A Short History of American Blue Jeans

The Quintessential, Egalitarian American Clothing Design Capturing the Pioneering Spirit and Pursuits of Happiness.

The Founding Fathers of Jeans

Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis

Like so many American stories, we find the history of jeans interwoven with the lives of immigrants in pursuit of opportunities and new beginnings.  In the 1850’s, a European immigrant named Levi Strauss around San Francisco, California began making brown trousers with little or no belt loops and neither  pockets for miners by using cotton tent canvas from existing stock selling it out of his family’s dry goods store.  Cinch belts helped to keep the pants up as the miners worked among the rocks and rivers.  They were cheap, comfortable and they did the job of protecting the wearer from the raw elements.  The same qualities we look for today would propel Levi Strauss & Co into the history books.

Somewhere along the way of selling pants, Levi Strauss teamed up with a Russian immigrant tailor named Jacob Davis who was Levi’s customer and had his own shop in Reno.  On May 20, 1873, the two business partners obtained US Patent No. 139,121 for improvements in fastening pockets (rivets) on pants to make them more durable.  Slogan such as “It’s no use they can’t be ripped” were used to describe the innovation.  Also during this time, Strauss had switched fabric to serge de Nimes, a cotton twill fabric with origins from a town named Nimes in southern France, which he had dyed blue.  This is how denim, which is nearly synonymous with jeans got its name.  “Serge” in French means fabric, and “de Nimes” means “from Nimes”.  The name “jeans” is named after the Italian city of Genoa, where sailors wore blue cotton canvas.

By the 1880’s, around the end of the second industrial revolution in America with the adoption of railways, steam ships, and large scale manufacturing, American denim jeans was well embedded as tough, rugged work pants, and had become the uniform of choice among working men.  Around this time, Levi Strauss & Co had incorporated the orange stitching, trademarked arcuate design on back pockets, bar tacked to further reinforce pockets along with rivets, added a watch or coin pocket and the leather “Two Horse” patches to further illustrate the durability of their jeans.  Finally, the company started to assign manufacture lot numbers and the infamous 501’s waist-high overalls were assigned 01-weight denim.

Henry David Lee

Henry David Lee, was already a successful merchant before 1911 when he first decided to include work-wear as part of his company’s portfolio of products.  Prior, the H.D. Lee Mercantile Company had mainly manufactured and sold foods that included coffee, tea, cereal and canned food.  However, in 1911, Lee produced their first bib overalls.  Two years later, in response to Lee’s personal chauffeur, the Lee Union-All was invented which allowed the wearer to quickly pull the overall over regular work-wear clothing to get to dirtier jobs and remain presentable afterwards.  The design was an immediate hit among the growing automotive industry and mechanics.  And with the dawn of aviation age, it would eventually evolve into the flight suit.

Lee continued to innovate to match the ever changing American lifestyle throughout the years while producing durable work-wear for laborers such as the cowboy pant for seamen, loggers and of course, cowboys called the 101.  Lee was also one of the first jean companies to incorporate zippers into their jean design called the 101Z with a zip-fly, and offering tailored sizing and various inseams for personal fit.  Meanwhile, Strauss & Co dialed back the use of crotch and back pocket rivets as chafed cowboys, parents and teachers were complaining that it scratched up everything from saddles to furniture.

In the early 1930’s, Lee introduced a tight fitting denim jacket called the 101j and then followed up with a padded version named the Storm Rider.  Levi Strauss and Co also introduced jeans specifically made for women.  And later throughout the post-World War era of the 1950’s and 1960’s, with the ever increasing popularity of movies and television, the help of iconic pop-culture stars such as Elvis Presley, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, and Steve McQueen, propelled Lee jeans, Levi Strauss and others from respected work-wear to fashionable, and rebellious clothing statements.  It was during the tumultuous cultural revolution of 1960’s when women adopted denim as a staple in their wardrobes.  Jeans became ever slimmer as fabric stretched from its tough canvas origins, a movement that continues today, fathers to our slim fit and skinny jeans.

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