If you went out in public in most parts of the U.S. today, you wouldn’t have to search hard to find someone wearing a pair of jeans. They appear as an everyday garment or a bold fashion statement alike (and in the ‘90s, even as a top, jacket, belt, purse or nearly any other accessory you can think of). They come in dark wash or light, skinny fit or boot-cut, high-waisted or low-cut. How did these iconic and quintessentially American trousers evolve from an unassuming pair of utility pants worn hundreds of years ago to the global fashion staple they are today?

From Utilitarian Fabric to Readymade Culture

In 1873, Levi Strauss sewed the first pair of jeans. As traditional cotton or wool trousers were prone to wearing down quickly, Strauss designed stronger pants out of a thickly woven, cotton fabric called denim and secured the stress points with metal rivets. The five-pocket jean was popular with farmers and gold miners, who needed the durability in their vocations. As far as most were concerned, this was the birth of jeans as an American fashion staple.

But denim and utility-use pants didn’t originate from the U.S.—in fact, they have origins tracing back to the Renaissance. Dr. Catherine Leslie, a professor at the Kent State School of Fashion Design and Merchandising who specializes on the histories and techniques behind textiles, said that denim’s past is much longer.

“I’ve seen images of denim as far back as the Renaissance, not used for what we would consider jeans but for jackets,” she said.

Even then, the fabric was largely used for practical reasons.

“They were worn by sailors and working men,” she said. “From the start, denim was a utilitarian fabric.”

Although the Italians pioneered the utility fabric, French attempts at recreating it led to the creation of denim, named after the French city Nîmes (“serge de Nîmes,” literally “serge of Nimes,” shortened eventually to just “denim”). Levi Strauss then used the fabric, then common for workwear, to create pants with rivets, introducing what we recognize today as jeans. He intended for his garments to last, but he might not have expected their popularity would remain for the next 150 years.

The development of Strauss’s jeans also coincided with the development of the American railroad and postage system. Mail-to-order services like Sears and Montgomery Ward meant consumers had easier access to products across the country, allowing Strauss’s jeans to take off on a national scale. The development of sewing machines and the beginning of mass-production services in the 1800s also allowed manufacturers to keep up with the increased demand.

Jeans first made an appearance in youth popular culture in the 1950s, when a sense of rebellion against post-war conformity prompted middle-class teens to draw fashion inspiration from “low” culture, such as biker gangs, the working class and the military. Growing up in a post-war economy, teens were beginning to wear jeans because of their aesthetic appeal rather than just their durability.

“Prior to [the baby boom], most clothing there wasn’t clothing marketed to teenagers. But the ‘50s teenager and movie stars like Marlon Brando, James Dean…start wearing jeans, and then teenagers begin to have their own style. And with the baby boom, the parents give kids disposable income. So then they start having their own music; they start having their own television, their own culture” Leslie said.

In the 60s and 70s, celebrities and artists increasingly wore denim as the “youthquake” of hippie and rebellious culture spread across America. Young adults sported them at festivals or in the streets, some with intentional rips and fading to appear more subversive. Designers such as Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt created the “designer jean,” or jeans marketed for their branding and styling over their durability. The jean jacket, another application of denim and almost a return to its origins, also emerged during this time.

“The jean jacket, which is really the same style of what’s called the Eisenhower jacket, starts to be fashion rather than just working function,” Leslie said. In other words, jeans were no longer just pants, but a symbol and product of shifting lifestyles and expressions of culture as American moved into its golden, post-war years.

Toledo students sporting stone-washed denim in 1988. Image courtesy of 1988 Jesup Scott High School yearbook, Toledo.

Closer to the turn of the century, many designers sought inspiration from underground or lesser-known subcultures and movements. Denim became available in many forms, ranging from shirts, skirts, overalls, bags, hats and just about any accessory you could think of. The diverse range of stylings offered from different brands meant consumers were buying more clothing as new trends rose and fell quickly. 

“In the 90s, you start having a lot more inspiration of the style tribes or sub-cultural groups,” Leslie said. “So you have Dolce and Gabbana doing a hippie line, or Ralph Lauren doing a beatnik line—Dior even did a goth [collection]. So in the 90s, they’re playing with…high culture and low culture.”

The adoption of jeans and their different stylings into mainstream culture was part of a larger trend of those in power co-opting styles from those who were less privileged. 

“Fashion at the same time is trickling up, trickling down and trickling across,” Leslie said. “Designer jeans begin the process of the democratization of concept—of visual aesthetic. Eventually, into the 90s, you start to see the high [culture] designers taking note of mass or popular culture…What’s inspiration? What’s appropriation? Where are you inspired by?”

Jeans became the great equalizer, a powerful force in culture that penetrated culture and classes, high and low. Not just used for pants, denim became a ubiquitous material that was celebrated for its very texture, manufacturing process and variability. Every part of its historical construction, moreover, from the edging of the seams to the color of the thread on its finishing, were places for reinvention, creativity and reimagining. What was once solid colors was now acid-washed; what was a finished hem was now cut and fraying. Jeans and what they stand for—from utility and the working class to youth counterculture to mainstream fashion—would find their way into every imaginable piece of clothing or accessory on the market.  

A 21st-century World of “Fast Fashion”

As American culture spread across the globe (whether through organic interest or war, cultural colonialism, or otherwise), so did their clothes. In countries such as Japan, France and Korea, a newfound interest in hip-hop and American youth culture led to jeans becoming a streetwear staple. As Western department stores expanded to the Middle East and Asia, more and more consumers were introduced to an “American” wardrobe, fast-paced trends and, of course, denim-wear..

“The essence of fashion is change… it’s the novelty, the newness, that drives it,” Leslie said. “But in terms of novelty, there’s only so many styles. And so we have to keep churning [out styles] and accelerate to the point where… it could be skinny jeans this week and mom jeans next week.” 

Instead of durability and functionality driving the design and production of clothes as it did during wartime, now styles and trends motivate consumers throughout the world to buy more.

In the 2000s, branding, commodification and mass production of clothing reached a peak.  With manufacturing in the U.S. moving overseas and clothing companies gaining more access to resources and low-cost labor, apparel supply was abundant. To maximize profits and keep up with a powerful production line, marketers needed to find more ways to sell clothing. Clothing stores began to create an illusion of the necessity for many different items of clothing instead of just the basics. “Fast fashion” brands emerged, producing clothing in mass quantities at low prices, often at the expense of quality. 

“The average American woman has nine pairs of jeans in her closet, and there’s only seven days in the week. But what’s happened around fast fashion in the 2000s was that the industry […] kept saying, ‘You need another pair of jeans for this. So here’s the cropped jean. Here’s the straight leg, here’s the flare leg, here’s the boot leg.’ And people kept buying more and more,” Leslie said. “Even if it’s the same fabric, one might cost five bucks and one might cost 500 bucks. That’s the brand, and that’s what the 2000s is about. The perception of the consumer that the more you pay, the better quality it is…might not be the case.”

The result of this profit-driven strategy, however, creates a social complex of dissatisfaction that has led to excess and waste. U.S. clothing sales during this era grew from 167 billion dollars in 2000 to 221 billion dollars in 2007. The average American woman boasts some 103 items of clothing in her closet, yet 40% of them said they didn’t like any of their clothes. 

The mass consumption of clothing not only fails to benefit the consumer, but also compromises the lives of those producing and receiving our clothing through unfair labor and excessive dumping.

“Going into developing countries, you see a picture of people and they’re wearing Nike T-shirts and a pair of jeans,” Leslie said. “And that seriously impacts the domestic market. I have a graduate student I’m working with who’s from Ghana and the dumping of secondhand clothing from the U.S. has decimated their system of tailors and dressmakers that was an important part of their culture forever.” 

Companies such as Nike, H&M and Zara often have their clothing manufactured by sweatshops in Asia, sometimes paying apparel workers less than $1 USD per hour. Furthermore, the apparel industry creates 92 million tons of waste yearly and is responsible for 10% of humans’ carbon emissions.

What now?

Recent developments and trends in the 2010s have helped Americans move away from over-consumption toward a more environmentally-aware lifestyle. As more and more young adults learn about the dark side of the fast-fashion industry, consumers are becoming tired of purchasing cheap, low-quality clothing that they rarely wear; instead, thrifting and up-cycling clothes has become more popular, as teens and young adults visit thrift stores and sell their old clothes on online platforms. Goodwill reported having diverted an estimated 4 billion pounds of usable clothing from landfills in 2019, while peer-to-peer shopping services such as Depop, Poshmark and Facebook marketplace have become hot spots for clothing sales.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also had some effect on consumers today, encouraging them to stick to their wardrobe basics. With fewer clothes needed in a home-confined lifestyle, more consumers are buying less clothing and looking for ways to shop outside of department stores.

“I think that what’s happening now with COVID is that we’re getting a little more back to that ‘multi-use, multi-purpose,’” Leslie said. “Unless you’re working out, you really don’t need to change your clothes from one thing to another. And that may address some of our issues of overconsumption.” 

In order to shop for jeans ethically, Leslie believes buying secondhand is a good choice. As trends are being recycled and vintage clothes are growing more popular, thrifting denim is environmentally conscious, low-cost and fashionable. After all, denim’s utility-purpose fabric means a pair will last a long time.

“In the secondary market, you may very well access really fine denim,” Leslie said. “And it’s already got that natural wear to it… Denim has such longevity.”

The “jeans” emoji. Image courtesy of Emojipedia.

And in the same way a pair may last you indefinitely, jeans seem to maintain a firm hold in American—and now global—fashion. Denim holds a special place in the heart of American history as one of the first pieces of clothing with a distinct association to the U.S., and its ascendancy from a utility pant to a global wardrobe staple echoes the famous “rags to riches” American Dream. 

A well-worn pair of jeans tells a story through its rips, tears and fraying edges; the history of the garment—how it was produced, marketed and worn—reflects a constantly-evolving culture and modern society, with all its glories and its failures, its prosperity and its wars. 

“The idea of clothing and the change of fashion is a reflection of the overall society, in terms of economy, in terms of technology, in terms of politics, in terms of social class,” Leslie said. “It’s not just clothes—it’s the near environment. It’s so close to your identity that it’s tied to all the aspects around you.”

What this means for the global consumer in 2020, however, is that how we interact with our clothes from is inextricably tied with how we interact with our society. By deciding to shop for and wear clothes sustainably, we are impacting not only our own fashion choices, but impacting humanity’s sustainable and ethical future. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to return to the essential ethics of the original, tried-and-true, rugged denim, which reminds us of the lasting, the timeless, the authentic—a much needed closet staple amidst chaotic, modern times.

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