The History of Denim

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Denim is easily the most versatile fabric on the planet, and the most popular. From the early Italian sailors to 1930’s cowboys – nzgirl takes a look at the history of denim…

The word “jeans” is thought to have come from a type of material, called “jean” that was round in the 1600’s. The material was named after sailors from Genoa in Italy, because they wore clothes made from it. The word ‘denim’ probably came from the name of a French material, “serge de nimes” – serge (a kind of material) from Nimes (a town in France).

1800’s: American gold miners wanted clothes that were strong and did not tear easily. To meet this demand, Leob Strauss started a wholesale business, supplying clothes. Strauss later changed his name from the rather plain Leob to the extremely recognisable Levi.

1930’s: Cowboys – who often wore jeans in the movies – became very popular, which lead to an increased interest in the rugged trousers.

1940’s: Fewer jeans were made during World War 2, but American soldiers did introduce them to the world by wearing them when they were off duty. After the war, rival companies, like Wrangler and Lee, began to compete with Levi’s for a share of the international market.

1950’s: Denim became very popular with young people in the 1950’s. It was the symbol of the teenage rebellion in TV programmes and movies – think James Dean in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause! Some schools in the US went so far as to ban students from wearing denim.

1960-70’s: Manufacturers started to make different styles of jeans to match the 60’s fashions: embroidered jeans, painted jeans, psychedelic jeans… In many non-western countries, jeans became a symbol of ‘ western decadence’ and were very hard to get.

1980’s: In the 1980’s jeans became high fashion clothing. Famous fashion designers like Gucci started making jeans, with their own labels on them, and jean sales started to rocket.

1990’s: Although denim is never completely out of style, it certainly goes out of "fashion" from time to time. The 1990’s youth market wasn’t particularly interested in 501s and other traditional jeans styles, mainly because their parents: the "generation born in blue" were still wearing them. No teenager in their right mind would be caught dead in anything their parents are wearing, so the 1990’s youth turned to other fabrics and styles like cargo pants, khakis and branded sportswear.

Denim was still in vogue, but it had to be in different finishes, new cuts, shapes, styles, or in the form of aged, authentic, vintage jeans, discovered in markets, and second-hand stores, not conventional jeans stores. Levi Strauss & Co., the No.1producer of jeans closed 11 factories in the 1990’s.

2000: Jeans made a come back on the catwalk with big name designers Chanel, Dior, Chloe and Versace adding them to their summer ’99 collections.

The rest, as they say….is history! – Denim Survival Guide.

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