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From boyfriend jeans and high-waisted jeans, to blue jeans and black jeans, denim has conquered the world—but it all began in California.
While denim pants had existed for years before blue jeans were invented, it was the innovative design from Jacob Davis and the entrepreneurial spirit of Levi Strauss that started the revolution. Twenty years before the invention of jeans, Strauss had just moved from New York—where he owned a dry-goods company with his brother—to San Francisco to open his own dry-goods business that would serve the local general stores. Since this was during the Gold Rush, Strauss met several working men, including customer Jacob Davis, and realized there was a gap in the market when it came to sturdy clothing that would hold up against on-the-job physical demands.
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Fast forward two decades to 1873, when the wife of a local worker asked Davis to create a pair of pants for her husband that would be more sturdy and wouldn’t fall apart under everyday stresses. After considering ways to reinforce the pockets and the base of the button-up fly—the usual suspects when it came to work pants falling apart—Davis made use of copper rivets in those critical areas. While the materials for work pants, or “overalls”, had already been invented, they simply needed structural improvements.
The term “jeans” evolved from a cotton and wool fabric that was imported from Genoa, Italy to England in the 16th century; this blended material was called “jean”. Two centuries later, jean was made entirely from cotton and other, sturdier fabrics that had come into popularity. Among these fabrics was denim, which also derived its name from its place of origin. The result of an attempt to recreate the famous material from Genoa, this new cotton corduroy fabric was originally crafted in Nîmes, France and called “Serge de Nîmes”. This fabric differed from jean in that it was a twill fabric made from two or more indigo-dyed threads, which passed on top of undyed threads—leading to a material that was indigo on the outside but white on the inside. It was this denim material that Davis purchased from Strauss and used along with the copper rivets to create the jeans that we know and love today.
The birth of blue jeans owes its thanks to the “improvement in fastening pocket-openings” patent that allowed Levi’s to become so successful and blue jeans to become so prevalent. This version of “waist overalls” was an instant success and was patented in 1873—the same year it was invented—with the help of Davis’ business partner, Levi Strauss.
The anniversary of blue jeans is celebrated on May 20, 1873, but back then, the pants were not called jeans, nor were they created for everyone; at their inception, they were specifically men’s jeans.
It wasn’t until 1934 that Levi’s introduced the first pair of women’s jeans, after which the company doubled the potential customer base and opened the door for the widespread adoption of the pants, popularizing the term “jeans”.
James Dean and other Hollywood actors also helped to make jeans trendy and cool, both on and off the set. Rather than being a necessity simply for the working class, denim transformed into an everyday staple that now graces the closets of nearly every Californian—and has even been named the official state fabric of California.
Today, Levi’s and their many competitors have designed pants with open minds, introducing everything from black jeans and ripped jeans, to denim jeans and stretchy jeans (aka “jeggings”)—and even the denim jacket.
Levi’s has also been integral in launching comprehensive codes of conduct that spread across factory departments and encompass ethics, legal requirements, standards, working hours, wages, and more. Now, environmental regulations and the health impacts of chemicals used to craft jeans hold the primary focus of innovation in the industry, all led by the efforts of Levi’s.
It is hard to imagine a world without blue jeans, and while it is hard to say what the future holds for jeans, it is clear that they are here to stay.
Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…
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