Jean Sequence: A Brief History of Denim

Tracing the story of the faded blues

5 13 2011

Cowboy

We all know the image. Quintessentially American, it’s one that’s travelled with us since the late-19th century when Levi Strauss popularized his sturdy denim trousers during California’s Gold Rush.  Intrinsically tied to the Wild West, they have found a place in cowboy mythology, dressing its heroes in dusty, faded denim.  But did you know that denim originated far from California and its gold mining history?

Its origins are much older. And the story begins in two Renaissance towns: denim — or De Nîmes — came from Nîmes in southern France (where the fabric was produced); while blue jeans — or bleu de Gênes (literally blue of Genoa) — came from the sparkling harbor of Genoa.  These all-purpose denim trousers were a requirement by the Genoese Navy who dressed their sailors in the sturdy material when cleaning the deck. Genoa Old Harbor

Denim’s incredibly durable fabric made it a popular work uniform and continued to be such throughout history; by the early 19th-century the lighter-weight blue jeans were adopted by the United States Navy.  In fact, boot cut jeans were created because they were breezier in a ship’s steamier spots below deck.  Later, denim became popular with cowboys because the material fit better and was cooler than their traditional wool pants; plus, denim’s stronger weave withstood the dangers of mesquite trees and brush (still, leather chaps were required).

It only was in the past sixty years that the material was worn for weekend play when beatnik hipsters from the 1950s popularized the traditional worker & prison-garb style as a symbol of youth rebellion.  And while its statement was quite the opposite of Dior’s celebrated New Look; denim’s influence on fashion can be considered equally significant (recall Dries Van Noten’s Fall 2011 Collection and then shift to his Spring Collection).  Denim and blue jeans were banned from theaters, restaurants and schools; however, as time passed, the casual style was accepted by most. Pre-shrinking and stone-washing technologies emerged in the 1970s, further popularizing and establishing a recurring trend that reached a fever pitch when a certain darling whistled in her Calvins.  The year was 1980 and nothing came between denim and style.

Forever transformed, denim has gone through a whirlwind of innovation — designer jeans joined fashion’s vocabulary when tighter, silhouette-hugging styles made their way from the runway to Bill Cunningham’s lens. After a brief intermission in the 1990s, denim has reached yet another crescendo filling countless closets… and editorials.

Derek Lam 212 872 8747Once only available to men in a single waist overall style, today’s jeans are distressed, studded, sand-blasted and pre-washed (to name just a few).  Last September, chambray and denim was spotted on countless runways — pale white and painted metallic at Alexander Wang, high-waisted and indigo at Derek Lam, loose and swingy at Dries Van Noten for women and splattered with bleach on his Men’s runway.  Richard Chai, Rebecca Taylor and Elie Tahari also played with the material, envisioning it almost as a salute to the iconic 1970s silhouette.  For women, jeans are slightly departing from the recently-popular skinny leg and jegging to a more free-flowing, high-waisted style.

Mother Jeans 212 872 2887New to 5F, Mother Jeans seem to have perfected this dramatic new way of wearing jeans through fit and touch.  CoutureSnob’s Tina Craig attributes Mother’s uniquely flattering silhouette to a “lightweight stretch [that] keeps every thing snug, while side welt pockets ensure no unflattering bunch ups.”  These days, nothing feels quite as comfortable or familiar as lived-in, worn-in denim.  Today denim-wearers are more concerned with the softness of jeans than ever before, constantly pursuing twills that have the feel of an old dollar bill.  Some avoid washing their jeans; while, on the starkly opposite end, others starch and iron their indigos until they’re rigid enough to stand on their own.  Denim & menswear designer George McCracken recommends washing your denim & blue jeans once a month and letting them fade naturally (from our experience, a safe practice is to wash your jeans inside-out and let them air dry).  No matter the pair, one seems drawn to the extreme either wanting their jeans to look brand new or fit for an archival museum.

Far from its origins, denim now is awash with color — from Current/Elliot’s flame red to Rag & Bone’s cobalt blue.  It’s evolved from Levi Strauss’ flagship work waist overalls to every day dressing.  Fashion City’s streets are teeming with different denim styles and ways of dressing it — we cannot wait to see where it goes next.

See some of the latest styles from 5F and the Men’s Third Floor:

Bergdorf Goodman Collection Formal Dress Shirt, 212 339 3290 Current Elliot 212 872 2887 AG Adriano Goldschmied 212 339 3340

Grown & Sewn Jeans 212 339 3340 Citizens of Humanity 212 872 2887

Bergdorf Goodman Collection, Current/Elliot, AG Adriano Goldschmied
Dries Van Noten, Grown & Sewn, Citizens of Humanity

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