Denim jeans represent one of the most unique items of clothing ever to grace worldwide wardrobes. From rural farmer to urban lawyer, from housewife to heiress, denim jeans unite all walks of life in a way that no other fashion has ever achieved.
So, where did the journey begin?
In the mid 1800’s, California was home to the Gold Rush and miners who worked arduously in tough conditions demanded clothing to suit their needs. Clothes that could absorb the stress and abuse of mining, clothing that boasted real durability.
In 1851, a Bavarian-born businessman by the name of Leob Strauss emigrated from Germany to New York and after a couple of years of making ends meet with his brother, he ventured on to San Francisco to establish his own dry goods business.
Mr. Strauss gained his American citizenship in 1853, changed his name to ‘Levi’ and gave birth to his instrumental idea of using denim to fashion working clothes, founding a wholesale business to supply the miners with the threads they required.
Originally, Strauss tailored basic trousers, with no back pockets and no belt loops, held up merely by a cinch belt in the back. As popularity grew and word spread, he began to supply an endless stream of blue-collared workers, such as miners, farmers, ranchers and railroad workers.
Another tailor, Jacob Davis, who purchased materials in bulk from Levi Strauss to construct riveted clothing for workers in the Reno area approached him in 1872, presenting him with a proposal to obtain a patent for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings”. The concept revolved around using copper rivets at critical seems to provide a sturdier product, reducing the chance of splitting in areas of high stress. With Davis unable to afford the price of the patent by himself, Levi Strauss & Co contributed towards the $69 fee and in 1973 the U.S.Patent No.139,121 was purchased under both parties names.
Around 1880, trademark additions afforded the legwear a truly unique finish, including orange stitching, bar tacking, an arcuate design across the back pocket, a watch pocket and the famous leather patch depicting two horses, first used in 1886, all of which continue in operation to this day.
Due to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, much of the original paperwork and documenting of the development of manufacturing was lost or destroyed. This has led to the creation of various myths – one popular suggestion stating that the denim used in the large-scale production of the copper riveted “waist overall” was obtained from Serges de Nimes in France.
Levi Strauss & Co. discredited this theory, claiming the true source of denim to be the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire. This region of New England was the site of the pioneering American textile mills and in 1914 an article in the Amoskeag newspaper confirmed the previous business connections with Levi Strauss & Co.:
“Doubtless the Amoskeag denim has contributed in no small degree to the success of Levi Strauss & Co. and in return, that concern has contributed in an equal degree to the success of Amoskeag denims, advertising as it does, their superiority over all other denims.”
Levi Strauss died in 1902 and following the 1906 disaster the redevelopment of the company was left to his four nephews. The most notable changes to production came in 1911, when the use of duck cotton was abandoned in favour of pure denim production due to customer demand. It was felt that once one had sampled the comfort of denim, going back to duck cotton felt as though one were donning a canvas tent around one legs.
The 1930’s saw a boom in popularity aided by Western movies, featuring cowboys in Levi’s waist overalls, such as classic hero John Wayne, moving association from working man to individual, independent and authentic American. In 1936 the renowned red tag was added to the back pocket as a marketing ploy designed to inform others from distance that someone was sporting Levi’s overalls.
While 1940’s wartime saw a dip in production, due to raw materials being utilised by armed forces, the 1950’s witnessed a dramatic increase in manufacturing as Levi Strauss & Co. began trading on a national scale. The introduction of the zipper fly was a mass marketing ploy, which was met with mixed reaction. It is important to note that Lee jeans, founded by Henry David Lee, were the pioneers of the zipper fly some three decades earlier in the 1920’s.
Celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando and James Dean – memorably in the film Rebel Without a Cause – began to wear Levi Strauss & Co. products and the youth, wanting to emulate these rebellious idols, began to follow suit in protest against the Vietnam War and establishment. The negative overspill was that establishments such as schools began to ban such clothing, viewing it as a symbol of anti-authoritarianism.
Levi Strauss & Co. overalls took on the name denim jeans, despite denim and jean representing two separate materials. Some suggest the use of the term “jeans” was derived from the word Genoese, used to describe the pants worn by sailors from Genoa, Italy. Although a more plausible explanation is that the word stuck around from the description of “jeans pants”, made from jean fabric, which Strauss imported from Eastern parts of the United States.
Post-war 1950’s Britain and Europe were presented their first opportunity to purchase and own the much-admired Levi jeans, which had gained popularity when displayed by off-duty American G.I.s. The expansion in the 1960’s spread to the Far East and by the 1970’s Levi even catered to the mass hippy movement demands, producing flared and bell bottomed denim jeans. In the 1980’s the practical aspect of denim jeans, not needing to be washed often and not requiring an iron, was appreciated as more women began working and possessed less time for household chores.
Throughout recent decades Levi Strauss & Co. have proved their ability to move with the times and cater to the markets needs, updating styles and re-inventing new looks, whilst maintaining the cash cow classic 501’s.
Popular designs have included Twists, Boot Cut, Slim Fit and latterly Skinny Fit jeans. Levi’s jeans are now produced in a vast array of colours, with black, white and red highly favoured, but through all the variations on style and colour, the most popular remains the classic indigo blue.
Consumerism has turned the modest, working-class clothing into a common fixture of global mainstream culture, with no limit on age, gender or race. Denim jeans have travelled a magnificent journey from their origin of practicality, to their employment as a fashion statement, but today their role in society goes further still. Denim jeans, accessible to all subcultures, define the people we are, affording mankind a chance to promote an identity through the cut, colour and brand of waist overalls they choose to adorn. The real beauty of denim jeans lies not merely in the contemporary contentment they present the wearer, but also that satisfying slice of history we are given on every occasion they are worn.
Levi Strauss, we salute you.