Just how did a simple pair of work pants evolve to dominate the world of men’s fashion? In so many ways, the story of the all American blue jean encapsulates the social history of the nation.
In fact, from their invention in the late 19th century to their cowboy heritage, WW2 popularity and eventual export to the rest of the world, if any garment can be said to have passed the test of time, it’s the jeans in your closet. Here’s how denim jeans came to rule the world.
The history of denim jeans
The story begins in 1873, when Jacob Davis, a tailor from Nevada, ran up a pair of hard-wearing pants for a local workman. The fabric he used was called Serge de Nime, a tough indigo blue cotton twill originally from France. To reinforce the pockets, Davis pop-riveted the pockets and the blue jean was born.
Though at the time, Davis could not have known it, he had just invented what would later become the world’s most popular and enduring pants. But even back then, his creation was a hit with local workers, so much so that Davis wrote to his fabric supplier – Levi Strauss – to suggest that they jointly patent the new pants.
Denim jeans and the Wild West
To your average cowboy, his blue jeans were simply hard-wearing work pants that could take a beating without falling apart. But even as the heyday of the Old West was fading into the past, the burgeoning movie industry, in seeking to capture the romance of an era of freedom, adventure, and wide-open spaces, rapidly captured the American imagination.
From the 1930s onwards, Western movies featuring wild, gunslinging cowboys on horseback struck a chord with the public, and with them, their Stetsons, cowboy boots, bandanas, and perhaps most of all, their blue jeans, gained iconic status in the minds of American men.
Jeans and wartime expansion
Now we come to the Second World War. In 1942, the first American GIs arrived in Great Britain, bringing with them their denim pants. For the young aircrews who flew the flying fortresses on desperate sorties into Nazi-occupied Europe, their blue jeans were a treasured comfort from home. For the British, though, these new pants were revolutionary.
Pre-war Britain was a very traditional, class-bound society in which the aristocracy ruled the roost – they had a saying, that ‘everyone knew their place’. To young Brits, the arrival of well-fed, gum chewing, laid back Americans opened their eyes to a new, more meritocratic society in which you could dream big, and through hard work and enterprise, make those dreams come true.
For them, American blue jeans became a daring symbol of freedom – one which, in drab wartime Britain, they were desperate to emulate.
Fade, not fade away
The 1950s saw denim jeans spark a new revolution. Marlon Brando wore them to star in ‘The Wild On’ in 1953, as did James Dean when he played Jim Stark in 1955’s ‘Rebel without a Cause’. It was the beginning of the intergenerational battle that heralded the birth of youth culture.
Every young guy now fancied himself as a wild and unpredictable, James Dean or Marlon Brando – wearing blue jeans was more than a simple fashion statement – they signalled a man’s rebel status. The conformity of the pre-war years was giving way to the more individualistic, consumerist years of the late 1950s, 1960s and beyond. Denim jeans were now, and probably always will be a youth statement.
How to choose a pair of jeans
When you’re choosing a pair of denim pants, go for quality every time. The best genuine, pop-riveted denim should fade with the passing years, shape itself to your body and still, always look incredible.
Match the fit to your footwear. Match regular straight-leg jeans with brogues, loafers or casual boots. When you’re wearing cowboy or western boots, you’ll need a bootcut jean. Just leave very low rise, skinny jeans to the younger guys, and opt instead for a more flattering fit and waistline.
How to wear jeans
For casual wear, blue jeans can’t be beaten. Pair yours with a flannel shirt and a rugged fisherman’s sweater. If it’s cold outside, try a car coat or Harrington jacket. For a more upscale look, reach for a soft, brushed cotton Tattersall shirt and a tweed jacket.
Blue is the most popular choice, but there’s no need to stick with the casual vibe of light colored denims. We love dark indigo jeans too, especially for those times when you need to look just that little bit smarter. A crisp shirt, a cord jacket and a pair of Chelsea boots give a sophisticated look that’s suitable for most smart casual occasions.