A Brief History of Denim, Pt I & II

Jeans were, first and foremost, a happy accident.

In 18th century Nimes, France, residents attempted to replicate an Italian material entitled

“serge.” The result was named after “serge de Nimes,” coining the shorthand for what we today call “denim.” Denim was–and is–incredibly durable and was utilized as workwear. During the California Gold Rush of the 19th century, the necessity of long-lasting workwear became especially apparent, as miners needed a material that wouldn’t easily rip or tear during laborious hours.

In 1872, a tailor named Jacob Davis bought denim strips off of Levi Strauss, a wholesale fabric house owner in San Francisco. While the fabric was durable, his worker clients noted that the pockets tore easily–many were utilizing their pockets to store gold ore from the mines at the time. Davis ideated inserting copper rivets into the pockets and at the fly base in order to solidly connect all the fabric pieces together and make a sturdier garment. Davis wrote to Strauss about funding a patent so the two could go into business together, and the business as we know it thus took off, with Davis heading production and design and Strauss responsible for manufacturing in his San Franciscan textile factory.

The two businessmen soon decided to dye denim blue with natural indigo because it interacted well with cotton. While the majority of dyes usually penetrated the cotton’s fibers, indigo was able to attach solely to the fabric’s surface, making the color an obvious choice for denim. While their denim was available in brown duck and blue denim, 1890 saw the invention of the Levi 501s, which in turn popularized blue denim as the go-to fabric for jean pants. Worn by gold rushers and cowboys alike, denim very quickly became the gold standard–no pun intended–for workers.

Design changes and improvements were steadily made over the course of the following decade. The timing was right–the turn of the century hailed a national desire for new clothing styles and better workwear that coincided with the industrial revolution. Davis and Strauss started their editing process by removing the metal rivet from the bottom of the pant fly, as many cowboys and workers had complained of it heating and causing a burn. By 1920, denim trousers led the popularity contest in men’s workwear. Double-arched orange stitching was added for additional reinforcement and branding identification–indeed, today orange-stitched Levis are coveted among vintage and denim lovers. In 1922 belt loops were added, thus accommodating additional sizing and making non-custom manufacturing all the more possible for Strauss and Davis. By 1954, zippers sometimes replaced the button fly and while the jeans remained classic, many changes and alterations rendered them vastly different from the original patent.

Strauss and Levi’s patent had technically ended back in 1890, and other manufacturers thus jumped on the bandwagon to produce their own versions of denim trousers. OshKosh B’Gosh came to fruition in 1895. Blue Bell–known today as Wrangler–made its mark beginning in 1904. Lee Mercantile–known today simply as “Lees,” followed shortly after in 1911. In fact, Lee Union-Alls jeans became the standard-issued pant for all war workers. This occurred again during World War II, where we saw figures such as Rosie the Riveter in a denim jumpsuit.

Denim had come to represent labor, durability, and human camaraderie, as it was both manufactured and worn by working-class folks.

Denim wasn’t all hammers and mines, though; Hollywood glamorized denim with the rise of Western movies and cowboy archetypes played by desired actors like Gary Cooper and John Wayne, both of whom rose in household popularity in the 1920s and 30s. Middle and upper class consumers purchased denim as attractive, sturdy leisurewear for holidays or weekends away. Around this time, Vogue dubbed denim as “Western chic,” solidifying its place in fashion history. Denim was further popularized as a household textile that suited women as well. For example, athletic and tactical-wear designer Claire McCardell’s creation of the Popover wrap denim dress sold close to 80,000 units in 1942. The dress was marketed towards housewives and women and had a specific attachment and pocket for oven mitts. The Popover dress took denim from outerwear work garb and into the home, where its benefits could be utilized by stay-at-homes in a way that simultaneously promoted glamor and labor. Actresses like Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard were often photographed wearing jeans, and the material thus grew in popularity among women as well.

By the 1960s, denim’s reputation had changed and shifted, and jeans came to be synonymous with counterculture, rebellion, and an anti-establishment attitude. James Dean and Marlon Brando, for example, popularized the imagery of sex-appealing denim. Rockstars made denim feel cool and unique, while hippies, anti-war individuals, and feminists wore jeans throughout the 60s and 70s as a way to represent and support the working class and to demonstrate gender equity, as jeans had a fairly less gendered reputation compared to many other garments.

Jeans’ countercultural symbolism resulted in their being banned from some high schools, and as we know, the denim illegality of Cold War USSR. Denim maintained its association with workherhood, the underdog, and rebellion despite its simultaneous takeoff into the fashion world.

Italian luxury brand Fiorucci introduced the Buffalo 70 jeans in the 1970s, marketing them as high fashion. They were dark wash, skin-tight, and very inaccessible–completely unlike the flared and faded denim the country was used to. The Buffalo 70s became a staple among the gay fashion community, showing up aplenty in iconic queer party spaces such as Studio 54.

Denim as we know it today arose in 1976, when Calvin Klein introduced blue jeans during a runway show, making him the very first designer to showcase denim on the high fashion catwalk. Gloria Vanderbilt introduced her hit denim in 1979 and jeans became immensely commercially successful. By the 1980s, Calvin Klein had popularized denim in a racier, sexier light, featuring supermodels posing topless and sultry for ads, including Brook Shields, Claudia Schiffer, and Kate Moss. Guess did the same, with 1990s high fashion houses such as Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Dior hopping on in the 1990s to quickly follow suit. In their best-of-both-worlds of high fashion and workwear, blue jeans officially held a spot as both seductive and practical, highly desirable and coveted, yet accessible and easy to wear all the same.

The 1990s hip-hop and teen milieu saw a rise in low-slung, oversized baggy denim, with the billowy silhouette becoming synonymous with popular music culture. Y2K saw a big love
for blinged-out jeans, flared silhouettes, and sandblasted whiskered styles like
Diesel offered. The mid 2010s gave black skinny jeans a cult following, and today, all sorts of styles have surged in popularity as well, with baggier designs making a comeback and in-between bootcuts maintaining their clout.

Today in 2022, most brands and luxury labels have showcased denim on the runway, and jeans are widely available at high-end price points and low as well. Yves Saint Laurent perhaps said it best when he spoke to New York Magazine in 1983. “I have often said that I wish I had invented blue jeans. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity—all that I hope for in my clothes.”

Today, we seek to embody all of these traits in Agave Denim, opting for classic cuts, rich colors, and unique, meticulous design that highlights the many denim styles that have risen in popularity since Davis and Strauss first created their meteoric jeans. We strive to honor the history of denim and bring in new elements to constantly innovate while harkening back to our roots. The result is undeniable quality, accompanied by a pair of jeans that live boldly and permanently in your closet.