I’d guess that almost everyone has a garment made of denim somewhere in their wardrobe, whether it’s a pair of jeans, a jacket or even a bikini! It’s the fabric which anyone can wear no matter how deep your pockets may or not be.
Although perceived as an American invention, the origins of denim are in France, when Columbus set sail in 1492 the sails of the Santa Maria where made from Serge de Nimes, fabric of Nimes. A hard wearing and sturdy material it was also used by Italian sailors from Genoa for their trousers, and it is thought that the name jeans stems from these Genoese sailors.
Originally a silk and wool weave the fabric evolved to incorporate cotton, probably as cotton was more readily available. When Levi Strauss travelled to America in 1853 (the height of the Gold Rush) he had gone with the aim of selling canvas tents to the miners. They were however suitably unimpressed and said that what they really needed were trousers that would stand up to the demands of their job. Here the denim revolution began; Strauss added copper rivets to the basic button flied overalls, to reinforce stress points like pockets which ripped under the strain of the miners’ tools. He also added the company name to the buttons in the form of embossment and then added the embroidery to the pockets which is still the same style today. Competing denim manufacturers followed suit and in 1886 Levi’s held a publicity stunt where two horses tried to pull apart a pair of Levi’s jeans, this stunt was added to a leather patch which again is still added to their products today.
The American army was one of denim’s most important wearers. During World War I, Lee produced the “Lee Union All” a boiler suit like outfit which became the army fatigues.
Denim will always be associated with cowboys. The first “cowboy pants” were introduced by Lee in 1924, they had a U-shaped crotch designed to be more comfortable in the saddle. At a similar time Levi’s moved their back pocket rivets from the outside to the inside of the jeans to avoid scratches to saddles and they also removed the crotch rivet after cowboys were complaining of burns after they’d been crouched around a camp fire! Ouch!
These waist high denim overalls are what we now call jeans and have led to a unisex fashion in which although colours and finishes may vary always contains denim!
An interesting market is that of Vintage denim where a pair of 1950s Levis can go for up to £500 and a pair of original 1930s 501s with the buckle back can be worth in excess of £5000!
As such a hardwearing fabric denim still has many practical uses other than for making clothes, for example bags, furniture coverings and bean bags. In fact recently an interior designer had the thought to back denim with paper and use it as wallpaper!