The Origin of Denim Jeans
They come in traditional blue, midnight black, bright pink. They may be pre-distressed, dip-dyed, or custom-tailored—but no matter what shape or form, nearly everyone owns a good pair of jeans. Jeans can be worn for everyday occasions and the dirtiest, toughest, most difficult jobs a cowgirl or cowboy faces. Jeans are synonymous with cowboys, but where do they really come from? When did wearing denim really begin? Let's take in-depth journey through the history of jeans, an iconic part of any cowboy's wardrobe.
The Birth of Denim
Denim is a near-legendary fabric with both historians and aficionados having their own—or disagreeing on—versions of the story of denim and jeans. Some believe it started with a fabric called “Cotton Duck,” originating from the Dutch word, doek, meaning "linen canvas." Duck cloth, or duck canvas, was a heavier, plain woven cotton fabric canvas that was more tightly woven than plain canvas. Canvas was used frequently in early Old West wagons, tents, and clothing.
Others say denim—and thus, jeans as we know them today—began with a prominent 17th-century businessman, Joseph Andre, who brought fame to a city building his family's fortune on the commercialization of the Serge de Nimes, the famous, "de Nimes," or as it's now known: denim.
The city of Genoa, Italy, also claims that the fabric jeans are made from originated there. In the 15th century, shipbuilders and merchants in Genoa used a cheap, coarse and strong woven cotton to make sails and protect goods. This material was produced in the French city of Nimes which was called "blue de Genes," which became “Blue Jeans” when later translated into English. Dungarees, another name for modern blue jeans, were mentioned for the first time during the 17th century and referred to as a cheap, coarse thick cotton cloth—either dyed blue with Indigo from India, or left undyed and white.
The actual term, 'jeans,' begins appearing first around 1795, when a Swiss banker named Jean-Gabriel Eynard and his brother Jacques went to Genoa and began heading a flourishing commercial concern. In 1800, Jean-Gabriel was entrusted with a supply for Massena's troops, and furnished them with uniforms cut from a blue cloth called, "blue de Genes."
What we know for sure is that this material found its way into the hands of two tailors—Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss—and their involvement helped rocket blue jeans to popularity, turning them into an American clothing staple.
Where Did Jeans Originate?
To get to the very beginning of jeans themselves, we must go nearly 150 years into the past. It all started in 1871 with a tailor named Jacob Davis of Reno in Nevada. Jacob was running into a problem that he wasn't sure how to solve at first. The pants he was tailoring for the miners weren't remotely tough enough to withstand the conditions of working in a mine during those days.
Pockets, knees and the typical button fly of that era were always being torn. One of the miner's wives was attributed to approaching Jacob Davis and asking him to come up with something that could withstand the abuse of such grueling hard work. At that time, metal fasteners were common, and he began to come up with ideas for riveted trousers out of durable, "duck cloth," a type of canvas. Using copper rivets to hold everything together instead of metal fasteners, Jacob designed overalls that the miners began wearing and loving.
Jacob often purchased bolts of cloth from a young man who ran a dry goods business in San Francisco named Levi Strauss. Jacob at the time knew that he had something with this design of better, stronger clothing for miners but lacked the funds to make his idea flourish. In 1872, Jacob wrote to Strauss asking to partner with him to patent and sell his clothing with reinforced copper rivets. Levi accepted the request and offer by Davis and the two men received their US patent No. 139, 121 for," Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings," on May 20th, 1873. It was during this patent year that the modern, mass-produced prototype featured two pockets in the front and one on the back with copper rivets.
Their first experimentation in fabrics for jeans was an early attempt using brown cotton duck. A pair of these made sometime between 1873 and 1896 can be seen in the American History Museum, proving just how tough, durable and long-lasting these trousers originally made for factory workers, miners, farmers, and cattlemen through the American West can be
Since these trousers and overalls could be made directly within shops and factories in America, Strauss and Davis were already saving money by not having to send overseas for their supplies. Their designs became popular quickly. Affordable and tough, hard-working men and women of the west began purchasing these durable pieces of clothing almost as fast as they could be made.
Later, Strauss' jeans were redesigned to feature today's industry standard of five pockets including the watch pocket with copper rivets. Although the original patent finally expired in 1890, Levi Strauss & Co had already solidified itself as a company with a popular, well-made product, so when a new, more flexible fabric was used in their durable wear—blue denim—paired with their trademark copper rivets, the combination would then go on to be part of the American wardrobe from then on.
Blue jeans became the choice for many experienced ranchers and horse riders, able to withstand hours in the saddle and keeping brambles or worse, at bay while remaining intact. Proper clothing for cowboys could save their life or the life of their horse, every item of clothing from the boots to the hat to the trousers were carefully chosen before leaving on cattle drives or starting work on the ranch. Blue jeans became synonymous with cowboys once they became mass-produced and affordable enough for them to shuck their wool, cotton, or even second-hand military uniforms from the American Civil War.
The 1900s became the decade when many cowboys finally traded their wool or California foxed pants. Blue jeans became a standard in classical Western movies and TV shows catching the minds of not only the older but younger crowd in America. The 1950 movie Rebel Without a Cause caught the imagination of the youth and soon wearing jeans became the norm. By the 1970s, wearing jeans as casual wear became accepted all over the United States.
Blue jeans today are still associated with their original concepts: rugged, comfortable, and protective as well as becoming a fashion statement. They're in our everyday wardrobe, our workwear, and even semi-formal wear, making them one of the most traditional American pieces of clothing to this very day.