What is the history of jeans?

Jeans are one of the most enduringly versatile and on-trend items of clothing. A good pair of jeans will find a place in anyone’s wardrobe, whatever their style. This universality is crucial to the popularity of jeans. They transcend the usual sartorial barriers of age, gender and class.

But just how did jeans get to be so popular? The origins of denim are murky, but most people agree that its name derives from serge de Nîmes – a sturdy fabric from the French town of Nimes. While the exact date is unknown, denim production was underway by the 18th century.

The first pair of denim jeans

Probably the most iconic trousers in the world, the history of denim jeans begins with the first pair of Levis blue jeans. This story begins when a Bavarian immigrant to the US, Levi Strauss, brought denim to the US in 1853. Levi Strauss was in California in the time of the gold rush, when many Americans were moving to the rugged West in search of their fortunes.  Many of them spent months camping in inhospitable climates, and required clothes made of sturdier material than traditional fabrics. Denim jeans were the perfect solution.

From workwear to fashion-forward

When Western film stars, including John Wayne and Gary Cooper, began wearing jeans on screen, it caused mainstream popularity for the trousers. By the 1950s, jeans had made the transformation from functional to fashionable. They began to be modelled by Hollywood icons, from Marilyn Monroe to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. The latter, alongside his peer Marlon Brando, led to jeans being seen as truly cool – a symbol of rebellious youth. During the 1960s, rock stars, hippies and activists alike cemented jeans’ reputation as a counterculture wardrobe staple. As is so often the case, youth subculture informed the direction of high fashion. In 1976, Calvin Klein featured blue jeans on the runway. The truly universal appeal of jeans was confirmed.

Jeans today

As the popularity of jeans increased, so did the fits, colours and textures available. As a result, different fashion tribes and subcultures could adopt a specific fit of jeans to call their own. During the rise of hip hop in the early 1990s, low slung jeans with an oversized fit were incredibly popular. In the late ‘90s, Boho jeans were adopted by fashionistas looking to channel a carefree Boho energy. Edgy skinny jeans, the preferred style of hipsters since the 1960s, were ubiquitous in the 2000s and the 2010s saw a return to the classics: mom jeans, dad jeans, and – of course- the originals: Levis 501s.