The adventure begins with the blue in blue jeans. Indigo dye was a plant derivative before a synthetic was invented by a German chemist the late 1800’s. One of the earliest dyes with references going back many centuries BC, the primary source had been India. Import was expensive and dangerous as a long land journey so Indigo was a luxury item referred to as blue gold. This and other rare commodities inspired the search for less expensive and time-consuming trade routes by sea with the great sea explorations of the 15th century. Vasco da Gama is credited with discovering the sea trade route to India which made indigo suddenly readily available and inexpensive throughout Europe.
Now the adventure switches to cotton cloth which in the 1700’s became very popular due to its easy availability and cheap price as a direct consequence of the rise of cotton plantations and slave labor. Cotton cloth also turned out to have a unique quality particularly suited to work clothing – durability.
Now we turn to the French town of Nimes where a rugged cotton twill called “serge” was first produced in the 1700’s. Originally called “serge de Nîmes”, the name was shortened to denim. Denim was colored with the least expensive and durable dye of the time – indigo. The origin of the word “jeans” is traced to the French word for the town that first made trousers out of denim, Genoa (Gênes), Italy.
These denim work trousers or “overalls” became very popular among gold miners when Jacob Davis, a clothing maker in California during the gold rush, introduced rivets to keep pockets and pant seams from tearing easily. Suddenly work clothing endured long hours of harsh work in the cattle herding, farming, and mining industries. Davis and Levi Strauss partnered to mass produce work jeans in 1873.
Jeans have grown in popularity all over the world. Movie westerns began popularizing jeans as rugged western wear. Off-duty soldiers spread the jeans fashion wherever war took them.
The popularity of jeans increased sharply in the 50’s when they became a symbol of rebellion among youth. Some schools in the US even banned them! In the 60’s and 70’s jeans reflected the experimentation of the times with embroidered, bell bottom, and painted jeans. In the 80’s clothing designers began adding distinctive styles, names, and high prices to jeans.
In the 90’s jean sales saw their first decline. Youth rebelled against the popular of jeans among their parents. Other pant fabrics and styles increased in popularity such as khakis, chinos, combat, carpenter, and sportswear pants. The major manufacturer of jeans, Levi Strauss & Co., closed many factories.
The popularity of jeans soon rebounded with new styles such as pre-washed, stone washed, acid washed, sand-blasted, pre-worn, knee-torn, spray painted, beaded, and two-way stretch.