The Blue Jean: A Brief History

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“Blue jeans, white shirt, walked into the room you know you made my eyes burn” – Lana Del Rey, “Blue Jeans”

The unisex uniform for casual cool is found in blue jeans. Bavarian designer, Levi Strauss stitched the first pair in the Wild West around 1873. Strauss originally designed canvas pants as work gear for the miners panning for gold. From canvas, he moved to denim for its durability and came up with what essentially is Levi’s signature style, the 501 jeans.

By the early 20th century, cowboys and ranchers from Reno to Arizona were wearing dungarees, though the cowboy’s brand of choice was Wrangler. Denim was the fabric of nonconformity, and because it was cheap and easy to clean, blue jeans became especially popular with kids (and the mothers washing their clothing) from the 1930s to the 1950s.

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Back on the homestead, amateur lady ranchers wore the first Lady Levi’s. The fashion world took notice, and in 1935, Vogue ran a story on dude ranch chic. Four years later, in the 1939 film The Women based on Clare Booth Luce’s play by the same name, the cast wore denim to signal the rebellious, sexual and powerful nature of the characters.

The first American designer to include denim in her collection was Claire McCardell, who Betty Friedan dubbed, “the girl who defied Dior.” McCardell, who in 1943 took advantage of the wartime fabric restrictions, saw the value in denim. Not only was the fabric domestically sourced, it was practical for women in the workplace—as it took less time and effort to wash, keep clean and didn’t require time spent at an ironing board. An unknown Lauren Bacall modeled McCardell’s demin popover dress in Harper’s Bazaar.

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Not everyone approved of denim. In fact, there were anti-denim crusaders like Anne Fogarty who thought the fabric was unfeminine. In her book Wife Dressing, originally published in 1959, Fogarty warns women that if they want to keep their husbands, they should never wear jeans.

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With the explosion of the youth market in the 1950s, blue jeans went on to symbolize angst (smelling like teen spirit; they looked better unwashed) and cowboy grit—worn on the bods of teen idols James Dean, Marlon Brando and sexpot Marilyn Monroe. What’s beautiful about the blue jean is that it’s a garment that sexualizes the figures of both males and females alike—and creates a silhouette that can flatter many different parts all at once: hips, thighs, ass, crotch, midriff, legs and ankles. A democratic fabric indeed.

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Bohemians, with their psychedelic style, claimed blue jeans as essential to their way of life. Flower boys and girls, both in the U.S. as well as abroad (Japanese girls started wearing blue jeans—remnants of the G.I. years). By the 1960s, Levi’s embraced this new image, and outfitted Jefferson Airplane for a televised performance of “White Rabbit” in none other than denim.

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With the 1970s, embellishments on blue jeans grew in popularity, as well as the era’s signature bell-bottom—a literal symbol of “going with the flow.” But it wasn’t just stoners, beatniks, cowboys, sassy women and delinquent housewives who were wearing jeans. Everyone was. Manufacturers started capitalizing on the undeniable desire associated with denim and its fit on the body. At the same time, it remained a cheap enough fabric to appeal to mass consumers. Even Studio 54 made a pair of jeans, giving them the tagline, “Now everybody can get into Studio 54.”

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Disco, Brooke Shields, Jordache and the trend of distressed denim reigned in the 1980s, while the 1990s saw a mix of wide-legged club and raver looks with UFOs and Girbauds. Women-owned companies like Frankie B. and Earl emphasized tailoring that hugged female curves, which has evolved into today’s jegging. These days, men are just as likely to embrace this look, which is why blue jeans remain a ultimate style statement. People want to wear them not just for their ease, but because they’re always evolving. That keeps them fresh, exciting and a necessary indulgence.