Jeans - the how, the when, the why
We’ve been pulling our old blue jeans on (thanks David) for decades. It’s possibly the most ubiquitous fashion item, and the most international, albeit in its many variations – stone-washed, boyfriend, skinny, mom, highrise, lowrise, with those holes in the knee that do not denote wear and tear. But where did the garment originate?
The term “jeans” comes from Genoa, or rather, the French word for Genoa, “Genes”. It was here that the cloth, a bit like corduroy, and used for work wear originated. There are images of Italian peasants wearing the fabric in 17th century paintings.
Garment makers in Nimes tried to replicate this cloth, and came up with a twill type fabric, which they dyed with indigo. This cloth was denim – or de Nimes (from Nimes). Once more, it was considered suitable for the smocks and overalls used by workers.
Nearly all the indigo used to dye the cloth came from indigo bush plantations in India until the late 19th century. It was then replaced by indigo synthesis methods developed in Germany.
Jeans were first mentioned in 1795 : a Swiss Banker Jean-Gabriel Eynard and his brother Jaques went to Genoa , set up a business, and then provided uniforms cut from blue cloth (bleu de Genes) for Massena’s troops, during the Napoleonic wars.
Levi Strauss was from Germany . He went to the US in 1851 to join his brothers who were running a dry goods business. Jacob Davis was a tailor who bought cloth from Levi Strauss and Co , then came up with the rivets idea to strengthen garments at stress points such as pockets. Denim was a sturdy material so they started using it for workpants, with strengthened, riveted pockets and bottom of fly buttons.
So that’s the history (very brief – see more here). But what about the iconography? The semiotics? I have friends who won’t wear jeans because they view them as a symbol of America and therefore of capitalism. However, during the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America, they became a symbol , worn by both black and white marchers, of the movement towards equality, and a way of showing visually how little had changed since share cropper days. Some civil rights leaders disapproved, wanting to distance themselves from this image, and feeling also that in order to make any headway in mid century America, it was important for people of colour to out smart their white contemporaries in every way, including dress. Looking and behaving in a “respectable” manner was thought to be the better way.
The link between the wearing of jeans and making a political or social statement carried on into the 60s and 70s. The rebellious young took on blue jeans like a uniform, starting with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause through Travolta in Grease to Tu Pac in Juice. Transgressive women wore jeans too: Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return, Marianne Faithful in Girl on a Motorcycle, and Sarandon and Davies in Thelma and Louise. Jeans are all about movement: whether as originally intended, as workwear, or as a symbol of a ready for action look that women have used to overturn the passivity implied by frills, corsets and layers of figure hiding skirts.
This symbolism is not simple. Capitalism has always been good at subsuming symbols of rebellion into the mainstream and selling it back to us. Think of the spoilt teens of Beverley Hills 90210, sporting their highwaisted denims whilst whining their way to adulthood. The stone washed East Germans flooding through the breached Berlin wall in 1989, choosing a system with individual choice (superficially at least) at its heart.
Many labels make jeans now. Mother, Paige, and Frame are all labels worn by celebs, expressing membership of a club: everyone will know whose label you have wrapped around your bum. Whereas once, if it wasn’t Wrangler or Levi, it wasn’t worth bothering. I still like Levi jeans, and find the demi curve actually fits the English shape. But I also like Topshop jeans, well priced and a good fit. I get a buzz from buying a new pair. I tend to make them last, although I am not immune to such details as leg length and width, and where the waist goes. Not to mention the range of colours that are possible. I would never buy jeans with holes in them, and can be quite snooty about rips – until I remember the efforts we all made to make our new Levis look well worn. La plus ca change.
This is all a bit worrying, as it possibly puts me in the same changing room as Joan Collins – who continues to wear jeans well into her 70s, whilst telling us mere mortals we should chuck ours out on our 40th birthdays. I don’t like age restrictions on clothing – it’s up to each person to decide if they feel happy in what they wear.
In the end, jeans are a practical, comfortable garment – I don’t see them as a glamour item, or as high fashion, and think it would be mad to pay 300 quid for a pair. I wouldn’t want to be buried in mine, but as long as I can haul them on, I probably will. I think it will be a while before I consign them to wardrobe oblivion.