Denim… No other fabric claims such an inherent bond to individuality, the definitive authenticity of fashion rooted in function: the worker’s wear-and-tear as badges of that bonafide broken-in fade, timeless and priceless even in the modern marketplace. This history transcends race, religion, gender, geography, orientation, hobby, genre, and –– perhaps most-telling of all –– the very notions and structures of class to which denim owes its definitive aesthetic, its working-class cultural gene.
Denim has become a sartorial staple from pre-war factory assembly lines to modern high-fashion houses, as much a signature style of counterculture activists as it is a necessity in any contemporary lifestyle brand’s seasonal collection. Its history speaks to the overlooked function of fashion as a vehicle for social mobility, and the capacity of fashion to restore a sense of function to any and every lifestyle of the creative… those cultural architects building out the scene from the copper corner of a riveted dream. Now, a vantage through the vintage cultural history of denim.
The denim jean is synonymous with the American West, and while denim in its signature form was designed in California, the name “denim jean” finds its origins split overseas, between France and Italy, more familiar to shipyards and barracks than estates and boudoirs:
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.
In 1873, Nevada-based tailor Jacob Davis, and entrepreneurial Bavarian-native Levi Strauss, patented the canonical Levi 501 design. The “XX” Overall was made in response to heavy demand by prospectors and gold miners for work clothes that would be durable and breathable enough to withstand life in the mines. From the simplicity of a rivet and seam, Davis and Strauss created a brand that would embody the very form-and-figure of American ingenuity and innovation through necessity. While Strauss gave denim a branded look, it was the early adopters, those American laborers who took that fabric and breathed it new life.
The history of denim lives in that California gold mine. The soul of San Francisco lives in the very hemlines of the denim facade; from 1849er gold miners working on a whim and prospect, to Silicon Valley tech-moguls-in-training emulating the straight-leg simplicity of a minimalist Steve Jobs, denim’s earliest cultural roots remain grounded in the freedom of timeless functionality. The fabric found its place with the working class, weaving the very identity of American style and society by way of The California Dream made wearable, the genesis of lifestyle made real. Substance merged with style in the 1930s, and where the jean found a place among the working class, it found a face in the world of cinema. Hollywood became San Francisco’s perfect compliment to denim’s cultural identity, and the history became that of the lone ranger: hi-ho silver screen.
Synonymous within the working class as their wardrobe mainstay since its inception, denim’s cultural iconography came to fruition with its recognition among the masses; and nowhere is mass saturation more impactful than entertainment –– film, in particular. World War II and economic collapse stalled direct growth for any commercial textile enterprise, and denim was no different from a business vantage. Denim’s viability was not yet rooted in the world of fashion, though, and it’s undeniable functionality is what made it recession-proof.
That signature resilience became the fabric’s subtle signifier as denim indirectly established its global identity by pairing with two of America’s archetypal cultural institutions: Hollywood and the Armed Forces. Stateside and abroad, silver-screen lone rangers and foreign-deployed Army rangers became denim-clad emblems of individuality and American culture. As the hot-headed John Waynes and Roy Rogers of the 1930s evolved into the rebellious cool of James Dean and Marlon Brando of the 1950s, denim would develop into a de facto uniform of the young progressive; and as the role of the working class evolved with shifts in the Stateside social climate, so did the cultural narrative of the jean.
Not all heroes wear capes, some wear copper rivets. Denim is the fabric of capeless crusaders on the front lines: for soldiers, activists, and counterculture comrades alike, jeans are a uniform of the marginalized as much as the masses. The 1960s youthquaker counterculture movement saw the rise of denim as a badge of definitive resistance against suits of the Establishment; and behind every progressive scene, was a story grounded in the stitch and rivet of that indigo seam.
Norman Rockwell tossed out the first image of Rosie the Riveter’s quintessential depiction because the featured model lacked authenticity to the cause, choosing to wear a blouse instead of the staple denim blue work shirt. Young SNCC organizers wore denim overalls during the Civil Rights Movement in defiance against the upper class, and to display solidarity with the working class sharecroppers. Anti-war student protesters donned denim in clear opposition to incumbent institutions of power. Denim became a means of visual communication for agents of change within the national landscape, and with the merger of the young zeitgeist and visual communication comes fame and the world of fashion.
The history of denim is the history of sartorial social mobility. The indigo-hued fabric in-and-of itself is a living ladder traversing most every echelon of the social landscape: denim literally traveled around the world to get from docks in Genoa to runways in Milan and tailors in Nimes to catwalks in Paris. The 1970s brought denim from grassroots to glam with the debut of the bell-bottom. Where activists of the 1960s saw denim as a canvas –– experimenting with patches, paints, and psychedelic prints; the 1970s gave way to manufacturers who literally expanded the design possibilities.
The Flare leg was symbolic foreshadowing of denim’s future in the world of fashion. No longer exclusive to the marginalized or working class, denim saw a mainstream boom in the 1980s with the introduction of synthetic fibers to the process of “denim jean” production. In the wake of industrialization and an increasingly globalized market economy, denim’s rugged have-not authenticity saw a slow eclipse in the face high-fashion.
Every David eventually becomes a Goliath, and denim’s bittersweet break from the working-class street to penthouse suites was marked by a catwalk coup (of sorts) on club culture. Where Reagan and Thatcher economics privatized the larger public sector, the fashion industry all but usurped denim from the subculture on behalf of runway couture. Style’s bleeding edge at the time was alternative club culture, where denim saw a counterculture renaissance through emergent alternative styles (heavier black tones, skinny jeans, denim jackets) circulating across underground scenes. This expansion of denim within the mass mainstream consumer marketplace created a subculture of rebellion against its own commercialization and artificiality against its original form, expressed in the emergent style media scene:
… which is perhaps when denim established itself as, well, a part and parcel of the Establishment.
The history of denim is the riveting reality of building a future from the loom of a past life. The rebellious drive of the 1950s saw a revival in the 1990s, but now, denim was the sword and shield of the sartorial overlord, becoming a symbol of the old guard among 90s youth culture. The brink of a new millennium, however, welcomed a denim renaissance. High-fashion houses from Helmut Lang and Tom Ford for Gucci to Gianni Versace’s denim couture ushered in the fabric’s second coming by way of ready-to-wear runway collections. Hedi Slimane’s single-handed Dior Homme skinny jean-coup on the mid-Noughties Ed Hardy monarchy maintained denim’s luxe life momentum, heralding a new wave of denim-only premium brands elevating the aesthetic of authenticity to fit a new contemporary culture. Today, East meets West on the Pacific once again, as Japanese selvedge appears at the fore of denim’s current standard for authenticity.
The history of denim is the history of the post-Gold Rush American lifestyle. This lifestyle had a uniform: custom fit, made-to-measure, durable, breathable, versatile, and no two pairs the same; the signature of this sartorial staple is in its malleability, how the denim piece is never finalized, every fade, crease, and fold completely crafted by the owner’s movement –– exclusive from any factory-production. A large part of denim’s enigmatic legacy is its longevity, a longevity founded upon defining authenticity in the face of an increasingly disposable culture. Year in, year out, generation after generation, the denim jean maintains its place within the social signature. The history of denim… akin to its inherent mystery, is nothing more, and never anything less, than that of the riveted-seam holding fast together each harbinger of this American scene.