Levi Strauss, a native of Bavaria who emigrated to the U.S. as a young man, founded his now world-famous company in the late nineteenth century. He first ventured into business as a dry goods manufacturer, working with his two older brothers at the J. Strauss Brother & Co. Strauss branched out on his own and, in 1853, set off to San Francisco to make his fortune in the Gold Rush. Though he didn’t find his riches in gold, he helmed a successful dry goods business of his own, and served as a West Coast regional representative of the family firm, eventually renaming his company Levi Strauss and Co.
In the 1870s Strauss teamed up with a customer, Jacob Davis, a tailor from Reno, Nevada. Davis wrote to Strauss of his invention, a durable riveted workwear pant made of blue denim. The riveted design prevented tearing, which had become a serious problem among miners who wore denim work pants (then called overalls) on the job. Davis lacked the funds to pursue his patent, and thus found a mutually beneficial partnership with Strauss. The design was the first of its kind, and was patented in 1873.
For nearly a century, denim pants continued to be relegated to the realm of the working man. Women generally didn’t wear pants until the 1920s and ‘30s. At that time, trousers became acceptable and even fashionable for women as leisurewear and among female pilots and other working women. But denim was still generally a fabric favored by cowboys, railroad workers, and miners for much of the early 20th Century. The style was also a hit among Western fans in the ‘30s emulating the styles of “Lonesome Dove” and “Butch Cassidy.” In the ‘40s, the style made its way into the mainstream as a favorite among WWII soldiers. Marlon Brando and James Dean in their respective movies “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Rebel Without a Cause” pivoted the look into popular culture, where denim pants became a staple in the wardrobes of rebellious bad boys.
In the 1960s, denim finally made its way into women’s fashion—and in a big way. Denim jeans, as well as skirts and shorts, became a big deal; with many brands making feminized versions like “Lady Wranglers.” Jeans continued to be a favorite among men as well, and by the ‘70s they were practically symbolic of the carefree generation of the era. The ‘70s was the decade of bell bottoms which often were long enough to reach the floor. Many people began to decorate and personalize their denim with accessories and detailing like beads, embroidery, buttons, and patches. The pants that had once been a practical workwear staple were now emblematic of nonconformity.
In the 1980s, rock ‘n’ roll took hold of denim and branded it with acid wash, rips and tears, and the creation of “cut-offs.” During this decade, jeans remained primarily a young people’s fashion, though some older generations were also buying into the trend.
During the 1990s, jeans finally became en vogue as a mainstream staple. Rips, tears and funky washes were still big in the grunge and rock ‘n’ roll scenes; but at the same time, a new take on denim had emerged: the clean, classic look we most often see today. Denim was taking over, with denim jackets and vests also becoming quite popular among the general population. This was the era of famous campaigns like Calvin Klein’s, when denim became sought-after by consumers in all classes.
Today, jeans are an integral part of American fashion and are almost equally as popular abroad. And it’s easy to see how denim has amassed such a diverse group of die-hard followers. The style, like the foundation of its country of origin, accentuates individuality. As time passes, denim subtly changes form, tone and texture, each wear pattern unique to its wearer’s shape, habits and lifestyle. They’re one of the few apparel items that is fitting everywhere, from board rooms to boardwalks, and Fashion Week to casual Friday.