History of Jeans and Denim History Shape Global Fashion Today

The history of jeans is the story of modern civilization, from farmlife to celebrity glamor. Denim is the most iconic of all fabrics, and blue jeans are a part of life around the globe.

Demin is the most popular fabric around the globe, and blue jeans are the iconic fashion.

Denim "not only exists in every country in the world, but in many of these it has become the single most common form of everyday attire, " state anthrolpologists Miller and Woodward (2007, p. 27).

Let's start our time travel journey with the question, "What is twill?" because denim, the fabric of jeans, and khaki are basically this same textile.

What Is Twill? A Traditional Cotton Textile

Twill is what makes denim - and khaki -- so comfortable to wear. Add to this, twill is a rugged fabric, and the enduring popularity of this cloth becomes clear.

Twill is traditionally cotton with a diagonal weave.

Most textiles have more stretch or "give" on the bias. Dresses are cut on the bias to enhance the drape.

The diagonal weave of denim is what makes jeans so comfortable, as the cloth adapts to your body and movements.

How Twill Is Different From Denim?

To explain the difference between What is twill? and denim, let's look at the colors of the threads that are used.

In denim, the top thread is colored, woven over the white thread (according to in-weave's e-bay guide.). Twill fabric uses the same color thread for both warp and woof (the two directions of the thread).

Today, cotton twill may be a blended fabric. Additional stretch may be provided by elastane or Lycra. Polyester helps the garment resist wrinkles.

The traditional color is indigo blue. This is a natural plant dye that has been known since prehistoric times (John, 2006). Indigo does not dissolve in water, so dyeing twill blue takes a lot of processing.

Pre-Washing Denim Is Not Good for Environment

All that processing means that a lot of water is used.

The New York Times (2011) reported that Levi Strauss, the blue jeans manufacturer, and cotton growers were doing their best to reduce the large amount of water made in growing cotton and processing the fabric, including dying.

Levi-Strauss estimated that the average blue jeans pants consumes 919 gallons of water in its lifetime.

Denim History Starts in Nimes, France, for the Modern Era

Historical accounts agree that denim fabric originated in Nimes, France, in the 1600s – hence the name de-nim or "of Nimes."

Sailors liked the rugged fabric for their work pants. It molded to their bodies, was easy to roll up against flooded decks, and could be worn even while wet.

A similar fabric made in Genoa, Italy, reportedly furnished the word jeans for these tough pants.

Art World Shakes Up History of Jeans

Denim history got a jolt in 2010 when the Canesso Gallery exhibited paintings from the 1600s showing poor folk in Italy dressed in blue denim.

The anonymous 17th century Italian painter is hailed online in this New York Times blog, Discovery News, and Denim Blog.

Blue Jeans Become Iconic American Fabric

Gold rush miners were the first to love a newly-patented design of dark blue denim pants. The pockets were reinforced with upholstery rivets. The history of jeans takes off at this point.

In turn, farmers and World War II factory workers came to love jeans and adopt them as a uniform.

Hollywood had a lot to do with making jeans the cowboys' clothing of choice. These range riders actually were decreasing in number as the garment rose to popularity, writes Salazar (2010).

Denim Colors Rebellion and Rebellious Fantasies

The cowboy is another quintessentially American icon – neither part of city life nor farm life, but the one who rides into town to restore justice.

The association of this loner archetype with high ideals shaped the history of jeans in ways that continue to resonate with American values.

Rebellious youth of the 1950s adopted jeans as their fashion statement, modeling themselves on James Dean in Rebel without a Cause.

Russian youth paid big bucks during the Cold War years to deck themselves in this iconic symbol of American life, jeans.

Next, denim history and the history of jeans entwine with the youth culture of the 1960s. The individuality of jeans in molding themselves to the wearer's body was taken to a new level with embellishments of patches, embroidery, and painted-on designs.

Designers and Fashionistas Appropriate the Working-Class Garb

The working-class history of jeans and denim took a contradictory twist in the 1980s, as high-end labels got into the business.

Pre-washed and later stone-washed jeans were sold, sometimes with built-in fraying and rips, to women who never risked breaking a fingernail doing something so plebian as the laundry.

Ironically, pre-washing and pre-fraying was usually out-sourced to workers in Mexico and other less highly-paid countries. The pants are then worn by wealthy people who never wash the dishes, no less anything rugged enough to fray and rip this durable fabric.

Miller and Woodward call this the illusion ofthe wearer's "intimate relationship" with the pants.

Part 2/History of Jeans and Denim History: What Blue Jeans Mean to Us and Worldwide Popularity


John, P. (2006). Indigo reduction in the woad vat: A medieval technology revealed. Biologist, 53(1), 31-35.

Kaufman, L. (2011, Nov. 1). Stone-washed blue jeans (minus the washed). Accessed Mar. 4, 2012 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/02/science/earth/levi-strauss-tries-to-minimize-water-use.html?_r=3

Miller, D., & Woodward, S. (2007). Manifesto for a study of denim. Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, 15(3), 335–351.

Salazar, J. B. (2010). Fashioning the historical body: the political economy of denim. Social Semiotics, 20(3), 293-308.

You may also be interested in How to Find Womens Work Pants that Fit and Flatter After 50

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