The History of Jeans

SANVT Journal

Trends come and go, but we at SANVT believe that having a pair of good ol’ denim jeans is a pretty timeless essential. If you’ve got one pair (or several), great. But did you ever stop to wonder why there seems to be a jean for every occasion? It’s a thought worthy of your time because jeans have a fascinating history that spans more than a hundred years. 

So keep reading for a full brief on how they came to be and how they’ve evolved - or skip ahead to a period of your choice:

  • Pre-1800s
  • 1800s
  • Early 1900s
  • Mid 1900s
  • Late 1900s
  • 2000s to 2010s
  • Present-day

Pre-1800s: a welcome accident

Before jeans, the garment, came denim, the fabric.

While some historians debate its birthplace, the most popular view is that denim came from France. In the late 17th century, weavers in Nîmes stumbled upon what would become modern denim. They were trying to replicate another sturdy fabric locally known as sergé. Following the tradition of naming textiles after their place of origin, their accidental creation was dubbed sergé de Nimes, translated as “twill from Nîmes”.

Italians might argue that around the same time, artisans in the port city of Genoa were producing a fabric made from indigo-dyed wool and cotton. Similarly strong to denim as we know it, it was favored among sailors - not only to clothe them but also to fit their ships’ sails.

Whichever version you wish to believe, the accepted consensus is that denim originated from the Mediterranean. And over the years, it found its way across the Atlantic to the shores of America.

1800s: from fabric to garment

And now, the real story begins.

Levi Strauss was a German immigrant to the US. After spending some time in New York, he established a Western branch of his family's dry goods business in San Francisco in 1853. Among the products on offer, Levi supplied a robust cotton fabric imported from Europe: denim.

One of his customers was a tailor named Jacob Davis. He often used Levi's denim to craft durable items like tents, horse blankets, and wagon covers. Commissioned by a gold mining company to make trousers suited to hard physical labor, Davis decided to reinforce the denim with copper rivets.

In 1873, Strauss and Davis formed a partnership and patented their riveted work pant, a design element that would become emblematic of Levi Strauss & Co.

The production of denim overalls started in the 1870s, and the company debuted its very first pair of jeans in the 1890s. By then, denim had evolved into the quintessential jeans, becoming the staple of American farm and industrial wear.

The pioneer of denim jeans. Source: Katz Center at UPenn

Early 1900s: workwear and the Wild Wild West

Throughout the early 1900s, jeans maintained their status as indispensable work attire. They were especially sought after in the West by miners, railroad workers, and other laborers. Cowboys traded their traditional wool or California foxed pants for the more affordable (and durable) denim alternative.

Jeans became symbolic of Western cattle ranchers. Source: Rawpixel

However, it was the silver screen of Hollywood that propelled jeans into mainstream culture. Western films showcased ruggedly handsome men, played by icons like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, donning denim jeans. Actresses like Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard further popularized the trend through publicity photos. Jeans weren’t just for the men, but for the women, too. By the 1930s, Vogue gave its OK, calling jeans "Western chic." And in 1942, American designer Claire McCardell sold more than 75,000 pieces of her denim "Popover" wrap dress.

With the help of La La Land and dude ranch culture, the jeans craze spread to the East, growing bigger than work pants. 

Mid 1900s: the cool kids

While jeans and denim never left the picture, they transitioned into a wardrobe staple after WWII.

In the 1950s, they became the epitome of "cool". Pop culture bad boys like James Dean and Marlon Brando showcased cuffed, boxy denim styles in their films, challenging societal norms. Naturally, rebellious teens followed the example of their on-screen idols. Such was the subversive impact that some high schools banned jeans, deeming them too provocative and anti-establishment.

The 1960s witnessed the rise of peace, love, and bell-bottoms. University students wore jeans to protest the Vietnam War. Denim was a symbol of solidarity during Civil Rights demonstrations, worn by activists to identify with the oppressed and the working poor. The free-spirited ethos of the decade embraced jeans as casual wear, a form of creative expression, and a liberated lifestyle.

Then in the 1970s, denim represented a shift towards a more liberated, sexually expressive culture, epitomized by your cool it-girls like Farrah Fawcett and Lauren Hutton. Slimmer silhouettes and daring styles gained traction. And let’s not forget those Daisy Dukes. Catherine Bach in the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard ignited a craze for those barely-there cut-offs that extended from the late '70s into the following decade.

Farah Fawcett (left) and Lauren Hutton (right)

As demand for denim went global, it transcended its hippie days to become a ubiquitous fashion staple. Customized denim also grew popular, as a canvas for creativity and self-expression.

Late 1900s: designer jeans and hip-hop culture

In 1976, Calvin Klein was the first designer who dared to show jeans on the runway. From there on, designer denim was born.

A lot of it comes down to that sensual campaign featuring a then-15-year-old Brooke Shields. “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins,” she says in one ad.

Designer jeans ascended as status symbols, with other brands alongside Calvin Klein. Armani, Jordache, Gloria Vanderbilt were a few of many names that reigned supreme among the fashion elite. Trends such as stonewash, acid wash, ripped jeans, and tapered cuts dominated the era’s denim styles.

The 1990s were shaped by the ascent of grunge and hip-hop. There were straight-legged jeans that kept things casual and Cobainesque. “Mom jeans” came onto the scene, loved for the high-waisted relaxed fit. And who can forget oversized denim, epitomized by JNCO? Carpenter jeans with those multiple pockets and tabs became de rigueur. As did head-to-toe denim outfits. Oh, the ‘90s. What didn’t we love about them?

2000s to 2010s: low-rise and skinny

Leave it to the pop queens of the 2000s to define the trend entering the new millennium, century, and decade. 

Female artists like Destiny's Child, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera set the stage for ultra-low-rise jeans. It may not have been the most comfortable or modest, but people all over eagerly hopped on the bandwagon. Flare and bootcut jeans also enjoyed popularity, next to the resurgence of the Capri style. Household names like Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler were going nowhere. But there was also enormous interest in premium brands like 7 for All Mankind, Citizens of Humanity, and the former Frankie B (the brainchild of an ex-Guns N’ Roses member). 

Fashion meets culture through Destiny’s Child: low-rise jeans and R&B. Source: About Her

Around 2010, the rise of music festivals transformed these events from mere music gatherings to coveted events for fashion influencers. This cultural shift birthed the phenomenon of festival wear, with vintage-inspired denim pieces such as overalls, jumpsuits, and rompers becoming essential wardrobe staples for concert-goers. However, the most notable trend of the past decade has been the widespread adoption of skinny jeans. Propelled by advancements in denim stretch technology, skinny jeans emerged as the versatile choice for everyday wear, from weekdays in the office to weekend outings and date nights. 

Present: variety and comfort

Skinny jeans, wide-leg jeans, bootcut jeans, flare jeans… It’s a plentiful list to suit almost every outfit and a variety of personal styles. One thing that’s clear is that jeans have marked their eternal spot in our wardrobes, largely because of their versatility to dress up or down. 

If there was a defining moment in recent years, it was the last global pandemic. Comfort became the top-of-mind factor - and remains to be one today. As the saying goes, “Look good, feel good”. 

And while we can’t predict the future timeline with unflinching accuracy, we can’t ignore the movement towards increasing people- and planet-friendly practices. Like every product within the umbrella of fashion, denim and jeans are undergoing a sustainability reexamination

Source: Pexels

Like anything and everything, jeans have been molded and redefined over time. First, a celebrated piece of workwear for its durability. Then, a reflection of the global issues and pop cultures that ensued, from 1960s counterculture to hip-hop style and beyond.

So if you’re wondering what’s next, the question to ask of our classic companions is “How can jeans join us in the sustainable mission?”

At SANVT we can add our own entry into the timeline of jeans. As of April 2024 we’ve released our Perfect Jeans. They’re an item that has listened to the story so far and perfected the approach - while adding the high level of sustainability that people (and our planet) demand. Here’s a little more about them.

  • Crafted from premium 13.5oz Italian denim.
  • Denim fabric made from 100% organic cotton.
  • Designed in Germany. Handmade in Portugal.
  • Elegant straight fit with a semi-slim leg.

100% ClimatePartner certified - read more here.

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