How Denim Went From Workwear to Fashion Statement

How History Has Shaped Our Jeans (Part 1)

Telling a good story is one of the best openings when you’re pitching a brand or a product. And it’s fairly easy to learn a handful of historical facts by heart that you can riff off to impress customers. But you have to know how to tie the story together with the specific features and benefits of what you’re selling; you have to make it relevant. That’s the tricky part.

Back when I was working in retail, I often used my knowledge about the history of jeans to help my customers find the perfect pair of jeans. Occasionally, I’d venture into telling stories like why jeans have rivets or where they come from.

To help you avoid some of the mistakes I made, this article is the first of four episodes that provides a clear and brief overview of the history of jeans. It’s made up of four sections that cover jeans before rivets, how jeans got their rivets, the transition of jeans into fashion and how jeans came to Europe and Asia.

I’ve boiled down each section into a few key arguments that you can use in sales situations to add value to the product you’re selling, to explain the origin and idea behind signature details of jeans and, very importantly, to demonstrate your competency.

I’ve also included a few suggestions for when to use all of these historical facts in situations when you’re selling jeans. But let’s get to it; we start at the very beginning.

The four parts of the series about how history has shaped our jeans are:

Jeans Have Been Around for Centuries

Jeans began as workwear: clothes made to do a job for men with jobs to do. They were utilitarian and sturdy garments with a simple design and uncomplicated construction, cheap and quick to make. And they’ve been around for centuries.

The jeans that working men and women wore hundreds of jeans ago were all about durability and functionality, not aesthetics and how they looked. That’s why they were made from cotton denim; a durable, versatile and inexpensive fabric. That’s why the pockets were placed for easy access. It’s why they were sewn with durable thread and often had high stitch count, which makes the seams stronger. And it’s why they featured reinforcements in places that are prone to tear.

Levi Strauss & Co. is rightfully accredited as the creator of jeans as we know them today with their riveted denim workwear patented and introduced in 1873. But Levi’s is sometimes confused as the inventor of workwear made from blue indigo-dyed cotton twill denim altogether. A simple misunderstanding or maybe a simplification of history. But the predecessors of today’s blue jeans were made long before 1873.

Workwear has been dyed blue with indigo, a natural dyestuff that is extracted from the indigofera plant’s leaves for 5,000 years(!). The synthesised version of indigo was discovered in 1865 by the German chemist, Adolf von Baeyer, and introduced as Pure Indigo by the German chemical producer, BASF, in 1897. Today, almost all denim is dyed with synthetic indigo.

Cotton twill trousers had also been around long before the first Levi’s jeans. Weaving dates back 12,000 years(!), and the predecessors of the high-speed weaving machines that are used to make most denim today were invented in the 1700s.

Key facts about the origin of jeans
  • Jeans were originally workwear. Most of the design and functionality features haven’t changed for hundreds of years.
  • Levi Strauss & Co. introduced jeans with rivets in 1873, but indigo-dyed denim workwear had been around for centuries before that.
When to use this knowledge in sales situations
  • If a customer asks about the origin of the design and features of jeans, tell him that they were originally made for practical purposes.
  • If a customer asks who invented jeans, tell him Levi Strauss & Co. patented riveted blue jeans in 1873 but that denim workwear had been around long before that.

All that being said, the rivets have played a crucial role in how the design of Levi’s jeans came to dominate all others’. But how did the rivets end up on our jeans in the first place?

How Jeans Got Their Rivets

As the previous section discusses, many of the features that have come to define blue jeans were pragmatic solutions to the problems faced by wearers or manufacturers. One of the most common problems was that pocket corners and other stress points would wear out and tear prematurely.

In January of 1871, a tailor of Latvian descent named Jacob W. Davis invented a simple and elegant solution to this problem in his workshop in Reno, Nevada. Davis hammered copper rivets onto the pocket corners and the base of the fly where jeans would often tear. This was the invention of riveted blue jeans, and rivets are still the most important defining feature of the jeans we wear today.

Davis’ invention was an instant success and rivals soon began imitating his idea. He knew he had to patent his design, but he didn’t have the $68 to pay for the patent. So, he partnered up with one of his fabric suppliers, Levi Strauss from San Francisco, in 1872 with the agreement that Strauss would foot the bill for the patent while Davis would move to San Francisco to oversee production.

Jacob W. Davis patent for rivets
The original drawing and document for the patent (#139,121) for “improvement in fastening pocket openings.”

Levi Strauss & Co. received the patent for making riveted denim workwear on May 20, 1873. This gave the company a head start and created the competitive edge and first-mover advantage that it still benefits from today. Until the reissued patent expired in 1892, Levi’s was the sole maker allowed to make workwear with rivets, and the company fought off patent infringements with lawsuits. During those 17 years, several competitors came up with alternative strengthening designs. But none of them was as simple and elegant as the copper rivet.

When the patent ran out in 1892, rivets became a standard feature of jeans. That’s when Levi’s started campaigning their claim to the invention. Over the following decades, the San Francisco jeans maker trademarked a handful of the design features of their jeans, including the Two Horse label (in 1886), the ‘Levi’s’ name and the guarantee ticket (in 1928), the red tab (in 1936) and the arcuate (in 1943).

Key facts about how rivets came to define jeans
  • To this day, jeans are defined by a few essential features that haven’t changed since the early 1870s. The most important of these features is the rivet.
  • Without rivets, blue jeans probably wouldn’t look like they do today. And without the patent to make jeans with rivets, it’s unlikely that Levi’s’ design would have defined the jeans we wear today.
When to use this knowledge in sales situations
  • If a customer asks why jeans have rivets, tell him that they were put on the stress points of the garment to prevent tears. And because rivets have come to define jeans, they’re still there today, even though most of us don’t need the added strength.

For the first 50 years of their existence, riveted jeans were worn as workwear. But in the 1930s, and especially after World War II, that started changing.

How Jeans Became a Fashion Statement

In the 1950s, jeans became more than a durable garment suited for work; they became a way to express rebellion and a fashion statement. The post-World War II American economy, emerging countercultures and the birth of the teenager play a central role in this transformation.

The transition of jeans from workwear to fashion statement was partly due to the booming American economy of the 50s. When men went to war, women entered the workforce. Before the war, most families relied on a single income, usually the man’s. After the war, dual-income families became much more common.

This gave birth to the concept of the teenager; adolescents with spending power, plenty of leisure time and a need to do things differently than their parents. The increase in expendable income meant that the baby boomer generation, who were kids in the 1950s, grew up with an abundance of spending. And one of the things they bought was jeans.

At the same time, there was a high supply of jeans which needed demand. The growing deindustrialisation of America meant that workers no longer needed to wear jeans for work. That’s why jeans makers were quick to seize the opportunity to move into the fashion and leisure segments.

But jeans had already started transitioning from workwear to fashion in the 1930s. Hollywood westerns like Stagecoach from 1939, starring John Wayne wearing buckle back Levi’s jeans, idolised the mythical American anti-hero, the cowboy. Although not all cowboys wore blue jeans, the link between the two was quickly forged.

This created an industry of wealthy Easterners who travelled out west to vacation on so-called ‘dude ranches’ to experience the cowboy lifestyle. And, of course, they wanted to wear blue jeans. At the same time, intellectuals and West Coast undergrad students also started wearing jeans to express their sympathy with workers.

Essentially, jeans became a statement worn by people with attitude and by the anti-establishment. This meant that jeans became part of the rebel’s and the anti-hero’s uniform. Real-life outlaws were one of the first groups to adopt denim as a statement. When Hell’s Angels was formed in 1948 in California by World War II veterans, they rode their bikes wearing jeans, just like the ones they’d worn growing up and when off duty during their military service. Jeans quickly became synonymous with juvenile delinquency. When jeans were banned in schools, it only fuelled the fire and made jeans even more desirable.

Marlon Brando and James Dean in jeans
Marlon Brando and James Dean wearing jeans in the 1950s.

Soon, Hollywood started shaping and reflecting the rebellious teenage culture. And the denim-clad stars cemented the connection between jeans and rebels. The Wild One starring Marlon Brando premiered in 1953. Brando’s performance and iconic outfit of Levi’s 501 jeans, a black leather motorcycle jacket and engineer boots have set the standard for the rebellious aesthetic to this day. In 1955, James Dean starred in Rebel Without a Cause. Wearing Lee 101 jeans, a white T-shirt and a red windbreaker, he became the very embodiment of the teenager.

Key facts about how jeans started transitioning into fashion
  • When jeans first started transitioning into fashion, they were worn by rebels and teenagers as a statement. Although some of the bad boy image has worn off today, jeans still don’t qualify as formalwear.
  • Wearing a white T-shirt with blue jeans have been an iconic look since the 1950s.
When to use this knowledge in sales situations
  • If a customer needs help picking out a pair of jeans for a specific occasion, tell him that jeans can be worn at almost any occasion but that they’re still too informal for weddings and funerals.

That explains how jeans became popular as a fashion item in the US. But how did they become the favourite choice of pants for kids in Europe and Asia as well?

How Jeans Came to Europe and Asia

American soldiers were the first to export jeans. Until the early 1940s, the blue jeans we know today were only available in the US. Although indigo comes from India and denim originated in Europe, pants made from warp-dyed denim and enforced with rivets hadn’t yet reached the shores of Europe and Asia. That changed when the US entered World War II.

Many American soldiers wore blue jeans when off duty. It was a reminder of home, but many were also used to jeans, having worn them growing up in the countryside. And, as you just learned, jeans were becoming increasingly popular as leisurewear around that time. Not to mention that if you were in the Navy, denim was part of your uniform.

With the Marshall Plan and other aid programmes after the war, Western Europe and Asia got an injection of US industry and culture. The presence of American troops also meant that Europeans and Asians were directly exposed to American values and commodities, including the jeans that G.I.s wore when off duty. Like with other cultural exports such as movies and rock music, European and Asian youths were quick to adopt blue jeans, which came to symbolise of change.

In Europe, jeans had become a popular fashion item by the late 1950s. But they were expensive and hard to get. To meet the growing demand, local makers started producing their own jeans, which strongly resembled the American originals in terms of design. Among the earliest European brands were Chipie in France, Rifle in Italy, Lee Cooper in England, Mustang Jeans in Germany and Gul & Blå in Sweden.

In Asia, the Japanese, in particular, took an interest in blue jeans. But import regulations meant that, until the late 1950s, original American jeans weren’t really available in Japan. To get your hands on a pair, you had to know someone who could get them for you from one of the PX offices where soldiers could buy American merchandise. Alternatively, you could get a pair of secondhand American jeans from the black market known as Ameyoko in Tokyo’s Ueno district. These stores got their supply from Panpan girls (prostitutes at US military bases) who’d got paid in jeans rather than cash.

By the early 1960s, jeans were in such demand in Japan that a handful of local makers were racing to capture the market. While Edwin’s claim to being first is not backed by hard facts, the research of W. David Marx for his excellent book Ametora proves that Big John was in all likelihood the first to introduced Japanese-made blue jeans.

Key facts about how jeans came to Europe and Asia
  • US soldiers introduced the world to blue jeans after World War II. Due to demand, local makers soon started replicating the original American design. That’s why jeans from anywhere in the world look the same today.
When to use this knowledge in sales situations
  • When a customer asks why jeans are popular in any part of the world, tell him that it all began after World War II when American soldiers brought jeans to Europe and Asia.

This concludes the first article about the history of jeans and how you can use it in sales situations. In the next episodes, I’ll look into how jeans become mainstream fashion.

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