A pair of jeans is one of the most common wardrobe staples of today. People of all ages, occupations, social stations, and economic backgrounds own jeans of many varieties. Jeans weren’t always so ubiquitous, but once denim took hold of a generation of Americans, it solidified a space in worldwide fashion that’s bigger now than ever.
In modern times we automatically associate the term “jean” with denim fabric, but it wasn’t always so. The word jeans is derived from a 17th century European term, which described the various rough uniforms worn by labour workers. The clothing was often made of a fabric from the Italian city of Genoa and therefore referred to as “gene.” Though there is some debate among garment scholars about the origins of the term “denim,” one widely accepted theory is that the fabric got its name from a region in France called Nimes. A certain cotton twill fabric called “serge de Nimes” was adapted by early jeans purveyor Levi Strauss, who in the mid 19th century began using the cloth to make durable pants for gold mine workers in the American state of California.
The style of wearing jeans became more widely known to Americans in the 1930s when Western movies depicted cowboys, who were the heroes of the genre, wearing jeans. The style gained wider exposure when off-duty American soldiers wore jeans during the second World War, exposing parts of Europe to the modern item of clothing.
In the 1950s jeans made the leap from being known as a workman’s uniform to being a symbol of popular culture and fashion. Icons like movie actor James Dean popularised the item of clothing and branded the style as a symbol of rebellion among young people. Many learning institutions even banned students from wearing jeans to school. But the popularity of jeans couldn’t be suppressed by their taboo status. In the 1960s and ’70s jeans were adapted by the psychedelic and hippie cultures, who decorated the basics with embroidery and paint. During this period many people in non-Western countries regarded jeans as a symbol of Western decadence.
It was in one of the most decadent decades in modern history that jeans really took off as a big money maker for the fashion industry. In the 1980s high fashion designers began to produce jeans with their own labels, causing the demand and price of jeans to rise dramatically. Though the 1990s saw a dip in the popularity of denim, in the new millennium jeans were more important to a fashion lover’s wardrobe than ever.
Jean brands like True Religion and Rock & Republic became status symbols, as their jeans retailed for up $450 a pair. Whereas before an established fashion label could expand to produce jeans, now jean brands have the clout (and the dollars) to create full lines of ready-to-wear.