IN THE BEGINNING
LIKE THE NILE, DENIM’S ULTIMATE SOURCE IS HARD TO FIND — BUT JEANS ENDED UP AS THE QUINTESSENTIAL AMERICAN GARMENT.
Byline: Georgia Lee
Denim is so tightly woven into America’s historical fabric that it was already around when the nation was being founded. Outlasting the three-cornered hat and britches, denim was fundamental to the cultural landscape, embodying the rugged individualism of the laborers and cowboys who first wore it.
Still, the all-American fabric is believed by some to have European origins.
According to Levi Strauss historian Lynn Downey, one commonly accepted etymology of the word “denim” is that it’s an English corruption of the French phrase “serge de Nimes” — a silk and wool twill fabric that was produced in the town of Nimes.
As early New England mills were beginning to produce denim, they were also turning out another fabric known as jean, a blend of cotton, linen and, sometimes, wool. That fabric had been produced in Genoa, Italy, in the 17th century; hence, the word “jean” is believed to be a shortening of Genoa.
To this day, however, the etymology of both words easily draws scholars into arguments — and some historians strongly deny any connection between the town of Nimes and the cotton twill fabric. (See related story, page 20.)
What is known is that by the end of the 1700s, two all-cotton fabrics, one called “denim” and the other “jean,” were being produced by American textile mills. President George Washington himself toured a Massachusetts mill in 1789 and observed denim-weaving machinery at work.
The two fabrics, used for different purposes, became popular choices for men’s workwear in America. Manual laborers such as mechanics and painters wore oversized blue denim pants with suspenders, to protect their “good” clothes. Those pants were more durable and more expensive than the regular-sized, tailored jean trousers worn by non-manual laborers. The major difference was that denim fabric was made of a mix of colored and white yarns, while all the yarn in jean was the same color.
According to Levi’s, jean cloth by and large disappeared from use during the 19th century, and the word “jean” didn’t resurface until the mid-20th century, when it was adopted as a popular name for blue denim pants.
Numerous legends surround a key figure in denim history, whose name has become a modern household word. Much of Levi Strauss & Co.’s early historical records and photographs were lost in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, a deficit that gave rise to various legends.
A fact: Born in Bavaria in 1829, Loeb Strauss (who later changed his name to Levi) worked in his family’s dry-goods business in New York before deciding to go to California in 1853 to open his own store. The 24-year-old immigrant was looking to make money selling supplies to miners during the recent California Gold Rush of 1849.
According to legend, Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco and immediately noticed that miners needed strong, sturdy pants. He whipped out some tough, brown canvas from his dry-goods supplies and had a tailor make up a pair of work pants. At first, the story goes, he dyed the fabric blue, but later switched to denim. In conjunction with a Reno, Nev., tailor, he got the idea of adding metal rivets and in 1873 patented the process.
Levi’s historian Downey, however, says the true story is that Strauss opened a wholesale dry goods business in 1853, selling an assortment of dry goods products that included clothing by other manufacturers. He didn’t invent blue jeans, but in 1873 he did patent the riveting process, an idea he got from Nevada tailor Jacob Davis, who wrote to Strauss proposing that together they could “make a very large amount of money” by patenting riveted pants.
Strauss and Davis began to make copper-riveted “waist overalls,” as jeans were then called, out of both brown cotton duck and blue denim produced by America’s first textile mills. As the head of a garment manufacturing business and a dry-goods business, Levi Strauss indeed found the success his partner Davis had predicted. He branched out into jackets, outerwear and shirts.
Strauss died in 1902, leaving the business, which sold to stores in 11 Western states, to four nephews.
In time, demand for Levi’s waist overalls made the company a leading Western manufacturer of work pants by the Twenties. But Levi’s was by no means the only significant denim player. In 1911, the H.D. Lee Mercantile Co., a Salina, Kan., wholesale grocery, hardware and dry-goods business, began producing workwear, including denim pants.
According to Joe Vega, The Lee Co.’s historian, the company started producing one-piece Union-Alls, a jacket-and-pants combination; and introduced a women’s version in 1914. Lee also outfitted doughboys during World War I.
According to company archives, Wrangler emerged in 1904, originating as the Hudson Overall Co. in Greensboro, N.C. In 1919, founder C.C. Hudson built the first manufacturing plant, changing the name to the Blue Bell Overall Co. By 1936, Blue Bell merged with Globe Superior, producing workwear, with annual sales of $10 million.
The Wild West
The Thirties were a pivotal time for denim, when Western movies and a fascination for the West in general gave denim a new mystique. From a common laborers’ fabric, denim was elevated to the romantic costume of the American cowboy symbolized by Gary Cooper, Gene Autry and John Wayne. Denim companies capitalized on the cultural phenomenon by marketing “authentic Cowboy Pants” and dungarees with Western-inspired stitching or patches.
Dude ranches sprang up in California, Arizona and Nevada, fueling the Wild West infatuation and giving wealthy Easterners a chance to play at being cowboys. At the same, time, the vacation ranches helped spread the Western denim mystique to national proportions.
This Western wear craze also coralled women, who for the first time began to consider denim’s potential as a fashion fabric. Women had already, on occasion, adapted men’s denim pants, for the most part out of necessity — for working, or horseback riding. Denim products specifically designed for women were limited to Lee’s Union-Alls and a similar Levi’s product called “Freedom-Alls.” Prior to the Thirties, it just wasn’t considered proper for women to be seen in any pants, much less work pants.
Then in 1935, in response to the market’s evolution, Levi’s introduced Lady Levi’s, a pants style featuring a small waist and generous hips, as part of its “Dude Ranch Duds” line. Three years later, Levi’s launched “Tropical Togs,” a women’s collection of Katherine Hepburn-inspired colored denim sportswear that included halter tops, pants and tennis apparel.
More movies began to feature women in denim pants. In 1939, for instance, “The Women” had its stars in denim pants while waiting for divorces at a Reno, Nev., dude ranch.
Under president Walter Haas Sr., Levi’s milked the Western craze for all it was worth, expanding advertising in more general interest magazines. By the Forties, billboards were touting denim on highways across America.
GI’s in Jeans
World War II shipped the look worldwide, as U.S. soldiers hauled their leisure clothes overseas, including denim. Several companies, such as Lee, also made field jackets, fatigues or flight jackets for the military.
The war permanently changed the look of jeans, because the U.S. government restricted use of metal rivets, excess fabric and stitching. (Levi’s original patent had gone into public domain in 1908, and most companies had seized on the riveted design.) As part of the war effort, Levi’s removed crotch rivets — to the delight of cowboys, who had suffered the occasional overheated rivet while sitting too close to campfires. It also stripped rivets from the watch pocket and back pockets. The war also chased away suspender buttons, and they never came back.
When peace returned, denim manufacturers expanded rapidly to serve the needs of returning servicemen. The women’s market was burgeoning, too, and dungaree makers expanded women’s lines with new items. With new factories and acquisitions, the leading companies positioned themselves for the denim fashion explosions of the decades to come.
The days of the modern jean had arrived.