What rice and corn and potatoes are to food, jeans are to fashion: A 21st-century gentleman can wear jeans to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all the while being well-dressed. Regarded—perhaps alongside the T-shirt—as the quintessential American garment, jeans actually have their origins in the Old World. Genoa, Italy, long known for its production of corduroy, also produced an indigo-dyed, sturdy, corduroy-like fabric which, by the 1500s, was being used by Genoese sailors to make their pants as well as to protectively wrap cargo for shipment. The French, who admired the fabric, referred to it as “Gênes,” the French word for Genoa, and it is believed that the word “jeans” derives therefrom. Eventually, French fabric mills in the city of Nimes tried, unsuccessfully, to copy the Italian fabric, creating instead a twilled fabric that was called “serge de Nimes.” Over time, that fabric would come to be referred to as simply “de Nimes” (“of Nimes”) then, finally, “denim,” the word used today to describe both the fabric and garments made therefrom (though whenever used to describe garments other than pants, the name of the specific garment follows the word “jeans,” such as in the case of “jeans jacket” or “jeans skirt”). Dungaree, a twill fabric originally from the Dungri section of Bombay (present-day Mombai) and also used to make jeans, is the same as denim, except that traditionally, denim was dyed after being woven, whereas the yarns used to produce dungaree were dyed before being woven. Today, the word “dungaree” refers both to the fabric and garments made therefrom, especially pants.
But “jeans,” “denims,” and “dungarees” as they are known today—those sturdy cotton pants with copper rivets—are as American as fast-food, hip-hop, and no-fault divorce. And it all started when Levi Strauss, a German immigrant, moved to San Francisco from New York in 1853 in the height of the gold rush in order to establish a dry goods store. As legend has it, Strauss met a gold prospector who was interested in purchasing ultra-durable work pants for his miners (rather than the canvas for tents and wagons covers that Strauss was selling). So Strauss used some of his canvas to construct work pants (called “waist overalls”), only to discover that while the miners liked the pants for their durability, they found them too rough on the skin. In response, Strauss substituted the coarse canvas with the softer, but durable, serge de Nimes. And all was well. Then in 1872, a Latvian immigrant named Jacob Davis wrote to Strauss suggesting that they apply jointly for a patent for pants rivets that would make pants stronger at their high-stress areas such as the corners of pockets. (Davis had established a San Francisco-based business making horse blankets and canvas tents, both of which utilized rivets). In 1873, both men were awarded the patent, and jeans were born, though they would be referred to as “waist overalls” until 1960 when the name “jeans” was attached to the pants by baby boomers. Long associated with laborers’ clothing and cowboys, jeans became mainstream—amongst young people, males and females, in the 1950s when Hollywood actors James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Presley popularized denim in their films of that decade. By the 1960s jeans had come to symbolize youthful rebelliousness and disillusionment and as such became a cornerstone of the dress code of the Hippie Movement. By the late 1970s, fashion designers were marketing their own “designer jeans”; and by the early 1980s, jeans had become a staple garment the world over. Fifteen-year-old Brooke Sheilds queried and answered in the unabashedly provocative TV ad, “You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” And Sasson jeans evoked oohs and ahhs with its catchy “Ooh La La” campaign. Banned in many schools and restaurants in the 1950s, today jeans have become almost obligatory in some casual settings. And when paired with sport coats or blazers, jeans may be worn to practically any event that is not specifically designated “formal.” Indigo (with all the faded and diluted shades thereof) remains the most popular color for jeans, but black is also commonly worn, and white jeans make for a fresh option in the spring and summer months as well as throughout the year in the tropical and arid regions of the world.