They’re so ubiquitous that for many, jeans are barely worthy of comment. But behind their faded blue facade, this simple hardwearing wardrobe staple offers a fascinating insight into modern social history.
From their late 19th century beginnings to WW2 and beyond, more than almost any other garment, jeans have stood the test of time. Here’s why your blue jeans are still so darn popular.
Serge de Nime
Back in 1873, when a workman from Nevada USA asked his local tailor, Jacob Davis to run him up a pair of hard-wearing trousers, he could hardly have guessed he was about to inspire an invention that would become the world’s most popular trouser.
The secret to the garment’s immediate popularity was the French fabric – blue Serge de Nime, plus the rivets Davis used to reinforce the pockets. People loved the tough workaday trousers, and soon, unable to keep up with demand, Davis wrote to the man who supplied the material, one Levi Strauss, asking that they jointly patent his invention. The jean was born.
Way out west
Take a pair of indigo jeans, add a young buck on a horse, equip him with with a stetson, a lasso, and a Colt 45, and it’s no wonder that blue jeans were quickly associated with the romance of the old west.
After spending their holidays faking it on ranches in Nevada, California and New Mexico, tourists now took home with them more than saddle sores and happy memories. Jeans, the ultimate souvenir of horseback adventures now inhabited wardrobes across the states.
Fast forward to WW2 and in 1942, the first US servicemen arrived in Britain. But while Churchill knew the value of our American friends’ friendly invasion, for some chilly Brits, the yanks were simply, “oversexed, overpaid and over here.”
For the young airmen who flew the flying fortresses on desperate missions across occupied Europe, their blue jeans were a treasured comfort from home. Young natives in awe of the well fed, gum chewing, laid back Americans meanwhile, saw the jeans as a daring symbol of freedom – one which, in drab wartime Britain, they were desperate to emulate.
Fade, not fade away
By the time James Dean played Jim Stark in Rebel without a Cause, the intergenerational wars that gave definition to the burgeoning new youth culture of the 1950s were well underway. Every guy wanted to be a James Dean or Marlon Brando – wearing blue jeans wasn’t just hip, it was an act of rebellion.
And as the ‘50s gave way to the ‘60s, a new wave of consumerism swept Britain. The individual was now king, and because jeans shape themselves to fit their wearer, they became the symbol of that generation, and frankly, every generation since. It seems we just can’t give up on clothing’s biggest rebel.
How to choose a pair of jeans
Not all jeans are created equal. In a world where you can buy a pair of sweatshop denims for under twenty pounds, it’s vital to make quality your yardstick. A good pair of jeans should be durable, pop riveted, and in a nod to modernity, have a little bit of elastane in the weave to give you the stretch you need for all day comfort.
Keep the fit regular. By leaving bootcut to the cowboys and skinny jeans to the young, you’ll ensure your jeans look smartly casual without making a feature of bits best left covered up.
Wear them well
Smart casual party? Go for black jeans, a checked shirt and a cord jacket – wine is a good choice.
Indigo jeans are your go-to choice for those occasions when you just want to chill and relax but still look good. Think pub lunch or a trip to the cinema. Wear your indigo jeans with a rugged fisherman’s sweater, country brogue boots, and on cold days, throw on a car coat and contrasting scarf. For a smarter occasion, your indigo jeans will look great with a cotton cashmere jumper and a tweed jacket.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em? We’d love to hear your thoughts on jeans. Leave a comment below.