Nicole Clinton charts the evolution of the world’s most popular trousers and their relationship to history.
It is almost impossible to envision a wardrobe, in fact a world, without jeans, yet it is also quite shocking that they were first invented in 1873! While the denim pants are a ubiquitous symbol of modern dress, their creation by a Bavarian-born Jew, Levi Strauss, came way back in the late-nineteenth century. The opportunistic Strauss produced and sold his first pair of jeans to a Californian miner for six dollars in gold dust after the man complained of the difficulty he experienced in finding a pair of stiff, rugged pants that could withstand the rigours of digging. Fast forward over 140 years and jeans have become both a style statement and a fashion essential in the eyes of the Western world, but not without going through a series of physical and social transformations over the decades.
In the 1930s, jeans were mainly seen on the big-screen as the cowboys of Hollywood western movies made the pants a symbol of the all-American hero. The style of jeans found during this time were loose fitting, hard-wearing work pants as they were still mostly worn by miners and manual labourers. In 1936, Levi Strauss added his signature red flag to the back pocket of the jeans, making it the first item of clothing to display an outside label. It was also during this decade that Vogue featured a model in denim on the cover for the first time, planting the idea that jeans could be worn as a fashion statement. The 1940s brought the introduction of rival denim companies Wrangler and Lee as they launched their bid to compete with Levi for a share of the jeans market. This new competition highlighted the rising status of jeans as a hugely profitable product that would grow within the American capitalist, consumer society that was taking shape at this time.
The 1950s saw denim become favoured by young people as ‘teenagers’ emerged as a new demographic of the western population. The material became synonymous with the ‘teenage rebel’ in popular culture and stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando promoted the sensitive, denim-clad, bad-boy look. Due to their wild image that endorsed ‘bad behaviour’, jeans were even banned in some US public schools. Light washes, cuffed jeans and black denim were the trends among men. However, jeans had yet to become popular in women’s fashion as the image of the perfect, feminine housewife was highly encouraged in females of all ages.
Many college students wore jeans in the 1960s while the item’s rebellious image began to transform into one representing the peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll ideals that preoccupied the era’s youth. Embroidery and psychedelic patterns decorated the free-flowing, bell-bottom style that reigned supreme during the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. As the hippie age of the 1970s was ushered in, personalising your jeans became all the rage and denim saw itself being ornamented with bright colours, stone wash, rhinestones and patches. This burst of creativity and anti-establishment ideology was a backlash against the mechanical, conservative society that America had pushed throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Bell bottoms and hip huggers were worn with huge platform heels before being made redundant when the punk movement inspired by British punk bands the Ramones and the Sex Pistols traded flares for skin-tight jeans.
It is not until the commencement of the 1980s that jeans finally become high fashion clothing when famous non-denim designers started making their own styles of the newly coveted pants, placing their own labels on them and truly launching designer denim. Sales of jeans increased as Gordon Gecko told the world that “greed is good” and the yuppie class was born out of the materialistic society that America had become. A 15-year-old Brooke Shields cooed, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvin’s,” as Calvin Klein jeans fronted the designer denim movement and elevated the latest trend of jeans to essential status in the minds of the public. Stonewash, acid wash and ripped jeans were some of the most popular looks, along with skinny leg cuts that were tapered at the ankle and high-waists. Jeans even invaded the haute-couture fashion-houses in the eighties as Karl Lagerfeld used denim for his first couture collection for Chanel. Their appeal even affected the ultimate fashion diva Anna Wintour as she put Guess jeans on her first cover when she took over American Vogue during this decade.
The 1990s grunge era was the hangover that the over-indulgent materialism of the eighties had induced. While the American yuppies were drowning in bills, embarrassment and lament contemplating the decadence the previous decade had brought them, their sons and daughters dealt with the depression and the recession by idolising Kurt Cobain’s music and style. The baggy jeans complimented the gritty, careless style that grunge promoted but they were also brought to the forefront with the emergence of the hip-hop movement. The new Calvin Klein Jeans campaign brought both grunge and hip-hop together with new face Kate Moss becoming a poster girl for the grunge look and we all know how much of a hip-hop legend that her co-star Marky Mark, a.k.a Mark Wahlberg was (hint: sarcasm). The high-waisted, baggy leg cut was advertised by a topless Moss as she had Marky Mark claiming that “not even that could come between me and my Calvin’s”. Carpenter jeans and head-to-toe denim (yes, like Bewitched!) also became popular.
Seeing as civilisation survived the millennium (computers and electronic devices did not self-destruct!), pop starlets like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera decided we should celebrate by dropping the waists of our jeans to a dangerous level and popularised the ultra low rise jean. Denim became a major fashion staple once again and suitable to wear out on a Friday night. While in the early noughties flare to boot-cut styles prospered, skinny and straight cut took over in the late-2000s. As the jeans’ market was booming again, a group of new premium denim companies like 7 for All Mankind, Hudson and Citizen emerged to commandeer a share of the lucrative market also.
The changing purpose, styles and image of jeans interestingly reflect the changing beliefs and movements in society in both their motherland, America, and throughout the rest of the Western world. They meandered their way through history to go from a work-man’s necessity during the thirties to an expression of rebellion through the fifties, sixties and seventies, before transforming into a material girl’s display of wealth in the greedy eighties and then surfaced from the hung-over nineties to become a sexy staple in the noughties.
Written by Nicole Clinton, and published in the UCC Express in February 2014.