In Reno, Nevada, just after the Civil War, a man named Jacob Davis made tents and wagon covers from heavy-duty canvas duck cloth. When the biggest silver deposit anyone had ever seen was discovered, thousands of miners came to work the Comstock Lode. These pick-and-shovel laborers complained about how quickly their work pants wore out, especially the seams at the pockets and the buttons on the fly (the modern zipper wouldn’t be invented until 1913). Jacob came up with the idea of using rivets at stress points instead of stitches. His riveted canvas bib overalls were a big hit, but he didn’t have the money to scale up to a big operation and corner the market on a very hot item, so he looked around for an investor. He found him in San Francisco, running a dry goods store that catered to the booming mining trade. Davis and Levi Strauss took out a shared patent for riveted pants The rivets were part of making the pants strong, but so was the choice of a fabric that originated in France.
In the 1690s, the French invented a new fabric, naming it serge de Nîmes, after the town where it was woven. Nîmes’ textile industry wove the fabric into hosiery, sheets, shawls, and more. Denim evolved into a fully cotton fabric from its original blend of wool and silk. Because it was the toughest fabric available, denim was the choice of farmers, tradesmen, and anyone who did chores. As denim use spread, its distinctive blue color became a defining characteristic of the fabric. The blue dye fades over time, giving older denim the worn look prized by so many.
Duck comes from doek, Dutch for linen canvas
Canvas can be treated so it’s a waterproof fabric. Linen canvas is what the industry calls it but the rest of us call it just plain canvas, the heavy, stiff fabric used a hundred years ago in bib overalls made for miners, cowboys, farmers, and laborers. In time, mustard-brown-colored duck Carhartt jackets made for laborers were adopted by celebrities and the hip-hop world and became fashion statements, exactly the same way blue jeans had 100 years before.
The notion of non-laborers posing as laborers comes with a certain amount of posturing and fashion nihilism (What’s trending? Who cares?) according to Vogue magazine.
Writing in The Culture Trip, Holly Howard says for most people, denim and jeans are the same things, but they’re not. Jean was a fabric blend of wool and cotton and the name comes from the city of Genoa. Denim and jean fabrics and finished goods were being exported by France and Italy to England at the same time, resulting in the mixing of French and Italian words by Liverpool dockworkers. This may help: denim was woven with one white thread and one colored thread while jean used two colored threads.
National Museum of American History curator Nancy Davis said “When people in other countries think of America, they think of blue jeans.” Not every worker needed pants tough enough for working in mines, so Levi Strauss & Co. introduced a line of pants made with blue denim instead of brown duck cloth and removed the bib.
As fashion historian Emma McClendon explained in an NPR interview, “The reality is that this was workwear that was worn for hard labor. Denim had been worn by enslaved African and African American descendants for generations,” she said. “It was worn by Chinese immigrants who were building the Transcontinental Railroad. It was worn by women. It was worn by men. And it came in tandem with really grueling hard labor, which is often left out of a sort of romanticized view.”
Starting in the 1950s, there was the Beat Generation, later called beatniks. They wore old, ragged clothing from thrift stores, disdaining whatever was new and/or fashionable. They smoked reefer and listened to jazz, folk, and protest music in basements while wearing sunglasses indoors at night. The most famous beatnik is Maynard G. Krebs, better known for Gilligan’s Island.
The ’50s and ’60s
Young Americans who did not need strong pants for hard labor took up blue jeans as casual wear, irritating the hell out of parents who couldn’t fathom why any intelligent person would want to wear dungarees. The term comes to us from Dungri, a small village in India.
At any rate, blue jeans took off among young people around the world, particularly students
When the World Festival of Youth and Students was held in Moscow, people from behind the Iron Curtain were fascinated by the blue jeans the Americans were wearing. As demand for this Western fashion grew, Soviet Union officials declared blue jeans to be “a sign of decadent Western consumerist culture.”
An article in Psychiatric Times says every generation of adolescents rejects their parents’ values
They elevate their own heroes while dismissing the heroes their parents looked up to. James Dean was the embodiment of the “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” philosophy of the anti-hero, always troubled and usually in some sort of trouble.
The uniform of the counterculture
Rebelling against a culture usually means joining a counterculture. Just like popular culture, countercultures have uniforms of their own. For more than 100 years, a part of that uniform has been blue jeans.
In 2022, a pair of Levi’s from the 1880s sold at auction for $87,000
The buyer owns and operates a Stevenson’s Denim Doctors store in Los Angeles. His clients buy denim he restores and are at the head of a movement that thinks that buying ripped jeans to be fashionable is dull-witted. The blue jeans above are kept in a bank safety deposit box and are available for viewing only by appointment.
In the ’50s, when kids’ jeans wore out at the knee, mothers would sew on patches. In the ‘60s, when teens’ jeans wore out at the knees, they cut off most of the legs and turned them into instant summer shorts. The most famous pair of cutoffs belonged to Daisy Duke. Network censors said her shorts revealed too much, so they made her wear flesh-colored tights to avoid scandalizing Dukes of Hazzard viewers.
A new pair free if they rip
The oldest known Levi’s sign is in Fort Bidwell, California on the side of Henry Kober & Co’s dry goods store. Levi Strauss archives have records of Kober being a retail customer in 1909.
Three ways we instantly recognize Levi’s
- The leather patch on the back with two horses in a tug of war with a pair of jeans.
- The batwing stitching on the back pockets.
- The red tab. When the original patent expired, competitors jumped into manufacturing blue jeans with rivets and Levi’s needed a way to stand out. The folded red ribbon sewn into the rear patch pocket seam is the Levi’s Tab.
Did you read the last line of the photo above?
The slogan “The only kind made by White Labor” referenced how they were not made by Chinese laborers. How many do you think will boycott Levi’s for this racist comment made 140 years ago?
A personal note
The jeans above, below, and this article’s featured image are mine, just out of the dryer. Note the absence of rips, tears, or holes. The few imperfections were put there by me, not by some wage slave in Asia. They look good for their age (37), but a quick look at where the honestly-worn areas are makes it easy to see why Jacob Davis reinforced his pockets with rivets.
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- If you really want to be what the kids call like, old school, refer to your jeans by their original name: waist overalls.
- Until the company was officially renamed Levi Strauss & Co in 1928, people referred to the blue jeans as the Two Horse brand. The sewn-on label was so recognizable that people would walk into general stores and say, “I want the pants with the two horses.”
- Most of Captain Kangaroo’s shows were broadcast in black & white, so Mister Green Jeans looked like Mister Gray Jeans.
- Somewhat shaky sources say the global market for fake Levi’s is $1 billion a year.
- A 140-year-old pair of Levi’s 501 jeans was/were found in an old Nevada silver mine in 1996. They now reside in the Levi Strauss Archival Collection in San Francisco.
- 501s became a favorite of those who favored fashion over function. Buttoning and unbuttoning the five-button fly is a tedious activity.
- On men’s pants, the fly always opens to the right. Women’s flies go both ways.