Durable, heavy-duty pants made from dark blue cotton fabric, blue jeans were first created as work pants for the gold miners of the 1849 California gold rush, a time when people of the United States rapidly moved into California in search of gold. Once worn only by those who did heavy manual labor, jeans became one of the most popular and common clothing items of the twentieth century. Blue jeans moved from work clothes to the preferred pants of rebellious young men during the 1950s and 1960s to high fashion items. By the end of the twentieth century, a comfortable pair of jeans had become a necessity in the casual wardrobe of both men and women. Though they are bought, sold, and worn in almost every country in the world, blue jeans are still regarded as a fundamentally American garment.
The word "jeans" had been used since the 1600s to describe the rough clothing worn by working men, because this type of clothing was often made of sturdy jean, or genes fabric from Genoa, Italy. Denim, the durable fabric which is almost always used to make modern blue jeans, was originally made in Nîmes, France. American manufacturers shortened the name serge de Nîmes, to denim. Denim fabric was often dyed dark blue so that work clothes made from it would not show dirt and stains.
The first blue jeans were created by teamwork between a tailor, Jacob Davis, and a merchant, Levi Strauss, who were both interested in making a profit by selling clothing to the thousands of miners drawn to the California gold rush. Strauss was selling tent fabric, work clothes, and other supplies to miners when he was approached in 1873 by Davis, a tailor who had developed the idea of making work clothes stronger by putting copper rivets, or fasteners, at certain points, like pockets, which were likely to tear. Together, Davis and Strauss began to make what they called "waist overalls" out of sturdy denim fabric with copper rivets. Over the years, the pants came to be called jeans or Levis.
Over the next decades, the popularity of blue jeans spread among working people, such as farmers and the ranchers of the American West. Jeans became so popular among cowboys that during the 1930s, a company called Wrangler formed just to make denim work clothing for those who rode the range. In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s many people began spending their spare time at the movies, where popular Western films found glamour and romance in the adventures of the cowboys who rode horses, shot bad guys, and wore blue jeans. Those who wished to imitate the casual, rugged look of the cowboys they saw in films began to wear jeans as casual wear.
During World War II (1939–45) blue jeans became part of the official uniform of the Navy and Coast Guard, and became even more popular when worn as off-duty leisure clothing by many other soldiers. During the 1950s many young people began to wear jeans when they saw them on rebellious young American film stars such as Marlon Brando (1924–) and James Dean (1931–1955). Blue jeans were so identified with American culture that they were placed in the American exhibit at the 1958 World's Fair. Around the same time, the first jeans were exported to Europe.
The rebellious image of blue jeans continued into the 1960s and 1970s, when the nonconformist hippie youth made ragged, patched blue jeans part of their uniform. Jeans had become extremely popular, but were still mainly worn by working people or the young. During the 1980s this began to change as famous fashion designers created designer jeans, which were expensive and became fashionable wear for many occasions. By the end of the twentieth century, blue jeans had become one of the most widely worn items of clothing in the world. In 2001 a pair of Levis dating from the 1880s and found buried under layers of mud in Nevada was sold at auction for over forty-five thousand dollars.
Harris, Alice. The Blue Jean. New York: PowerHouse Books, 2002.
Lindmier, Tom, and Steve Mount. I See by Your Outfit: Historic Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains. Glendo, WY: High Plains Press, 1996.
Reedstrom, E. Lisle. Authentic Costumes and Characters of the Old West. New York: Sterling Publishers, 1992.
Weidt, Maryanne N. Mr. Blue Jeans: A Story about Levi Strauss. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, 1990.
[ See also Volume 5, 1980–2003: Designer Jeans ]