How Did Blue Jeans Become So Popular?

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Take a peek in every American’s closet and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t own a pair of simple blue jeans. The world’s most popular clothing item has been a staple of fashion for decades, though its evolution from working-class wear to counterculture symbol belies its current universality. Whether you prefer them flared or skinny, shredded in the knees or bedazzled in the pockets, blue jeans are so ubiquitous, it’s hard to imagine fashion before they existed.

A Miner Problem

Close up of jean fabric
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While denim as a fabric existed for decades, jeans as we know them today didn’t appear until the late 1800s in Reno, Nevada. By that time, the American Gold Rush had drawn hundreds of miners and their families to Reno and the surrounding desert. Among the families was a Latvian immigrant named Jacob Davis.

Davis operated a tailor shop in the middle of town, catering mostly to miners who were growing frustrated with pants that couldn’t stand up to the physical demands of their work. The styles of work pants that were popular at the time were made from hardy fabric but had a tendency to tear at their weaker points, particularly around the pockets and front buttons.

As the story goes, one exasperated miner’s wife asked Davis if he could create a pair of pants that wouldn’t rip so often. Davis put his mind to the task and came up with the idea of adding metal rivets to strengthen the weak points of trousers. Using copper rivets, he designed pants that reinforced the pocket corner and the base of the button fly to make them stronger. He also turned to a durable canvas fabric called duck cloth to add extra strength to his design.

Davis knew he had something special in the finished product and got to work on obtaining a patent. However, he had neither the money nor the business experience for the application process, so he needed to find a business partner. Levi Strauss was a German immigrant whose family owned a series of dry-goods stores in San Francisco. Davis had been ordering supplies from Strauss for years, including the sturdy duck cloth he used to make his first pair of riveted trousers.

Davis introduced Strauss to his design and Strauss agreed to become Davis’ business partner and fund their patent application. Davis moved to San Francisco and the pair applied for a patent for “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings,” which they received on May 20, 1873. It wasn't long until the two were in business.

Blue Jean Baby

Jeans with Levi's tag
Credit: varunkgaba/ Unsplash

Strauss and Davis quickly began production on their waist overalls, initially employing local seamstresses before opening their own factory in the 1880s. They operated under the name Levi Strauss & Co., with Strauss running the business side and Davis supervising production. Soon, their sturdy brown pants were flying off shelves and appealing to not only miners, but other working-class laborers as well.

By the time their patent expired in 1890, the pants were so closely associated with the Levi Company that it didn’t faze the pair when other manufacturers got in on the game. Soon, they began introducing other styles.

In 1890, they debuted the now-iconic Levi’s 501 style, which was made from the more flexible blue denim. Denim is a twill cotton cloth that first appeared in the 16th century. The fabric was originally created in Nîmes, France, by weavers looking to duplicate the popular corduroy of Genoa, Italy. The resulting double-twill fabric was called denim, a shortened version of “de Nîmes.” The warp threads were dyed with indigo coloring, which made them appear blue on one side and white on the other. Levi's blue denim jeans were an instant success and helped the brand spread their riveted design beyond the working class to the everyday citizen.

By 1900, Levi’s had stopped producing the brown duck cloth pants altogether, choosing to focus instead on their new blue denim jeans. In subsequent years, Strauss and Davis added new features such as belt loops, zippers, and orange stitching.

Youth in Revolt

Stacks on jeans in a store
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Over the next century, blue jeans slowly gained popularity and underwent a cultural revolution from cowboy workwear to rebellious symbol to everyday uniform. In the early 1900s, blue jeans were introduced to a broader audience through Wild West films. Stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper donned the sturdy trousers along with cowboy hats, establishing the well-known cowboy uniform. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that jeans shed their strict association with the blue-collar working class.

In the 1950s, blue jeans became a staple of rock 'n' roll style and teenage revolt. They were seen as a symbol of the young and wild — from Marlon Brando’s character in “The Wild One” to John Travolta’s singing Greasers.

This image continued into the 1960s and '70s, when anti-war protesters, hippies, and women’s rights activists donned the pants to speak out against the establishment. Jeans officially became a symbol of counterculture, with some schools going so far as to ban them from their halls. Still, the popularity of jeans continued to grow.

Eventually, high-end designers took notice and began spinning out their own styles. In 1976, Calvin Klein became the first designer to show blue jeans on the runway. It didn’t take long for other design houses to follow suit, with styles appearing from Gucci, Versace, and Dior.

Jeans and a T-Shirt

Two people in sneakers wearing jeans
Credit: Rogério Martins/ Pexels

These days, jeans are no longer a sign of the working class or even teenage rebellion. They’ve been elevated beyond association with any one group or movement to the common citizen’s everyday uniform. Jeans are available everywhere in various colors, styles, and at every price point. From “mom jeans” to the Canadian tuxedo to Escada's Couture Swarovski Crystal Jeans, which come with a $10,000 price tag, blue jeans have proven they’re here to stay.

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