While the basic style of this denim staple has remained remarkably consistent throughout its roughly 150-year history, the who, where and how it is worn has constantly evolved to reflect a multitude of cultural shifts.

The overarching theme? A global democratisation, and Westernisation, of everyday clothing. Jeans have become one of the most worn items of contemporary clothing, both in terms of how many people are wearing jeans on any given day around the world, and in that people wear their jeans longer than any other garment in their wardrobe (1).

Jeans, as we know them, were invented in the USA by Latvian tailor Jacob Davis, who sewed workwear for miners and also made and repaired harnesses and tents during the California gold rush and subsequent colonisation.

Realising that the rivets he used for harness and tent making could reduce the chance of the pant’s pockets tearing, he partnered with Bavarian dry-goods merchant Levi Strauss to patent the idea in 1873. Known then as “waist overalls” they became extremely popular for those doing hard labour for their durability and sturdiness. This was represented in the famous Levi two-horse logo, the world’s fifth oldest trademark. Showing two horses failing to pull the jeans apart, the logo was designed to communicate the quality and strength of the rugged work pant design even to those who couldn’t read, a necessity in that era. To extend the patent in 1890 Levi Strauss added a small pocket for watches, to create the 5 pocket design that has remained largely unchanged and become globally ubiquitous (2).

Women at work on bomber 1940’s

Brooke Shields - Calvin Klein Ad 1990’s

While jeans remained largely associated with workwear for the first half of the 20th century, they had a brief moment as a fashion item in the 1930s, when “dude ranch” holidays became popular, with people flocking to country farm resorts to pretend to be cowboys for the weekend.

While there, both women and men wore jeans, taking on the garments associated with the work of herding cattle and riding trails. Shortly after women started to don jeans in increased numbers as the USA joined in World War II. Jeans were declared “essential commodities” and prompted by Rosie the Riveter propaganda, women wore denim while they worked in factories and munition plants across the country. This only strengthened the garments patriotic connotations in America.


Farrah Fawcett JEANS

It was in the 1950s that this close association with hard labour began to fracture.

Popularised as part of the counter-cultural movements of the 50 and 60s by their onscreen wearing by Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One (1953), James Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Marilyn Monroe’s character in The Misfits (1961), jeans became suddenly symbolic of freedom, rebellion and working-class solidarity, and teenagers ate it up. This association with casual youth culture also led to Bing Crosby being denied entry by Vancouver hotel because he was wearing denim jeans. In response Levi’s designed a denim tuxedo jacket in his honour to wear as a double denim ensemble, birthing the sartorial phenomenon of the Canadian Tuxedo. With the dissemination of jeans as a symbol of youthful rebellion through movies and mass media, they began to be worn by teens in places like the UK, Australia, Italy and Japan. Jeans supply, particularly in places like the USSR, was an issue, but this only added to their cache.

marilyn monroe 1950’s jeans

In the 1970s, jeans remained the uniform of those rebelling against conformism.

The unisex styling and appeal of jeans incorporated them into the ongoing fight for gender equality during second-wave feminism. This next generation of young people dissatisfied with the conservative consumerist attitudes of the time, took to customising their jeans with paint, applique, and embroidery. There were USA-wide competitions for “Denim Art” sponsored by Levi’s and numerous how-to manuals instructing people how to personalise their jeans. This also drew on denim’s ability to fade and mould to the body through repeated wear, a personalisation over time that demonstrated your attachment to your pants. This wasn’t always good news - the FBI once cracked a case by identifying the culprit through the individualised imprint on their jeans.

Bruce Springsteen

Over the following decades, both the manufacturing and wearing of jeans has become increasingly global. 

The significant fashionability of jeans has created the rise of designer denim, controversial marketing campaigns, and a marked increase in the pant’s costs. This begs the question, are jeans still an icon of democratic dress? And has the casualisation of everyday dress peaked with denim? As Gordon suggests “because they (jeans) are simultaneously associated with work and play, they come to stand for a society where there is no real distinction between the two” (3). In our current climate where more and more people are blurring the distinction between leisure and work, (particularly in a pandemic work from home job market), maybe jeans are still the best trousers for contemporary life.

1. Miller, Daniel, and Sophie Woodward. "Global Denim." Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Global Perspectives. Ed. Joanne B. Eicher and Phyllis G. Tortora. Oxford: Berg, 2010. Bloomsbury Fashion Central. http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/BEWDF/EDch10312
2. Cunningham, P., & Lab, S. (1991). Dress and popular culture. Bowling Green State University Popular Press.
3. Sullivan, J. (2006). Jeans : a cultural history of an American icon. Gotham Books.

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