Blue Jean Baby: A History of Denim Jeans

by Lula Ososki

Levi Strauss & Co.

The history of denim jeans as we know them starts in 1873, with two dudes named Jacob Davis and Levis Strauss. Strauss came from Germany to the big apple in 1851 to join his older brother running a dry goods store. When he caught wind of the Gold Rush in 1853, he headed west to set up shop in San Francisco where he sold denim and cotton fabric, amongst other things. It was here where he met Jacob Davis, a tailor who was making a pair of pants for a customer wanting strong, durable workwear. They teamed up, adding metal rivets where pants rip the most, at the pockets and flies. Voilà — the first pair of jeans were created!

Indigo and denim

The colour and fabric of denim jeans dates way back before Levi Strauss & co. Indigo, an organic dye with the distinctive blue ‘denim’ colour comes from the plant Indigofera tinctoria and has been used in India for about the last 4000 years. Denim fabric came from Nimes, France and was originally called ‘Serge De Nimes’ (shortened to Denim).


Years before women’s jeans came into play, Cowgirls in the West would wear mens Levis 501’s. They needed tough, sturdy pants that could withstand their hard manual work on the ranches, just like the guys did. In 1934 Levi Strauss & Co. created the first pair women’s jeans called ‘Lady Levi’s’. They were aimed at women working on ranches, and sold only in the Western states of the US. The sale of Lady Levis began to take off in the 30s and 40s due to the popularity of ‘Dude Ranches’ but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that women’s jeans were sold throughout the United States.


Stars such as Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Marlon Brando rocking denim on the big screen lead the way for jeans becoming a fashion statement, not just for practical ranch wear. Jeans became an icon of rebellion and a wardrobe staple for young men and women.


Hippies in the 70s embroidered them, Punk Rockers like The Ramones wore them skinny and Hip-Hop legends donned the baggy Fubus…From pop to punk, hippies to hip-hop, through the ages various groups have adopted denim jeans and made them their own.


“You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” were the words that shocked the world when uttered by 15 year old Brooke Shields in Calvin Klein’s 1981 ad. That’s not the only advert that caused a stir…in the early 80s Levi’s had lost their cool. Other fashion brands such as Calvin Klein and Hilfiger had jumped on the jean wagon, and Levi’s, unwillingly, were the jeans of ‘mom and dad’. But that all changed in under a minute on Boxing day 1985 when they released a steamy commercial featuring model Nick Kamen walking into a Laundrette to Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’. Sales of the 501’s increased by a crazy 800/ and they even had to take the ad off air, as they couldn’t produce jeans fast enough to meet the demand!

Never forget

A seriously important moment in denim history…Britney. Justin. American Music Awards 2001. #neverforget


In 1969, a writer for American Fabrics magazine wrote “Denim is one of the worlds oldest fabrics, yet it remains eternally young”. Amazingly, this it still applies today due to the constantly transforming style of jeans. In 2005 the Co-Founder of J brand, Susie Crippen, changed the way women dress with her skinny jean design. Now in 2015, young designers such as Faustine Steinmetz, Marques Almeida and Ashish continue to experiment and adapt denim jeans, maintaining their ongoing modernity for the new generation of denim wearers.

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