Denim Jeans: The Past, Present, and Future

Denim jeans have been a staple in the fashion world for what feels like forever. From cowboys to runway models, just about everyone wears them.

Where did they come from, though? How did they become an essential piece of clothing in wardrobes across the globe?

The Invention of Denim Jeans

The earliest pairs of denim jeans have been traced all the way back to 1873. They were made from indigo-dyed denim and featured pockets and sturdy rivets on the sides. These pants were patented by tailor Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss, the owner of a San Francisco wholesale fabric house.

Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss

At the time, these pants were initially lauded as excellent options for hard-working professionals, including miners. The copper rivets helped to reinforce the pockets and prevented rips, which was something miners and laborers appreciated.

The denim pants that were patented by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss were built to endure anything – Photo: Levi Strauss & Co.

For a while, Strauss and Davis were the sole creators of denim jeans. Their patent ended in 1890, though, which made room for other manufacturers to reproduce their work.

In 1895, OshKosh B’Gosh released their own version, and Blue Bell (which later became known as Wrangler) followed suit in 1904. Lee Mercantile came in a few years after, in 1911, and their jeans became the standard issue for all laborers during World War I.

Jeans in Hollywood

In the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood stars helped to change the perception of jeans from workwear to something a bit more glamorous and romantic. Actors like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, who were known for playing handsome cowboys, were regularly outfitted in denim jeans for their roles.

Women also started donning them in the 1930s. Actresses like Carole Lombard and Ginger Rogers, for example, were regularly shown wearing jeans. Vogue described denim jeans as “Western chic” around the same time as well.

A couple of decades later, in the 1950s, Hollywood bad boys like James Dean and Marlon Brando were featured wearing denim, too. With these celebrities rocking this trend, jeans soon started to become associated with rebellion.

James Dean wearing denim jeans while filming “Giant” in Marfa, TX (1956)

Rebellious Clothing

The rebellious nature of denim continued through the 60s and 70s. They started to become associated with rock n’ roll and the anti-war movement. Members of the women’s liberation movement also began donning them more frequently as a symbol of gender equality.

Around this time, some high schools actually banned denim jeans in an effort to quell students’ rebellious natures. Of course, as is the case whenever anything is banned by authority figures, this rule backfired and further cemented jeans as a symbol of rebellion and “coolness.”

Denim as a Fashion Statement

Even though Vogue gave denim jeans its seal of approval long before, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that fashion brands really started to take an interest in them.

For example, Fiorucci released the Buffalo 70 jeans, which had a dark wash, a skin-tight fit, and a high price tag. They were highly fashionable, but they were also exclusive and inaccessible to many of the people to whom jeans were initially marketed.

Calvin Klein also introduced jeans to the runway in 1976. From there, they became staples on the runway as many other brands introduced their own versions, ranging from skin-tight styles to straight-leg cuts to baggy boyfriend jeans.

The Future of Denim

The latest denim trends seem to be a callback to the jeans of the past. Lots of fashionistas have been seeing sporting jeans that seem straight out of the 80s and 90s, with low-rise waists and flowing legs.

It’s hard to say if these loose-fitting styles will stick around long-term or are just a passing fad. We’ll just have to wait and see. One thing is certain, though: Denim, in one style or another, is here to stay.