Denim Month: A Brief History of Denim, Part 1

As we prepare for our denim theme month, we wanted to delve into what denim IS, where it comes from, and what it has meant to different people over the years. We looked at denim a little as part of our Menswear for Everyone theme month last year, but let’s delve deeper, shall we?

Denim is a shortened version of the original name for the fabric, Serge de Nîmes (fabric coming from Nîmes, France). It’s a type of cotton twill, very hard wearing, and it was originally brought to the United States for use in clothing by Levi Strauss in the late 1800s. Strauss had a client with a need for hard-wearing trousers for miners during the gold rush, and manufactured the first pair of riveted jeans—riveted in the most hard-wearing spots to ensure durability. These trousers were so hard wearing that they were often handed down from one miner to the next as people left California for other opportunities.

Vintage poster for Levi's jeans showing an image of a pair of jeans and text blurbs with information about Levi Strauss and the history of denim.
Poster: “The Birth of the Blues” for Levi Strauss, ca. 1975–80. 

In the 1930s, Hollywood’s craze for cowboy movies popularized jeans for men, as actors were portrayed wearing jeans on horseback. Soldiers returning on leave from World War II wore them at home, further cementing jeans as a wardrobe staple.

Image of John Wayne wearing a cowboy outfit with a cowboy hat, fringed shirt, bandolier belt, denim jeans, and cowboy boots with spurs.
Credit: John Wayne in Hondo (1953)

In the 1950s, movie stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean wore jeans on and off screen to demonstrate their rebelliousness. Jeans were actually banned in a lot of places including schools and churches as being symbolic of disrespect.

Poster for the movie Rebel without a Cause with an image of James Dean, face in profile, wearing a pair of denim jeans.
Credit: Poster for the movie Rebel without a Cause

In the 1960s and 1970s, jeans became popular for women as well as men, and new styles evolved—from traditional straight-legged jeans to bell bottoms and the first skinny jeans, which needed a prone body and a coat hanger to help pull the zipper up! My style icon here is Janis Joplin, who showed how denim could work in a lot of different styles.

Image of singer Janis Joplin wearing a furry hat, a sweater, and a pair of denim jeans as she plays an autoharp
Credit: John Byrne Cooke

In the 1980s and 1990s, spandex began to be added to denim to create more comfortable form-fitting jeans. Women’s jeans became increasingly sexualized, as typified by the famous Brooke Shields ad claiming that nothing came between her and her Calvin Klein jeans. The 1980s also came with stone- and acid-washed versions of denim, the “Canadian tuxedo” (aka a denim jacket with jeans), and intentionally distressed denim that you could purchase with rips and holes already in place. Grunge took us in another direction, with baggier jeans and lots of flannel shirts tied on top, sometimes even acting as a belt.

Denim is a large presence in the world of hip hop, with the all-denim ensembles of Sugar Hill Records stars Funky Hill Plus 1 providing a counter to the shiny, discofied outfits of early hip hop pioneers. Jamaican reggae stars like Bob Marley wore slim-cut jeans and tanks, which transferred later to white ska groups. Run-DMC wore straight cut jeans, while N.W.A. wore all dark or black denim with their snapback hats and bomber jackets.

Image of four African-American me standing facing the camera, from left to right: the first one is wearing a snapback cap, a dark blue, white and red jersey, and dark jeans; the second one is wearing an oversized red, white and blue jacket and blue jeans; the third one is wearing black denim jacket and jeans; the last one is wearing a shiny FUBU purple jacket and blue jeans.
FUBU and Tims link

Hip hop is perhaps most famous for the ultra baggy, ultra low jeans popularized with Tommy Hilfiger in the 1990s. These jeans, often paired with crisp Timbaland boots, typified hip hop denim style in the 1990s, and new, black-owned brands like FUBU became wildly popular. Oversized jeans carried through to the 2000s with the introduction of crunk style— oversized white t-shirts and baggy jeans.

The use of denim in the community has evolved as hip hop has diversified, with skinny jeans, distressed jeans, baggy jeans, and a variety of washes and finishes being seen across the hip hop spectrum.

Today, slow fashion and labour activists are working together to raise awareness of the impact of making denim, and in particular those much-loved jeans, on the environment and the workers who make them. Distressing techniques involving sandblasting and other softeners can release particulates into workers’ lungs. And the water and acids used in the process of making, softening, and distressing jeans release harmful chemicals into the environment.

Throughout it all, jeans evolved into the general uniform of modern society. From the uniform of labourers and activists to the daily wear for all of us, this hard-wearing and resilient wardrobe staple can be found everywhere, from thrift stores to custom made.

If you’re interested in learning more about jeans and denim, I’d like to recommend the Articles of Interest podcast on this subject. It’s a great 30- minute listen.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our History of Denim, focusing on denim’s rebirth in Japan!

Kerry is a friend of all fibres hailing from Ottawa, Canada. She’s an old school hip hop fan and would love to get into some 90s hip hop discussions with you. Kerry can be found @gymnauseous on Instagram and on her blog at The Year of Living Easy.