Do You Like It? Share It:


yves Saint-Laurent once stated that he wished he had invented blue jeans as jeans “are expressive and discreet, they have sex appeal and simplicity,-everything I could want for the clothes I design” (The Fashion Book, Levi Strauss Designer, 1998).

The purpose of this article is to examine the popularization of jeans since Levi Strauss invented the first blue jeans in the 1860s. A brief overview is provided to show how a garment that began as folk work clothes progressed over the years to become one of the most popular casual wear garb in modern society. What makes jeans so appealing is that they make no distinction between classes, sexes and age groups.

Levi Strauss, a pedlar who had immigrated to North America from Bavaria, followed the Gold Rush in California in the 1850s to sell his goods. The miners asked him for sturdy and durable work pants. With the help of a tailor, Strauss put together work pants that were supposedly made out of the canvas he had brought with him for the assembly of tents. In the 1860s, he began to fabricate pants made from heavyweight denim, and because the pants were dyed with indigo they were named “blue jeans”.

The original design of Levi Strauss blue jeans, Design 501, was influenced by the style of the loose trousers worn by Genoese sailors, a feature of which was the flared bottom to fit over work boots. Strauss selected a hardwearing fabric known as Serge de Nîmes (denim) which had gained popularity in France. Denim is heavy twill-woven cotton, a natural fiber that absorbs moisture quickly, dries quickly, and has a cooling effect when it is warm. Due to the expense of importing denim from France, Strauss likely obtained his supply from an American textile manufacturer (Dorner, 1974, p. 108-109; The Fashion Book, Levi Strauss Designer, 1998; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 356).

The Levi jeans were dyed with indigo as it was cheap and plentiful since Guimet, a Frenchmen, invented an artificial indigo in 1826, and a synthetic indigo became available in 1876. Indigo produces a dark blue color which is long-lasting and maintains its color fastness when laundered (Boucher, 1973, p. 388).

To make Levi jeans more durable, copper rivets were added to reinforce the points of stress in strategic places such as on the pocket corners. This innovation helped to stop the weight of the gold nuggets from tearing the pockets. In 1873, rivets were placed at the bottom of the button fly to prevent it from ripping. That same year, the back pockets of the jeans were reinforced by adding stitching in the shape of a double arc design using orange thread. On May 20, 1874, Levi Strauss and his partner, Jacob Davis, received U.S. Patent 139,121, for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings” (Dorner, 1974, p. 108-109; Tortora & Eubanks, 2010, p. 356; Wikipedia, Jeans).

The original Levi Jeans Design 501 did not undergo too many changes over the years, with the exception of becoming tighter fitting. In the 1960s, preshrunk jeans known as Levi Design 505, a regular fit jean with a zipper fly opening rather than a button fly, became available. This design was followed by a slim boot- cut jean with a normal waistline known as Levi Design 517, and then a lower waistline jean referred to as Levi Design 527. Since the 1970s, Strauss & Co. have produced trendy styles such as the loose, comfort, relaxed, slim, and skinny jeans (Harris & Johnston, 1971, p. 221; Wikipedia, Jeans).

Levi jeans were popular with the working folk such as miners, lumberjacks, cowboys, ranchers, farmers, factory workers and laborers as the pants were reputed to be tough, hardwearing, functional, comfortable and affordable. The increasing demand for hardwearing denim pants, or jeans, resulted in two other early companies wanting to capture a share of the working-folk market, namely, the H.D. Lee Mercantile Company, established in Kansas, USA in 1898, and the Western Garment Company (GWG), founded in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, in 1911.

The Lee Company specialized in denim work wear, and by the 1950s they had expanded into casual wear. Since then, Lee Jeans have become popular worldwide (Lee Mercantile Company, 2014). The GWG Company originally started off by making hard-wearing clothing for the growing workforce. By the 1960s, GWG was producing casual denim clothing for the entire family. In 1963, Levis Strauss & Co. bought 75% of GWG (Cole, 2009; Wikipedia, GWG). Wrangler authentic western jeans appeared on the market in 1947, a brand that originated with Casey Jones who had acquired the Blue Bell Company a few years earlier. Wranglers were popular with the rodeo cowboys and cowgirls, and by 1996 one out of every five pairs of jeans sold in America featured a Wrangler label (Wrangler, 2014).

There is an interesting video on “How Jeans are Made” on You Tube:

And, a song, “Piece by Piece,” by Maria Dunn (2013), a Canadian Folk Music Award Nominee, that tells the story of the women who had worked in the GWG factories in the 1940s: /landing.html?blockID=727549&feedID=7375

Jeans had originally been designed as men’s work pants, but in the 1870s, Western women who worked along with men on ranches and farms began to wear men’s jeans. Savage (1996) refers to Willie Matthews, who in the 1870s outfitted herself in her brother’s clothes to get a job as a cowpuncher (p. 8). Laegreid (2006), who examined the gender role of women as cowgirls and rodeo royalty in the early 1900s, includes pictures in her book of cowgirls wearing jeans.

In 1930, Vogue magazine ran an advertisement depicting two society women in tight fitting jeans, a look that they called “Western chic.” By the mid-1930s, department stores were stocking Levis jeans and western boots in the women’s section. After World War II, jean manufacturers would offer a pant for women, similar to those of men, but with a side opening instead of a fly-front opening. It was not until 1958 that adjustments were made in the design of women’s jeans to account for the female shape, and in the 1960s, women’s jeans became available with the fly-front zipper opening (Dorner, 1974, p. 109; Lee Mercantile Company, 2014; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 476).

According to Anspach (1971), women started to appropriate themselves of men’s jeans, first as symbols of revolt to level off the effect between the sexes, then as sports clothes, and later on as casual wear (p. 332).

As early as the 1930s, children’s blue jeans were in demand by parents who wanted hard wearing play clothes and every day wear. Some children wore jeans to school, but the teachers complained that the rivets on the back pockets made holes in the wooden school seats. As a result, manufacturers discontinued using rivets on children’s pants. Few schools allowed children to wear blue jeans, so to capture the school- aged market, GWG introduced coloured denim jeans in the 1940s (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 488).

After WW II, jeans became the uniform of most adolescent males, and adolescent girls began to dress up in boy’s blue jeans for casual dress. To distinguish themselves from the males, the girls would roll up their jeans and some of them would add a leather patch on their derriere (Anspach, 1971, p. 315). Jeans became symbols of affiliation of the young through their similarity in dress, and of wanting more freedom from sexual stereotypes and the restrictions of parental and societal values (Harris & Johnston, 1971, p. 221; Sproles & Burns, 1994, p. 195).

Jeans became a hot item with the youth in the 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1950s, jeans were popularized and glamorized by James Dean and Marlon Brando in movies such as Rebel without a Cause, and Blue Denim. These movies presented rebellious youth dressed up in blue jeans, black leather motorbike jackets and white T-shirts. In the 1960s, counter-culture youth protesting against the establishment wore jeans as a uniform of their connection, or to demonstrate their solidarity with the working class. Young people would embroider designs on their jeans, or add patches and paint messages on them showing their group slogan or association (Browning, 2000; Laver, 2002, p. 260; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 537).

In the 1960s, blue jeans were rare among adults and had not as yet been accepted in conventional places such as schools, restaurants, theaters, and offices. With improvements in the treatment of denim fabric by textile manufacturers over the years, and the creation of a number of jean styles to entice new customers, blue jeans would become a fashion staple in most people’s wardrobes by the 1980s. They also became a standard of casual and every day dress, even in offices. Jeans were generally worn with T-shirts or shirts, but for a dressier look men, for instance, would wear jeans with a sports jacket or a matching denim jacket, and with dressy shoes (Agins, 1999, p. 9; Browning, 2000; Laver, 2002, p. 47; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 576).

For many years the denim used in the fabrication of blue jeans was rather coarse and susceptible to shrinking making the garment unappealing as casual wear dress until textile manufacturers invented new processes and techniques to improve the fabric. Since the 1960s, innovations in the production of denim have resulted in the availability of:

-Preshrunk or pre-washed jeans.
-Permanent pressed jeans that do not wrinkle, regardless of how they are worn, and never need ironing. The permanent-press process basically involves treating the fabric with resins, then using a special treatment known as “hot head press” to bake the finish into the garment after it is cut and manufactured (Anspach, 1971, p. 315; Harris & Johnston, 1971, p. 221).
-Stretch denim jeans which give a form fitting fit. Briefly, the process involves combining spun elastane fibers that are composed of polyurethane filaments with other yarns (The Indian Textile Journal, 2012).
-Distressed or worn looking jeans. Different chemicals and techniques called stone-wash or acid-wash give denim a used and soft look, and special dyeing and finishing methods produce a faded or streaked look in a wide variety of colors. By 2002, specialty manufacturers were making replicas of well-worn jeans, and to make them look authentic they added worn spots, stains, tears, and repairs to the jeans (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 601, 606; Wikipedia, Jeans).

The technological advances in the treatment of denim resulted in companies using blue denim and colored denim to make jackets, suits, shirts, shorts, and hats for the whole family, and women’s skirts. Even haute couture designers will use denim fabric in their collections to create daring and avant-garde attire (Laver, 2002, p. 262; Stone, 2008, p. 560; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 606).

After the 1960s, clothing manufacturers would introduce a variety of jean styles in retail stores to persuade the sexes and age groups to buy them (Harris & Johnston, 1971, p. 221; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 570). Beginning in the 1970s, designer jeans would make their appearance in high-end shops. In 1970, Calvin Klein promoted his designer jeans as refined sportswear. In the 1980s, designers such as Gloria Vanderbilt, Ralph Lauren, and Jean-Paul Gaultier marketed their brands. Guess Inc., Jordach, and others would also cash in on the designer jeans boom. Some designer jeans could be quite fanciful. For instance, in the late 1990s, the Milanese house of Gucci presented feather-trim and feather embroidered jeans (Agins, 1999, p. 85, 119-120, 209; Laver, 2002, 282-283; Lee, 2003, p. 123, 165-166; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 549).

There have been a number of notable jeans styles since the 1960s such as bell-bottom jeans, baggy jeans, distressed looking jeans, skin-tight jeans, and low-rise and peek-a-boo jeans, to name a few.

Bell-bottom Jeans. In 1969 bell-bottoms jeans were introduced on the market and became quite popular with men and women. However, the flared shape lost its appeal after a few years. This particular style made its reappearance in the 1990s for a short period of time (Browning, 2000; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 643).

Baggy Jeans. Baggy jeans or saggy jeans became stylish with subculture groups, the hip hop set in the 1990s, and even the skateboarders. These pants were overly large in size. They were worn low on the hips revealing much of the underwear, and they sagged at the crotch level. Tommy Jeans featured a number of baggy styles that were favored by the hip-hop set. The baggy look did not hit mainstream (Agins, 1999, p. 121; Laver, 2002, p. 262; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 608).

Distressed Jeans. Around the mid-1980s young people were dressing up as bohemians in beat-up looking jeans. They wore ripped jeans with leather jackets and T-shirts; they colored their hair in unusual colors and wore multiple earrings (The People History). Trend following clothing manufacturers noticed that young people were slashing their jeans themselves so they introduced jeans with a worn, torn, and faded look (Laver, 2001, p. 291; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 606-607). But, the youth found the price of distressed jeans outrageous. The 1988 Lauren Double RL Jeans, for example, sold between $70 and $150, and as Agins (1999) points out young people could find worn and faded jeans at vintage clothing shops for a third of that price (p. 120). By 2002, companies were making authentic looking replicas of well-worn jeans with a price tag that ranged between $150 and $200, but retailers such as Gap would eventually offer distressed jeans for less than $50 (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 601, 606; Wikipedia, Jeans).

Tight-fitting Jeans. Ralph Lauren tried to capture the western wear market in 1978 by offering an alternative design to the Wrangler and Lee jeans with his line of tight-fitting jeans. In 1979 the Buffalo label also came out with skin-tight jeans. Skin-tight jeans were sometimes worn at least two inches too small for a person’s waist, and getting into them was a struggle. Certain wearers would require assistance to get into them. The tightest fitting jeans in existence were referred to as French Jeans (Agins, 1999, p. 112, 119; Sproles & Burns, 1994, p. 155). In the early 1980s, the Gloria Vanderbuilt designer jeans that hugged a person’s derriere were the best-selling jeans in America (The Fashion Book, 1998, Gloria Vanderbuilt).

For men who wanted a bulging crotch to show underneath their skin-tight jeans, Lee Cooper released the Pack-it Jean in the 1970s. This trend was of a short duration, but the Pack-it Jean was re-released in 2001 (Lee, 2003, p. 166).

Low-rise and Peek-a-boo Jeans. In 1992 Alexander McQueen produced the Bumster jeans, tight-fitting pants with a waist that hung so low on the hips that the wearer’s rear cleavage was exposed. Baring the butt crack was a familiar sight in the 2000s. During that period of time Levis introduced its line of Dangerously Low jeans for women and men, and Old Navy was selling in its stores ultra-low-rise jeans. The lowest of the lows on the rise on a pair Frankie B. jeans was alleged to be just three inches whereas the regular cut Levi’s had a rise of ten inches. In the fall of 2001, Lee Cooper in the UK launched Butt Couture, a line of jeans made from lightweight denim designed intentionally with a gap between the waistband and the pants to create a peek-a-boo effect (Lee, 2003, p. 28-31).

Pop singers like Christian Aguilera, Madonna, Beyoncé Knowles and Britney Spears are known for having worn jeans so low and snug while dancing that people were concerned that they would pop right out of their jeans or bust a seam (Lee, 2003, p. 28-31). Although some pop stars may look very sexy in their tight jeans, the consumer must be aware that not all jean styles and fads may compliment their figure. The Marquis of Fashion stresses this point in “Malicious Mom Bum and How to avoid it”.

Lee (2003) refers to medical evidence in her book that has led some doctors to conclude that tight-fitting jeans can create health problems. Doctors noticed, for example, that when the men who had complained of stomach problems, including heartburn and distension switched to baggy pants their symptoms disappeared. In the case of women, the wearing of tight pants can result in endometriosis, one of the top three causes of female infertility. In addition, tight waists may also cause a number of vascular problems. Lee concludes that, “It goes to show that Fashion Victims can fall for the most uncomfortable trends, like skintight jeans” (p, 224-225).

In the past, blue jeans were identified with the American folk culture, but since the 1970s they have become an increasingly popular article of casual dress around the world. They are worn in business, government, professional offices, educational institutions, and in most public places. Jeans are one of the most simple, versatile, and enduring garments in modern society because they make no distinction between classes, sexes, and age groups. But, as Sproles & Burns (1994) point out, social saturation sets in, and some fashions or styles fade in popularity and are usually replaced with new trends that encourage people to buy unnecessarily the new designs (p. 171).

Agins, Teri (1999). The end of fashion. How marketing changed the clothing business forever. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

Anspach, Karlyne (1971). The why of fashion. Iowa, USA: The Iowa State University Press.

Boucher, François (1973). 20,000 years of fashion. The history of costume and personal adornment. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Browning, Rosie (2000). Clothing of the 20th century. Horton Journal of Canadian History (H.J.C.H.).

Cole, Catherine C. (2009) Piece by piece. The GWG story. Royal Alberta Museum.

Dorner, Jane (1974). Fashion. The changing shape of fashion through the years. London: Octopus Book Limited.

Dunn, Maria (2013). Song “Piece by Piece”. CKUA Radio Network, 2013 CFMA’s Songwriter Circle Folksinger. Putting words, stories into song.

Harris, Christie & Johnston, Moira (1971). Figleafing through history: the dynamics of dress. New York: Atheneum.

Laegreid, Renée (2006). Riding pretty. Rodeo royalty in the American West. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.

Laver, James (2002). Costume and fashion. A concise history. 4th Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc.

Lee Mercantile Company (2014). History.

Lee, Michelle (2003). Fashion victim. Our love-hate relationship with dressing, shopping, and the cost of style. New York: Broadway Books.

Marquis of Fashion Blog. Malicious Mom Bum and How to Avoid it.

Savage, Candace (1996). Cowgirls. Toronto: Greyston Books.

Sproles, George B. & Burns, Leslie-Davis (1994). Changing appearances. Understanding dress in contemporary society. New York: Fairchild Publications.

Stone, Elaine (2008). The Dynamics of Fashion. Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. Third Edition. New York: Fairchild Book, Inc.

The Fashion Book (1998). Spanning 150 years. Gloria Vanderbuilt. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

The Fashion Book (1998). Spanning 150 years. Levi Strauss Designer. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

The Indian Textile Journal (Nov. 2012). Some aspects of producing stretch denim fabric.

Tortora, Phyllis G. & Eubank, Keith (2010). Survey of historic costume. A history of Western dress. Fifth Edition. New York: Fairchild Books.

Wikipedia. Great Western Garment Co. (GWG).

Wikipedia. Jeans.

Wrangler (2014). History.

You Tube. How Jeans are made.