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The history of jeans

Few garments have traveled like the jeans. None have such a compelling story to tell. Riders, rebels and royals have helped them become the world’s first unisex piece and a fashion industry symbol of democracy. Today, they are the basic foundation of most people’s wardrobe.

By Johan Hedeland | Guider | 2016-12-19

Jeans are legendary for many reasons. While their history is both unique and fascinating, they have reflected contemporary society and attitudes more than any other piece of clothing. They are easily placed along a lucid timeline – in the right decade at least – the more accurate the placement, the more detailed the knowledge. Consequently, jeans are the perfect garment for nerds. Besides washes, colors and national origin, fabrics are textured differently, sewn with different threads and techniques and vary in weight. This editorial will sort out what you must know, what your jeans deserve that you know and, not the least, what you owe yourself to know, about the history of jeans.

It all started with Levi's

When 18-year-old Loeb Strauss came from Bavaria to New York in 1847, the US was still in many ways a clean slate. Strauss started working for his brother, became a citizen, went west, changed his name to Levi and started a business. In San Francisco, the California Gold Rush had taken its toll on both miners and their clothing. Strauss started making pants out of canvas and became an important dry goods supplier, in the nick of time; the Central Pacific Railroad barely went all the way yet. Some 20 years later, Reno-tailor Jacob Davis solved the problem with pockets coming off of pants. To simply rivet them saved time and money, although Davis couldn’t afford to patent his idea. Instead he wrote his supplier, Levi Strauss, who was the manufacturer behind Davis jeans and who was behind the idea of Levi Strauss & Co in 1873.

”Decorative double-stitched arcuates were sewn onto the back pockets and later patented. The Arcuate Stich has been acknowledged as the world’s first trademark.”

Together, they began making the prequel to today’s jeans. They were called “the XX”, had copper rivets, a back pocket, button fly and cinch back – the back strap and buckle that are still part of some jeans today. Belts and loops would have to wait. Decorative double-stitched arcuates were sewn onto the back pockets and later patented. The Arcuate Stich has been acknowledged as the world’s first trademark. Its origin is unknown since records were lost in the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Levi’s always protected its patents rigorously and during the 2000s alone, the company has filed hundreds of lawsuits. Back pockets tend to be the main concern, though brands from Ralph Lauren to Swedish brand Coop are among the cases. Subsequently, the competition now designs its own pockets.

In the beginning, denim fabric (from French serge de Nîmes – twill from Nimes) differed from jean fabric (from Gênes, the French word for Genoa in Italy). Jean fabric was lighter and brighter and had a solid color. Denim was stronger with a lighter contrasting weft on the inside. Eventually, all denim pants were called jeanpants and later jeans. The first looms would bind denim edges with a characteristic selvedge (self edge) to avoid fraying. In such looms a shuttle carries a thread from side to side across the warp and the selvedge occurs where the shuttle turns. To keep up with increasing demands, manufacturers gradually switched from shuttle looms to projectile looms. Subsequently, the overlock stitch started replacing the selvedge. The overlock stitch can efficiently be sewn in all textiles which saves both time and money.

Selvage

 

Jeans were for rebels

Jeans would remain work clothes worn by miners, lumberjacks and cowboys in the western US for more than 60 years. Except for some exposure by soldiers on leave during World War II, the jeans got their real breakthrough when rockers and rebels started wearing them in the 50s. Suits and big bands were joined by jeans and rock n roll. Many who had come home from war were not so keen on adjusting to career expectations, marriage or family. Some just wanted to ride motorbikes. Classic icons such as Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) and James Dean in his Lee 101 Riders in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) contributed to the jeans boom. Levi’s endorsed Elvis in Jailhouse Rock (1956). He didn’t really like jeans. They reminded him of his working-class background, but the black Elvis Presley-jeans became a huge hit. During the 60s skinny jeans were seen on icons like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Romanticized carefree youthfulness challenged the respect for elders’ authority and jeans were the rising symbol of rebellion. Some schools in the United States even banned them from classrooms, counterproductively of course. People were tired of rigid conformity and jeans meant emancipation. Never before had the youth been able to express themselves in a way adults would never dream to embrace. Later, David Bowie, Ramones and Bruce Springsteen too would unite with the jean champions.

”Romanticized carefree youthfulness challenged the respect for elders’ authority and jeans were the rising symbol of rebellion.”

In Sweden, jeans never made it as work clothes. The Swedes wore overalls. Although jeans were made in Sweden in the 50s, their Swedish breakthrough came in 1960 when a US-garment-import ban was lifted. Previously, only a few imported pairs had been sold. Lee was first out on the Swedish market. Greasers wore Lee. Levi’s came years after. During the 60s, fashion got a greater impact with an increasing number of jeans styles to follow. The bell-bottoms were an early example making people replace their jeans. Swedish demand for American jeans had grown intensely, and today’s Scandinavian market still works as a test market for the rest of Europe.

Elvis in jeans

 

Japanese denim

Meanwhile, the Japanese market alone equals all of Europe’s. Enthusiasts agree the Japanese by far manufacture the best jeans available today, with huge attention to quality and details. Big John made the first pair of Japanese jeans in 1965. The company imported fabric from the US and had a handful of models in the late 60s. The Japanese began weaving denim in the early 70s for both export and domestic use, and in 1980, Big John started the trend that would forever change the world of denim. Japanese manufacturers started using the traditional 29-inch shuttle looms replaced by American producers due to inefficiency. Once again, jeans were traditionally made from strong selvedge denim with irregular texture and a natural indigo color. Good old-fashioned jeans were suddenly available and sold like hotcakes. Today, a number of Japanese manufacturers are all playing in a league of their own. So are their prices. The equipment is unpredictably fragile and repairs are soon to be impossible. Production is unique, small-scale and nostalgic but the results are amazing.

 

From Calvin Klein to the future

During the 80s, designers such as Calvin Klein and Gucci started making jeans wearable without the risk of being labeled rebel or working-class. Also, the boom fading after the 70s might have reduced attention-getting symbolism. Jeans would become a garment for all even though just a few new brands persisted. People avoided original styles in the 90s and early 00s. New generations wanted to avoid dressing like their parents, although a few years ago, production approached its origin again as more and more manufacturers started talking about going back to their roots.

 

Today’s top players carry the legacy well. Swedish manufacturers in particular have become monumental, either as dedicated denim brands or as Filippa K, renowned on the jeans market without being purely into jeans. Make no mistake; if the past dictates the future, exiting times are coming.