Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Social History of Blue Jeans

I love reading about the development of fashions and fads. Jeff Culbreath links to some fascinating articles about the origins of blue jeans. The following is a brief history of denim:

Many people are aware of the roots that blue jeans have in America. They are a symbol of everything America is supposed to be: free from the status quo. It is nearly impossible to distinguish social and economic status of any individual wearing a pair of them. They are the invention of Jacob Davis, but were made famous by the entrepreneur Loeb Strauss who later changed his name to Levi. On May 7th, 1873 the patent for them was received from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Jacob Davis had invented the riveted pockets of the blue jeans at the pocket's stress points for a customer of his pants. The customer would constantly bother Davis over the holes that developed in his pockets. It was this that gave Jacob the inspiration for the riveted pockets. He did not have the $68 at that time to file a patent, however, and wrote to Strauss offering to file it jointly with him in exchange for Strauss paying the patent filing fee.

For the next 25 years while Levi Strauss & Co held the patent rights to blue jeans, they became immensely popular among the working class. They were known for their rugged durability. Right after the exclusive patent rights expired and the invention became public domain, many companies started manufacturing blue jeans. Because in the 19th century they were worn by the working class, they were a symbol of the working man. The wealthier, pampered members of society did not wear blue jeans during this era.

During World War II, blue jeans gained the popularity overseas that they had garnished many years before in America. Foreigners admired the pants worn by American soldiers. The end result was that they were no longer solely American. Europeans and other foreigners could now enjoy the benefits of the rugged denim. Shortly after World War II with jeans now internationally recognized as a durable, comfortable pair of pants, sales skyrocketed.

George Will quips and quotes in The Washington Post:

Writer Daniel Akst has noticed and has had a constructive conniption. He should be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has earned it by identifying an obnoxious misuse of freedom. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he has denounced denim, summoning Americans to soul-searching and repentance about the plague of that ubiquitous fabric, which is symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche.

It is, he says, a manifestation of "the modern trend toward undifferentiated dressing, in which we all strive to look equally shabby." Denim reflects "our most nostalgic and destructive agrarian longings -- the ones that prompted all those exurban McMansions now sliding off their manicured lawns and into foreclosure." Jeans come prewashed and acid-treated to make them look like what they are not -- authentic work clothes for horny-handed sons of toil and the soil. Denim on the bourgeoisie is, Akst says, the wardrobe equivalent of driving a Hummer to a Whole Foods store -- discordant.

...Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy's catechism of leveling -- thou shalt not dress better than society's most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism -- of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste....

Edmund Burke -- what he would have thought of the denimization of America can be inferred from his lament that the French Revolution assaulted "the decent drapery of life"; it is a straight line from the fall of the Bastille to the rise of denim -- said: "To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely."


Julygirl said...

I am almost certain that you, EMV, do not own a pair.

elena maria vidal said...

Oh, but I do! They are great for working in the garden.....

tubbs said...

IMHO undistressed denim can be tastefully worn in many scenes or situations. What I find outrageous and offensive are those ads in high-end glossy mags featuring models in torn, shredded, and provocatively fitted denim outfits - with pricetags that could feed a Somali family for five years.
But then again I'm crazy. I'm that guy who compliments people I see at PHL and PBI, those fellow flyers who take the time to wash and put on decent clothes before they travel. I'm also the crazy guy chuckling at the little debutarts as they border on hypothermia because they've boarded an air-conditioned airliner wearing little more than denim pixel/bleeps. And ironically, I'm that crazy guy who shows up at the trad.latin Mass in gym cloths or gardening clothes, because I remember too well the vanity and fashion competition of 1950's church-goers.

elena maria vidal said...

Great points, as always, tubbs! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the link and for quoting from the articles, which I was unable to do while posting away from home!