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Denim - from Workwear to Icon

Posted: Mar 18 2015

vintage cowboys in jeans
As a denim lover, and wearer of jeans myself, I am commonly asked about the history of denim.
Most people know that denim started out as workwear because of it's durability, but it has grown to be a symbol pioneering freedom, to a fashion icon, as well as a wardrobe essential.
Levi Strauss is considered to be the father of denim jeans. He started producing workwear for the Californian gold rush in 1853, at that time out of canvas tenting.
Due to it's discomfort and rigidness, a softer, more workable fabric was desired, and Stauss started importing "serge de Nimes", a twill fabric dyed indigo, and made in southern France.
Together with Jacob Davis, they create the first wearable denim jeans, known at the time as overalls.
Research shows that the jean fabric emerged in the cities of Genoa, Italy, and Nimes, France. Genes, the french word for Genoa, may be the origin of the word jeans.
With the approval of a patent on the process of riveting pants in 1873, the 501XX is created, and denim jeans as we know them today are born.
 vintage Levi's western jeans
Another benchmark of American denim history is Lee jeans. In 1889, Henry David Lee established the H.D. Lee Mercantile company. He realized the need for reliable workwear, but was dissatisfied with his suppliers quality and inconsistent delivery. By 1911, he was manufacturing his own high quality denim goods.
 
Wrangler, the third pillar in the trio of classic American denim, comes into prominence in the 1940's
Wrangler started as a small brand of the Casey Jones Company who specialized in work wear. After Casey Jones Co is bought out by Blue Bell in 1943 - Wrangler is put in the spotlight introducing the world to a love affair with western wear.
Denim has always played a role in western wear, from cowboys to musicians to movie stars, jeans are the common thread.
Wrangler has always gone hand in hand with cowboys and rodeo, especially with the introduction of "broken twill" which prevented the jeans form twisting.
Levi's ranchwear, is synonymous with real life cowboys, as well as movie stars playing them in westerns.
Lee specifically created the Rider brand to appeal to need of cowboys and rodeo riders.
Vintage Levis Cowboy Ad Western wear
In the 1940's during WWII, US soldiers and sailors further expose the world to more denim through their dungarees and workwear uniforms.
 
Denim has always also been linked to youth, freedom and rebellion, going against the system and defying conformity. 
From James Dean donning a pair of Lee riders in Rebel Without a Cause, to Marlon Brando blazing his Levi's 501's as a biker, our popular culture romance with this classic American product has been cemented.
   
Can you imagine the hippies of the 60's and 70's without their bell bottom jeans, or the rockers of the 80's without slim fit denim. Bruce Springsteen without his 501's, Kurt Cobain without his 505's, Daisy Duke without her cut-offs?
All this classic denim led to designer denim in the 70's and 80's, and it has never slowed down, and only become a bigger part of our culture.
Denim manufacturers of course now try to replicate the classic jeans of the past, but nothing beats a true original.
   
 

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