The California Gold Rush was well underway, and Levi was a hopeful immigrant seeking prosperity in the land of opportunity. He moved his family’s supply company out to San Francisco, where he soon learned that there was a demand for clothing that could withstand work conditions in the mines. Coincidentally, Levi had already been selling work pants made out of excess canvas. With a few modifications to that style, he and tailor Jacob Davis obtained an official U.S. patent for the rivets we see on denim today.
Levi decided to use durable denim in lieu of lightweight canvas for his alternative to the trouser. And for color, the classic five-pocket style was given a uniform indigo hue. Copper rivets were set strategically at tension points to prevent wear and tear. And, just like that, the blue jean took off as the official uniform of the working class.
Early 20th century:
Jeans slowly moved from the workplace to the runway and became embedded in American culture in a way that has yet to be matched by any other item. What began as a utilitarian necessity gradually became a fashion statement and an indelible part of American mythology and masculinity.
1930s – 1940s:
Around World War II, jeans were closely identified in film and advertising with perhaps the most iconic figure in American mythology, the cowboy. The immense success of Westerns helped make denim popular, and factory workers wore it to work throughout the war effort. Since then, cultural movements from hippies to hip-hop have embraced the humble jean, and denim styles have come to define entire decades.
Jeans in the 1950s were still worn mostly by men and remained primarily a symbol of masculinity. Their popularity was spurred in part by a pair of Hollywood bad boys, as Marlon Brando in The Wild One and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause helped define postwar countercultural rebellion. While Marlon Brando went on to a long career and is more closely identified with later work like The Godfather, James Dean’s untimely death and limited filmography mean that dark slim-fit jeans with upturned cuffs evoke him to this day.
Bell-bottoms, originally worn by sailors and only later considered a high-fashion item, were adopted by hippies who personalized their jeans with embroidery, patches, and other colorful flair and paired their denim with tie-dye. In the UK, jeans-clad Rockers, inspired by the fifties greaser culture embodied by James Dean and Marlon Brando, famously feuded with the more clean-cut Mods in their custom suits.
Celebrities like Sonny and Cher and James Brown gave bell-bottoms staying power. The seventies also saw the rise of designer denim, as high-end labels like Calvin Klein, Gucci, and Jordache got in on the action. The Washington Post went so far as to dub 1978 “the year of the status jeans.”
The decade kicked off with Calvin Klein’s infamously risqué ad featuring a 15-year-old Brooke Shields, pushing the designer-jean craze forward among men and women alike. Narrow styles and acid washes replaced the wide legs of the previous two decades. In the meantime, the anarchic DIY ethos of punk bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols popularized ripped jeans.
In many ways, the early nineties continued the trends of the previous decade. The “kids” of Beverly Hills 90210 kept the denim-on-denim look alive while grunge propelled the lived-in look forward. Nevertheless, denim’s popularity declined. British designer Alexander McQueen reintroduced low-rise jeans with his Taxi Driver collection, and hip-hop helped bring baggy jeans to the fore.
2000s & onward:
Society groggily awoke from its baggy pants–fueled fever dream and stumbled awkwardly in the direction of more “authentic” styles. Brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle helped make distressed jeans and whisker fades popular, while hipsters and indie rockers brought narrow jeans – often in bright, nontraditional colors – back to the masses by the end of the decade. The rise of artisanal production helped make selvedge denim popular.
In the business world, we aren’t just wearing denim on the occasional dress-down day. Casual dress in corporate America is having a major moment, and with that comes an influx of indigo in the office. You’re as likely to see denim in the boardroom or a swanky club as you are at a construction site.