Byline: Katherine Weisman

Jeans were the uniform of the American cowboy, the stuff of legend. But is denim really as all-American as the industry’s legend-making apparatus would have the world believe?
All-French is more like it, say more than a few textile scholars. Indeed, it is popularly believed that denim — the word as well as the fabric — takes its roots from “serge de Nimes,” a kind of twill that hails from Nimes, France. Some dictionaries go so far to say that the first bolt of denim was made in Nimes.
Mais non.
While this theory would seem logical, it has been vigorously challenged in recent years, most notably by Pascale Gorguet-Ballesteros, herself a Frenchwoman as well as a curator with Paris’s Musee de la Mode et du Costume.
“For me, it’s a closed subject,” said Gorguet-Ballesteros. “This is all just a patriotic myth. I am sure that denim is not French.”
Gorguet-Ballesteros acknowledged that the serge de Nimes was indeed a noteworthy fabric, a twill made generally of wool, or wool in conjunction with other fibers. However, she traces the word “denim,” which always referred to an all-cotton fabric, to 18th-century England. Her research, conducted for the “Histoires du Jeans de 1750 a 1994” exhibit, which opened in 1994, showed that a serge de Nimes was being woven and sold under that same name in England in the late 18th century.
Gorguet-Ballesteros believes that the term “serge de Nimes” was borrowed by British weavers to denote a kind of twill fabric that resembled the French twill.
What’s more, she believed that the word “denim” did not evolve from “serge de Nimes” at all, precisely because the French serge was typically a wool-and-silk-based fabric while the fabric called denim was always made of cotton.
Her argument is that the word “denim” began to be used in the latter part of the 18th century, when the U.K. experienced a huge demand for cotton fabrics. Mills needed to give names to their different weaves, and the cotton weave which most resembled the famous French fabric picked up the Anglicized name “denim.” But she argues that the denim fabric never was exported from France.
Back in 18th century France, meanwhile, the working class indeed wore clothing made of what today would be called denim. But it would never have been called denim then, Gorguet-Ballesteros insisted, since the word did not exist in French.
“It’s really important that the serge de Nimes denim myth is being reevaluated in light of current research,” acknowledged Lynn Downey, the historian for Levi Strauss & Co. The problem is that the myth is provocative, easily believable and “people just love it.” Downey noted that while fashion and textile curators and historians are aware of denim’s ambiguous origins, it is unlikely the latest research has trickled down to weavers and is far from being absorbed by jeans-wearing the public.
Another, more tactile piece of denim’s history is more clear. The cotton cloth denim has been around since the 18th century, and it was made into pants long before Levi Strauss ever thought of doing so.
Levi’s Downey acknowledged that pants in denim “had been made for decades” before Levi Strauss got a hold of the idea.
Katell le Bourhis, the former director of Paris’s Musee de la Mode and now special adviser to French luxury tycoon Bernard Arnault, recalled that, during years of research in the Eighties and early Nineties at the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, she encountered many pieces of children’s clothing in denim dating to the late 18th century in local community museums in the Eastern U.S.
“Young boys then had a very outdoor life. And like today, there’s nothing better for boys then denim to run and crawl around in,” Le Bourhis explained. Another factor in her find: the likelihood that kids’ then, like now, grew out of their clothes before they wore them out. “But I didn’t find adult clothes, since they were probably worn to death.”
Some things never change.