Denim at its most basic is a simple cotton fabric – but it’s created one of the most enduring and beloved fashion items in recent history – jeans. Denim inspires debate and passion amongst designers and fashion lovers, and there is equal passion in the debate around its beginnings.
The first use of denim as a cotton material dates as far back as the 17th century, when it appeared in upholstery, work pants and awnings, ship’s sails and cowboy jeans – the fabric of hardworking, honest labour. The origin of its name is widely believed to be an Anglicism of the French for ‘serge de Nimes’ – the serge fabric, made in Nimes, France.
By the 18th century, denim cloth was made only of cotton and was used to make strong and durable men’s clothing – valued for the way it lasted repeat washing. The famous Levi Strauss Company was created in 1873, with a patented denim jeans process featuring the famous Levi metal rivets. Levi had noticed that miners in the San Francisco gold rush needed strong and sturdy work pants, and he worked with his partner Jacob Davis to produce their patented designs of ‘waist overalls’ with copper rivets, in the famous blue denim, and also duck – which was a thick material which fell out of decline in favour of denim, as it was said to feel like ‘wearing a tent!’. These overalls proved to be a great success – and Levi and Jacob moved into producing jackets and outwear, as well as muslin shirts. When Levi Strauss died in 1902, he passed the successful business to his nephews.
Over time, demand outstripped supply and the Strauss’ needed to find a new denim mill, as competition from the South was causing their New England supplier to struggle. By 1915 it was buying most of its denim from North Carolina and by the 1920s Levi’s waist overalls were leading the mens’ work pants market in America. This only increased further in the 1930s, when the era of Hollywood westerns arrived, and Levi jeans became a high status fashion item, associated with the freedom and individualism of cowboys and the glamorous actors that played them. Heavy advertising spread their popularity across America and overseas.
It will be fascinating to see where these cultural emblems go next – only one thing seems certain, and that is that jeans will continue to inspire design innovation and fashion – and will never go out of fashion.