Stone-washed, distressed ripped, skinny or flared? Wondering what all the fuss is about? They are all qualifiers for that ubiquitous pair of jeans, perhaps the world’s most popular outfit. It is interesting to note that this item of clothing which had its inception in 18th century America has actually lived to recount its tale of survival and success even after a good two hundred years!
Despite several trendsetters in the fashion industry from top hats to platform shoes, from bell bottoms to sailor suits, none have had the lasting power of the good old pair of jeans. Transcending time and regional boundaries jeans are definitely classic trendsetters in the history of clothing.
Interestingly the word ‘jeans’ is of French origin (Genes) and referred to the cotton and twill pants that were worn by Genoese sailors in Italy. In the year 1853, when the California gold rush was at its peak there was a tremendous shortage of everyday items. It was during this time that a 24-year-old German immigrant named Levi Strauss left New York for San Francisco with a small supply of dry goods to set up shop in the province. Shortly after his arrival, a prospective customer was curious about Strauss’s wares.
When Strauss told him that he had rough canvas that could be put to good use for wagon covers and tents, the man remarked,”Wish you had brought pants instead!” and complained that he could not find a pair of pants that could weather the damage caused while working in the gold mines. Strauss quickly came up with a solution and used his canvas and modified them into overalls. They were fashioned from bolts of brown canvas sailcloth with gold ore storing pockets that were nearly impossible to split.The miners liked the pants, but complained that they tended to chafe. It was then that Strauss thought of substituting the canvas with a twilled cotton cloth from France called ‘serge de Nimes’. Serge referring to a kind of material and Nimes was the place from where the cloth was obtained. The fabric later became known as denim and the pants were nicknamed blue jeans because of the indigo dyes used in the process. Interestingly a European tailor named Joseph Davis moved to Reno in Nevada around the same time and was engaged in the production of wagon covers from cotton duck cloth that he bought from Levi Strauss.
Davis too, like Strauss, accidentally found his way into the clothing business. When a woman requested him to make a hardy pair of pants for her miner-husband, Davis hit upon the idea of using copper rivets to attach the pockets to his new pants. When word got around the pants were huge sellers! In order to protect his invention Davis wrote to Levi Strauss and asked if he would like to jointly patent the idea. The two-horse brand design was first used and later a red tab attached to the left rear pocket was created. The rest of course is history. Thus were born the first Levis jeans. Jeans are perhaps the only item of clothing that has been a constant icon in both history and popular culture. The popularity of the outfit with cowboys in Hollywood cinema, the national heroes of World War II, the navy veterans and the hippies created a brand of costume that was associated with an irresistible aura of adventure, romance, resistance, rebellion and leisure.
It is heartening to see that this is perhaps the only garment where the buyer is assured that the pair he owns will fade, shrink, wrinkle, can be ripped and still remains the coolest buy to this day!