DENIM’S BIG-SCREEN BREAKTHROUGH IN THE FIFTIES HOOKED YOUTH CULTURE BY THE BELT LOOPS AND NEVER LET GO.
Byline: Rusty Williamson
Some would say that rock ‘n’ roll saved the Fifties from itself, but the true antidote to the Fifties’ post-war, white bread blandness was blue jeans cool.
Luckily, in the decade’s early years, a few maverick movie stylists in Hollywood were given the job of outfitting a fresh crop of young actors cast as angst-ridden teens and troubled sex kittens. They put them in denim, starting a public romance that allowed the cloth to make its all-important leap from the factory and farm to fashion immortality.
It started in movies like “The Wild One” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” As bad-boy Method actors Marlon Brando and James Dean preened and muttered on screen, they looked tough, they sounded complex, they were sexy and they sure weren’t wearing khakis.
Seemingly overnight, the de rigueur uniform for young rebelliousness became skintight jeans, preferably Levi’s 501’s, and even tighter white T-shirts. A broken-in leather jacket helped, too, but those jeans were crazy, man.
Of course, Hollywood’s torrid affair with jeans wasn’t limited to young toughs, either.
Marilyn Monroe shimmied into the pants and redefined sexy in a series of denim-clad roles, from “River of No Return” to “The Misfits,” in which she stirred up more than dust on the Nevada prairie, wearing button-front denim jeans, a pristine white blouse and pigtails.
It didn’t take long for teens and edgy young women and men across the U.S. to begin emulating these icons and tossing their khakis and cords to the back of the closet in favor of jeans.
Grown-ups at first feared and hated denim’s emerging image of rebellion and danger, and some uptight squares tried to link jeans to teen crime, wanton sex and other bad things. The kids loved it, and so did the adults that also happened to be jeans manufacturers.
Until 1949, Levi Strauss had been selling denim jeans in only 11 Western states. But that year, it rolled out a national expansion campaign. The prophetic move especially targeted the East Coast, with a back-to-school ad campaign that featured denim jeans, crisp white shirts and loafers as the wardrobe of choice. The tag line: Right for School.
“Before that, we mostly advertised to adult men, out on the range,” said Lynn Downey, historian at Levi Strauss, San Francisco. “We got hate mail for the ‘Right for School’ campaign from people in New York. ‘Who do you think you are, suggesting boys wear denim to school?’ read one of the notes.”
Downey said the company was just looking for a way to reach more consumers and not necessarily for a way to corrupt Fifties youth. “They don’t have miners and cowboys in New Jersey,” she explained. But incensed nonetheless, one men’s and boys’ fashion group attempted to link the Levi’s campaign directly to the incidence of juvenile delinquency.
It didn’t stick. But what the well-timed Levi’s campaign did give rise to was sales. “Of course, there was a hike in sales when the campaign broke, and when all those bad-boy movies came out.”
The magical pairing of denim jeans with simple, tight-fitting T-shirts as a fashion look has forever changed the way Americans dress, professed Stanley Marcus, chairman emeritus of Neiman Marcus.
“Before that, denim was a utility and farm garment. Blue jeans and T-shirts revolutionized the dress of American youth. And then it filtered to older people,” said Marcus.
Like the denim vendors that supplied them, retailers prior to the Fifties had mostly offered utility-style denim jeans for men who worked hard and got dirty, and didn’t spend much time practicing how to sulk menacingly.
J.C. Penney Co. first began marketing jeans specifically for women in the Fifties, according to Jeff Pirtle, Penney’s museum and archive project manager.
“Although women wore jeans in the Forties — including the factory workers personified by Rosie the Riveter — they were wearing men’s jeans. In the Fifties, we designed them for women. The styling had smaller waists and larger hips,” Pirtle said.
Among the brands Penney’s offered were Nation-Wide and Foremost, the latter a private-label brand named after a dairy owned by company founder James Cash Penney.
Monroe wore Foremost denim jeans while tussling with Robert Mitchum in the 1954 movie, “River of No Return.” No better product placement could have been had. And as it turned out, it was the coup that keeps giving. The Foremost brand returned again to the spotlight last fall, at the Christie’s auction of Marilyn Monroe’s estate, when three pairs of the close-fitting, western-style jeans, originally purchased in 1953 by the film’s stylist for $2.29 a pair, were scooped up by Tommy Hilfiger for $37,000.
The cash pile laid out for Norma Jean’s jeans notwithstanding, Neiman Marcus’s Marcus said that denim’s initial appeal and subsequent staying power can partially be attributed to plain old economics.
“The acceptance of denim into polite society came in part due to consumers’ budget constraints. Many couldn’t afford the inflationary prices of regular clothes, so they bought denim and T-shirts, instead.” Spoken like a true ceo — but the added dividend of looking and feeling kind of tough and sexy cannot be discounted.
“I think this is a landmark in the history of fashion,” Marcus said. “The acceptance of denim allowed people to go from the salon to a baseball game in a costume that had acceptance. Denim today remains a tremendously important aspect of fashion and clothing,” he added.
As counterculture continued to flower in the Sixties, Levis also continued to court the youth denim business, but it shifted its marketing focus to Woodstock, hippies and feeling groovy.
Levi’s posters mimicked Peter Max. Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane appeared in advertisements for Levi’s in 1967, including a take on their hippie anthem, “White Rabbit.” At the same time, denim’s pipeline into culture began to shift from the big screen to the little one.
Cliff Abbey, a veteran of the denim scene who now owns the Agnelli and Sutter’s denim jeans brands, recalled that hippies also helped usher in the bell-bottom jeans trend of the late Sixties.
“They started wearing old jeans they found in thrift stores, and ornamenting them. They also started wearing 10-ounce denim bell-bottoms worn by sailors,” Abbey said.
Marcus recalled Neiman’s first carrying women’s denim in the Seventies, with the advent of designer jeans.
“Denim today remains a tremendously important aspect of fashion and clothing,” he added.