that was known for producing lots of different fabrics. A river flowed right through the city where workers crouched to dye reams of cotton, silk and wool.
One of those textile mills, or perhaps one of the workers, created denim using cotton warp-faced cloth that is made with a diagonal weave. The warp threads were colored using indigo dye, while the weft threads were left their natural white. This is what created the unique look and texture of denim and what set it apart from other fabrics. More than a century later, indigo is still associated with denim and with blue jeans.
People noticed the unusual material, called denim because it originated in Nimes. The name is derived from “serge de Nimes,” which means “sturdy fabric from Nimes.” One person who noticed it was Levi Strauss, who left Europe in 1851 to set up a general store in America. Here, he established Levi Strauss & Co. So when a tailor named Jacob Davis showed him a pair of pants, Strauss knew exactly which material they should use to make them.
Soon, jeans made with the indigo-dyed blue denim fabric became more popular than those made with the brown canvas duck cloth that Davis first used to create his riveted trousers. Today, Levi Strauss is still synonymous with blue jeans…an industry that has blossomed into big business that’s worth $91 billion a year.
And none of it would have happened if one angry wife hadn’t gone to a shop one day to give a tailor an earful.
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The World’s Favorite Trousers
Suffice it to say, the miner’s wife was pleased. The copper rivet innovation on the tough fabric made for one hard-wearing pair of paints. Levi Strauss jeans were durable, they were strong at the stress points. They were perfect work pants. They were just what she wanted. It turns out, the new pants were just what everyone else wanted, too. Originally marketed as waist overalls, the Levi jeans quickly caught on with the miners. Other laborers noticed the tough pants. Levi Strauss & Co., along with Jacob W Davis, continued to make jeans. Other companies, like Wrangler, decided to make their own denim jeans and market them.
Over the years, denim jeans took over the fashion world. They spread from miners and other workers to Hollywood celebrities like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando in the 1950s. More jeans makers arrived on the scene and soon, designer jeans became a thing. Big-name designers like Calvin Klein soon created their own blue jeans, even copying the metal rivets associated with hard work (not with walking on a catwalk). The denim pants had become high fashion.
Today, jeans are sold in a dizzying array of styles and colors. You can get baggy jeans, carpenter jeans, skinny jeans, boyfriend jeans and more types of jeans that most people can possibly name. They come in a variety of finishes, including washed, faded and more.
Levi’s jeans have more competition, but the name is still the most famous name in blue jeans and still continues to produce trousers that everyone wants to wear around the world.
From early workwear to the look associated with cowboys to wide-legged bell bottoms and close-fitting skinny jeans to high-end designer wear, perhaps no item of clothing has been adapted into more styles than blue jeans. Everyone owns a pair and everyone knows which is their favorite pair. Now, you know a little bit more about why denim jeans were invented in the first place. But if you still have lingering questions about jeans, no worries. We’ve got the answers to all the most frequently asked blue jeans questions.
Are blue jeans business casual?
Wearing jeans in any sort of professional setting has long been frowned upon, despite the fact that jeans were created for working people in the first place. But in these modern days of business casual, are jeans a go or a no-go?
The answer to that question depends entirely upon the workplace. In many relaxed office settings, blue jeans are fine on casual Friday as long as you aren’t meeting with clients. And if you’re wearing them, make sure to wear a pair that isn’t ripped, faded or ill-fitting. Sagging jeans are out of the question, obviously. Stick to darker denim that fits well. Don’t wear something low-rise or something very tight-fitting. Dress like you’re still in a workplace.
In a more conservative office environment, jeans are not business casual. Law firms, corporate offices and other businesses that court a high-paying clientele will generally frown on blue jeans, even on casual Friday.
Are blue jeans illegal in some countries, like North Korea and Russia?
In North Korea, it both is and isn’t illegal to wear blue jeans. All those who live in North Korea are barred from wearing blue jeans. However, black denim is fine. Tourists can get away with wearing blue jeans in some places but they are absolutely prohibited at the Kim II Sung and Kim Jong II memorials. [Source: Brightside]
During the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR, blue jeans were very much frowned upon in the Soviet part of Russia. Jeans were banned in schools, dances halls and other public places. Despite the effort to discourage jeans-wearing, Russian youth loved them. Jeans became incredibly difficult to get and ultimately became a hot commodity on the black market in the 1970s.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ultimate fall of the USSR, jeans and many other items became more widely available in Russia and former Soviet nations.
Can you wear blue jeans to a funeral?
For the most part, jeans aren’t generally the most appropriate attire for solemn and formal events, such as funerals and weddings. [Source: Huffington Post]
Can you dye or bleach blue jeans?
If you’ve got a pair of jeans and you love the fit but not the look, you can change them. It is possible to bleach jeans on your own and give the finish a makeover. You’ll need to lay down a thick coat of plastic sheet on your work area and put on heavy rubber gloves to protect your hands. Don’t forget safety glasses. Open up some windows and turn on a fan to circulate air. Maintain good ventilation. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded in any way, step outside and breathe deeply for several moments.
Create a solution of one part bleach and three parts water. Thoroughly wet down the jeans and use a sponge to apply the bleach solution, dabbing it on all over the denim until you’ve treated the jeans entirely. This is the best way to apply bleach without getting bleach spray or spill in the surrounding area. After bleach has been dabbed on, soak the jeans in the bleach solution for about 30 minutes. Swirl them around in there once or twice to more evenly distribute the coverage.
Rinse the jeans for at least five minutes, soaking and ringing them out and repeating it many times. Machine-wash your jeans with no detergent added and then air dry the jeans. [Source: WikiHow]
You can also dye blue jeans, though the procedure can be incredibly involved and complex. Bluing jeans is a process where you sort of freshen up and brighten up the denim color. To do this, the jeans must be soaked in a solution of liquid bluing agent and water, then machine washed and dried.
When using fabric dye, you’ll need to create a solution using dye, hot water and salt. The jeans must be stirred in the dye solution for about 30 minutes to an hour, then machine-washed. [Source: The Spruce]
Can blue jeans be altered?
Blue jeans can be altered and changed to your liking, but only up to a point. As long as your jeans fit around your widest points (hips, rear, thighs), the fit can be changed to feel more comfortable. The waistband can be altered and the length adjusted. The leg can be tapered and the belt loops can be changed around.
Some things are harder to change. Zipper length and pocket placement are difficult, if not impossible, to change. [Source: Vogue]
Should you wash blue jeans?
Unlike your standard khakis, jeans are made with a thick material that doesn’t need to be washed often. Jeans also tend to fit your body better the more you wear them, naturally conforming to your shape. This makes them look even better. You don’t want to wash away that fit and end up feeling uncomfortable.
Unless your jeans get dirty, you can wear them about 10 times before you actually wash them. You can always toss them in the dryer for a few minutes with some fabric softener to hang them up in the bathroom to steam them while you shower if you want to freshen them up. [Source: Real Simple]
Why were ripped blue jeans invented?
Prior to the 1970s, having ripped jeans was a sign of economic hardship or hard work. You might wear them to do labor but if you were wearing them for a social function or to run errands, clearly you were on hard times. This all changed with the rise of heavy rock music, such as metal and punk rock, that appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Rock and rollers cultivated a distinct look that included ripped denim, leather, metal accessories, chains and lots and lots of black fabric.
The ripped jeans look caught on and became part of popular fashion trends in the 1980s, becoming a staple of fashion of the era. In more modern times, ripped jeans have made a comeback…only now, they’re labeled as “distressed denim.” [Source: Apparel Search]
When and why were skinny jeans invented?
Close-fitting and even skintight pants are nothing new. Tight-fitting breeches and hose were standard for men in the medieval and Renaissance eras. But skinny jeans are much more modern…right?
Fitted jeans that fit close to the body were quite popular in the 1950s as part of standard beatnik fashion. These jeans were high-waisted and made with dark denim and they were the definite grandparent of the future skinny jean style. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that true skinny jeans made an appearance when they were popularized by punk rockers, a counterculture movement associated with a rebellion of organized systems of rule. Skinny jeans surged again in the 2010s, when suddenly they were everywhere. [Source: Refinery29]
Where does the word jeans come from?
The word likely became associated with fabric due to the sailors who came to France from Genoa. “Genes” is the French word for Genoa. The sailors wore tough pants made with the fustian material, which were known as jeans. [Source: Encyclopedia.com]
- BBC – How the birthplace of denim is making jeans again
- Fashion Beans – Are Jeans Business-Casual?
- Gentleman’s Gazette – The Denim Jeans Guide – Their History & How to Buy for Your Body Type
- Levi Strauss & Co. – Blue Jeans and the Fall of the Berlin Wall
- Levi Strauss & Co. – The History of Denim
- Smithsonian Magazine – The Origin of Blue Jeans