The unisex uniform for casual cool is found in the Blue Jean.
Bavarian designer Levi Strauss is known for bringing the jean to the United States in the 1800’s, stitching the first pair in the Wild West around 1873. Strauss originally designed these hard canvas pants for intense laborious activities, with the California gold miners in mind.
With the help of Jacob Davis, Strauss reached peak ingenuity of the jean by adding copper riveting at various stress points, making the garment much more durable for the working man, thus birthing Levi’s signature style.
While The Jean is considered an iconic standard American garment, its origins are european.
The origins of the term “denim” is actually an anglicized contraction from the French “de Nimes”, as this indigo-dyed cotton cloth is said to have originated from Nimes, France.
But the textile has preceding historical origins in Italy (possibly as far back as the 16th century). What brought this textile to France were Italian sailors. Denim is said to have been worn in France by sailors and dockworkers from Genoa, Italy, who were referred to as “genes”, hence the term jeans. Sailors liked the denim material for its sturdiness in the face of outdoor labor.
So what bridged the evolution of the blue jean from a laborer’s work attire to the unisex casual social garment that the jean has become today?
Well, the blue jean has gone through many shifts in the past century and is often used for its diverse sartorial symbolic significance.
During the early 20th century, denim was utilized by cowboys and ranchers because it was cheap and easy to clean. The first non-“working stiffs” to become attached to the blue jeans and associated with denim wear were painters and other artists, mainly in the southwest (US) in the late 1930s and 1940s. It was already the fabric of nonconformity. During war times it was Claire McCardell, (who Betty Friedan dubbed, “the girl who defied Dior”), who in 1943 took advantage of the wartime fabric restrictions and saw the value in denim, with Harper’s Bazaar featuring McCardell’s denim popover dress.
Bikers, or “hoodlum motorcycle gangs”, in the 1950s and the New Left activists and hippies of the 1960s usd denim because both these groups (each in their own way, of course) stood strongly in opposition to the dominant conservative, middle class, consumer-oriented culture of American society. By the late 1960s, blue jeans had achieved worldwide popularity and, of greater relevance here, had fully crossed over the occupation, class, gender, and age boundaries that had circumscribed them for over a century -- it was now a garment of unisex wearability.
In the 70’s, the jean was a symbol of going with the flow, youthfulness, and it transitioned from a garment worn only by stoners, beatniks, cowboys, sassy women and delinquent housewives, to a garment everyone wanted and everyone wore. Even Studio 54 marketed and manufactured a jean.
Throughout the 80s and 90s (and still today), the phenomenon of designer jeans created a jean now used as a status/price symbol. This is a form of conspicuous consumption, attention is purposefully drawn to the jean as a status symbol which directly contradicts the original sartorial significance of the jean once used by activists to call out material culture.
The prestressing, fading, or tearing of denim obviated the need for a long break-in period for the consumer where new stiff denim was coarse and caused chafing, but it also became a huge style trend. Manufactures capitalized on the now very distinct styles for various markets. Women’s jeans became much more form fitting and sexier (the jean has been marketed by sex for many decades now), different colors, added sequins or jewels, etc. Mens jeans became less form fitting (think jncos for extreme), larger/deeper pockets, ‘masculine’ graphics/colors, etc.
The shape of denim, how it is worn (baggy/skinny, off-the-hips/on-the-hips, cut of the leg, etc), its appeal as a casual and comfortable garment, and its ease and history as a flexible sartorial symbol all add to the general appeal and marketability of the blue jean.
New versions and styles of the jean allowed anyone to wear a jean in any way. The blue jean has this ability to be incredibly diverse.
And so, the Blue Jean has gone through many stages and shifts:
- Work to leisure
- Unisex to gendered/sexual
- Egalitarian - Designer
- Country - Urban
This cycle of style trends is ad infinitum.
Current socio-cultural dynamics influence the jeans sartorial symbolic significance.
Fashion feeds off of the ambiguities (quality of being open to multiple interpretations; sartorial symbolic diversity) and ambivalences (contradictions; contradictions in society) of daily life. The blue jean, with humble beginnings, has evolved time and time again to reflect current societal trends, juxtapositions between status and antistatus, and has yet to cease as a diverse dynamic sartorial symbol that has over time, with much credit to the optimization and specialization of the design and textile (i.e. Jacob Davis’s addition of copper riveting on stress points, the prestressing/wearing-in of the denim, creation of denim blends to soften the textile, etc.), transcended makers to appeal to a multitude of consumer markets ranging equally over such identity pegs as gender, age, sexuality, and in more modern times to accommodate more variety for different body-types, cuts, and sizes. I believe the blue jean will continue to be a globally popular garment that will continue to fluctuate with current trends and events, it will continue to serve as both a casual uniform for all, and of course as a canvas for sartorial symbolic signaling. The blue jean is unique in its ability to be so encompassing combined with high marketability, a trait certain to be accredited with the garments’ long term success and appeal.
Lily Sisson is our resident designer. Currently studying at Parsons School of Design in NYC, Sisson is a developing artist who strives to create enthralling pieces that excite, always putting interest in implementing new ways and techniques to engage and construct.
See her latest work on the runway at our next 405 Fest!