humorculture


Blue Jeans: An American Phenomenon
by Marjorie Dorfman

What is it about blue jeans that have caused them to endure in fickle American pop culture? Where did they come from and what do they want? Read on for some facts and a smile or two.

What do Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marlon Brando and all the 19th century cowboys and gold rush miners have in common? Their blue jeans, that’s what! To the cowboys and miners, the pants were durable work clothes that molded to their individual body shapes to become a "personal garment." To the "rebel" movie icons of the 1950s, jeans symbolized individualism and social revolt. Today, they are an ageless phenomenon and they personify all that is good about America and its democratic values of independence and equality. Their world wide popularity since the 1960s has made them the most universally worn item of clothing in the world today, crossing class, gender, age, regional, national and even ideological lines.

In 1962 American Fabrics magazine referred to denim as an "honest, substantial, forthright and unpretentious fabric." I could understand such accolades if a textile could apply for a job, but after all, an equal opportunity employer does have his or her limitations! Still, denim and blue jeans have come a long way from Levi Strauss’s original purpose; work pants for the California coal miners in the mid nineteenth century. The Bavarian peddler imported the cotton fabric with blue dyed thread from the French city of Nimes and it is presumed that this is where the term "denim" comes from. Whatever it’s origins, denim is here to stay and blue jeans have become an established attitude about clothing and lifestyle.

How the word "jeans" come to mean pants made out of denim is a question almost as ponderable and rewarding as which came first, the chicken or the egg. There seem to be two schools of thought on the subject and neither can be proven absolutely true. One idea is that the word might be a derivation of "Genoese", meaning the type of fustian pants worn by sailors from Genoa, Italy. The other theory stems from the fact that jean and denim fabrics were both used for work wear for many decades and "jeans pants" was a common term for pants made from jean fabric. Before 1873, Strauss bought "jean pants" to sell in California. When denim became even more popular for work wear, the word "jeans" was still used as the term for the denim version of these pants. It doesn’t really matter, does it? They are here and so are you and I. ("Maybe millions of people go by…")

In 1872 a poor tailor from Reno, Nevada named Jacob Davis shared an idea with Levi Strauss to improve the strength of the work pants he made for his customers by adding metal rivets. In 1873 the two men patented the improvement in "Fastening Pocket Openings." Levi brought Davis to San Francisco to oversee the first manufacture of their copper riveted "waist overalls" made from brown cotton duck and blue denim. Knowing that the riveted pants were going to be perfect for work wear, Levi and Jacob decided to make them out of denim rather than jean because denim seemed the sturdiest fabric of the two. This decision would forever rock the textile world in a way that even Elvis Presley couldn’t. (He could rock, but you know what I mean!)

Jeans are still in the workplace today, where once the suit, shirt and tie was king. It’s really only the tools we need for work that have changed over the years. Instead of a pick and shovel or a tired horse with no jeans of his own, we use telephones, pens, paper and computer keyboards. Still we wear the same thing: jeans, jeans, jeans! From a garment associated exclusively with work, jeans have progressed to one associated with leisure sportswear and even haute couture status via designer labels. They have transcended even the garment world, making guest appearances and disguising themselves as perfume fragrances such as Versace's "Black Jeans" for him and "Baby Rose Jeans" for her.

Scratch N’Sniff jeans reach yet another smelly audience, presenting to the weary world and anyone else willing to smell, a wide array of scents such as Ammonia, Ashtray, Sweat, Peanut Butter and Watermelon, just to mention a few. These Scratch N'Sniff jeans keep the concept of teenagers, capitalism, free enterprise and aerosol sprays alive and well in America. There truly seems no end to the versatility and expansion of the concept of "blue jeans".

Today Levi-Strauss and Company make jeans in approximately 108 sizes and 20 different finishes. There are 37 separate sewing operations involved in making a single pair of Levis. The double row of stitching on the back pockets known as the Arcuate design is the oldest apparel trademark still in use today. It was first used in 1873. During World War II, this design was painted on the pockets due to government rationing of thread. At that time, denim was considered "essential to defense" and only those individuals specifically designated could wear it! Where do blue jeans and denim go from here? I hope they stay exactly where they are, or at least not too far away. Blue jeans will always be a part of the American psyche, like "The Star Spangled Banner" and apple pie. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Would you?


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