Byline: Scott Malone
It’s fitting that jeans are the U.S.’s most important contribution to the world of fashion, since over the years they’ve traced the history and breadth of American society.
In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, colonists proudly wore garments made of simple, home-grown cotton cloth to prove their ability to live without British conveniences.
During the California Gold Rush, jeans appeared on the scene and soon became the uniform of the audacious men and women who set out to conquer the western frontier. Jeans were as practical as those settlers and ranchers had to be to survive.
One rarely makes a fortune selling practical clothes to practical people, and the recognition of that fact led to another breakthrough — lifestyle marketing. As early as the 1930s, dungarees makers sought to capitalize on the growing public affection for the West by convincing urban Americans and the softer classes to try on the duds made famous by their rugged silver-screen heroes.
Forty years later, taking that approach to new heights, makers ushered in designer jeans — proving that shoppers would pay for the privilege of wearing a stranger’s name on their behinds.
The designer approach has since been successful in moving countless consumer products out of the commodity realm.
The lifestyle approach has helped extend the appeal of jeans through all levels of society. They’re still worn by cowboys, but they also outfit children, teens, suburban parents and grandparents. Over the decades, jeans have flattered celebrities from Marilyn Monroe and James Dean to the Ramones and Bruce Springsteen, Julia Roberts and the Dixie Chicks.
That appeal to so many consumer groups has made jeans a huge business. According to The NPD Group’s American Shoppers Panel, this nation’s retailers rang up $17 billion in denim sales last year, 38 percent of them in women’s jeans.
What follows is The Story of Jeans, which chronicles how the business got where it is today.