Like any icon of modern America, denim takes its origins from Europe. However, it is in the new world, the land of opportunities, that it will become much more than a mundane fabric. Indeed, denim will take another dimension and be the symbol of youth, freedom, rebellion and a history of its own. And its history is inseparable from that of the United States. Because at the same time as the country was asserting itself as a global superpower, its jeans were exported as a support of a new world era. Welcome to our jeans wiki.
Strauss and Davis:The birth of a legend
It is impossible to tell the history of denim without mentioning the Levi's brand. And its story begins with two men. The first one is Levi Strauss, a Bavarian who emigrated to the United States in 1853, at the age of 23 to take advantage of the flourishing local market during gold rush. He owned a fabric business at the time.
The latter is Jacob Davis, who emigrated from Riga, Latvia. In 1870, Davis had a famous spinning company in Nevada. Once, the wife of a local woodcutter asked him to make strong pants for her husband whose size was uncommon. And she asked for trousers which would last more than a season of work. She paid a deposit of $3. He agreed and started working with a cotton canvas roll purchased from Levi Strauss.
He then created a very regular pair of trousers... Until he glanced at a pile of copper rivets he had used for a previous project. That's when he had the idea to use them to strengthen the fabric where it was weak. And that solution finally gave the garment extra virtues of solidity. During the first summer, he sold only a few pairs, but then the reputation of his products soon started to grow.
In search of a partner, Davis immediately thought of Levi Strauss, who had sold him the fabric. So he sent him a letter. On May 20, 1873, the two men were given the patent number 139,121 entitled "improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings". And this date marks the beginning of jeans, since the patent perpetuates the company for years.
A growing competition
Strauss and Davis enjoyed a monopoly situation until 1890, when their patent expired. And soon, other manufacturers of work clothes followed the movement. Thus, being a pioneer in this market was losing its meaning, as some competitors had superior financial power, and others had a longer experience in denim. Competition then began to grow simultaneously with the demand for denim work wear due to the expansion of the country.
Among rival companies, one of the most important was Eloesser-Heynemann with its brand "Can't Bust'Em" in San Fransisco, CA. At that time, denim production remained on a local scale, allowing several brands to exist. Also, the growing demand for work clothes encouraged new companies to get started. Some of today's mythical brands began their business at that time: Hamilton Carhartt in Michigan in 1884, Henry-David Lee with his HD Mercantile Company in Kansas in 1889, and Blue Bell (future Wrangler) in North Carolina in 1904. And then others whose name is unknown to us: OshKosh B'Gosh in 1895 in Wisconsin or The Stronghold on the same year in California.
The 1890s were also the witness of the first Levi's 501. In those years, Levi's was purchasing its denim at the largest manufacture of the time: Amoskeag in Manchester, NH. The fabric was a premium denim, called XX, for the name of its double X sewing technique, which made it stronger than other fabrics. Then came many elements that are still around on today's jeans. If the orange stitching already existed since the very first pairs of jeans, the leather patch (1896) or the second back pocket (1901) contributed a little more to differentiate the brand, a kind of avant-garde marketing...
Wild wild West
As the 20th century progressed, denim clothing began to become popular beyond factories and ranches to enter the daily wardrobe of Americans. The mentalities were changing at the same time as the country was industrializing. The railways gradually replaced the convoys of carts and the cowboys hung up their spurs. Playing on the nostalgia of the people, the emerging Hollywood industry began to bring to the screen the first Westerns. If the first movie was made in 1904, it was only in the 1930s that this genre became famous, embodied by John Wayne, his Colt, Stetson and a dusty jeans. The country radio channels also contributed to the phenomenon.
At the same time the myth of the cowboy was being born, many brands oriented their marketing strategy in this direction. Thus, first targets of this communication, tourists began to flock to the ranches of the Wild West. They wanted to live the cowboy life, with jeans as the main distinctive symbol.
Meanwhile brands had fully embraced Levi's innovations in their creations and are beginning to bring their own novelties in terms of cut and features to stand out. Belt hoops appeared in 1922, again at Levi's. Then Lee introduced the zip fly in 1925 on his jeans 101 whose cut was already wider than the 501 of Levi's, they were then renamed the 101Z.
At that time, the three big brands were at war. Therefore, they tried to differentiate their products, and also their image. And people started wearing such or such brand according to their way of life or social origin. And in 1936, the "Big E", the famous red label of Levi's, now known as "Red Tab", appeared for the first time. It was preceded by the "Lady Levi's" in 1935, the first jeans for women.
Furthermore, jeans giants were debauching former cowboys to hire as consultants. In 1941, Lee appealed to Thurkel Greenough, a rodeo star of the time to try to improve their jeans. The legend tells that his wife made him jeans flared at the ankles, from a model of Lee, so that it is suitable for the ride. This was the birth of the boot-cut which was immediately adopted by the Americans.
The war: The export of denim culture
War was raging in Europe and rationing is a hindrance to the denim companies of the time, especially with regard to the metal used for rivets or buttons. While men were preparing for the war, women took over in the factories. And they started to wear work clothes ... in denim.
In 1945 the first American GIs landed in Normandy, wearing jeans that reminded them of their country. And Europe discovered their culture at the same time. But not only Europe, because the trend was growing in Japan, where Mr. Tsunemi, a first-day enthusiast who held a US military surplus in Nippori. It's in this surplus that jeans stocks were being sold abroad, as no jeans were manufactured outside the US.
The 1950s: The Age of Change
After the Second World War, an anecdote illustrates the change in the status of jeans. First simple working clothes, they're now worn by people of the highest social rank. The story begins when Bing Crosby, who was then one of the most popular American singers, booked a room at the Vancouver hotel in Canada. Earlier that day, Crosby went to hunt with a friend. They arrived at the hotel, still wearing the clothes they had used to hunt. And they were denied entry, until a staff member recognized the Hollywood star...
Quickly, the news spread in the newspapers. Immediately Levi's perceived the marketing opportunity and with a touch of provocation, suggested to Bing Crosby to make him a suit jacket in denim, as a symbol of the evolution of denim. And Crosby wore the jacket at a party in Elko, NV. where he was mayor of honor.
Bing Crosby and his jeans tuxedo, 1951