In spite of the fact that jeans are thought of as an American product, denim itself has a much more cosmopolitan background. The word denim is a contraction of serge de Nîmes, named after the town of Nîmes in the south of France, where present-day denim was more or less invented. Serge is a cotton twill fabric often used for making military uniforms, which can be traced back as far as ancient Byzantium. What sets denim apart from ordinary serge is that the warp threads are dyed indigo blue, while the weft threads are white. Turn your jeans inside out, and you’ll see the white threads, but from the outside they look blue.
So much for weaving technology. Now for a bit of history. Denim was relatively hard-wearing but cheap to produce – it was, after all, only woven cotton – so it wasn’t long before it became largely adopted as workwear. However, denim trousers (pants) did have a few issues. For example, the pockets and fly tended to tear. Enter Jacob Davis of Reno, Nevada, who decided to reinforce these areas with copper rivets. A bit of a heavy-handed steampunk solution, you might say, but, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the innovation did capture the attention of a trading company called Levi Strauss, of Sacramento, California. And the jeans rush was born.
It was not born overnight. Jeans, which probably owe their name to Gênes, the French word for Genoa, where a lot of blue denim was made, continued to be basic workwear for a further century, until the Beat Generation came along.
Mildred: "Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?"
Johnny: "What've you got?"
Why did the likes of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady wear jeans? Mostly because they were broke and jeans were cheap. But in an era when American intellectuals still championed the workers, they were also a symbol of class rebellion. And nobody personified rebellion quite like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. His role of Johnny Strabler certainly did more for jeans sales than all the poets and novelists put together. He probably didn’t do sales of leather jackets and Triumph motorbikes any harm either.
But not every teenage rebel of the 1950s went for the greaser/rocker look. On the other side of the Pond, young working-class men actually favoured the “Edwardian” style, with drape jackets and brocade waistcoats. No self-respecting Teddy Boy would be seen dead in a pair of Levi’s. It was only when they were espoused by rock ‘n’ roll musicians that jeans finally crossed the borders of youth culture. Think of the Hamburg-era Beatles, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and, of course, Elvis.
As hair grew longer and dresses shorter, jeans became a staple of youth fashion, and people started to “distress” them. Originally, this was accidental - you literally wore your jeans until they fell apart. The next stage was to make it clear to everyone that, although your jeans were indeed falling apart, you were postponing the apartness by clumsily applying patches in non-matching fabrics and stitching them up with the sort of skills best left to five-year-olds. And, slightly later, you would just leave them to disintegrate and close up the holes with safety pins.
Seeing a gap in what was never even remotely considered as a market, the major jeans manufacturers seized the opportunity to do the job for you, filling giant industrial washing machines with jeans and rocks and buying up ancient “classic” jeans to sell them on at eye-watering prices.
While previously jean manufacturers could arguably have been counted on one hand – mostly called Lee or some variation thereon – there was now an explosion of brands, many of the cheaper ones making “home distressing” a comparatively easy process. However, jeans were also starting to be regarded as an indispensable part of one’s wardrobe, which was when the high-end fashion brands started to jump in. Armani, Gucci, Calvin Klein, Versace, Balmain and many other brands normally associated with catwalks and supermodels started to produce their own, suitably priced, versions of the classic blue jean. It mattered little that there was practically no way of knowing that they were Armani, Gucci, Calvin Klein, Versace or Balmain without getting so close to the label or tag that an accusation of inappropriate behaviour might be in order.
It's all a far cry from workwear and dungarees produced in California or Kansas, The Grapes of Wrath and Woodie Guthrie, but jeans still owe their existence to this self-same pedigree. Which is why they have become a fashion classic. Not bad for a few lengths of denim.