History of Denim: Part 1

9.27.2011

By Out.com Editors

Now a ubiquitous standard, how did denim get its start?

No other article of clothing defines the look of modern man more so than a pair of jeans. We work in them, we play in them -- we live the better part of our lives in them. But jeans aren't just the most integral part of our wardrobe; they are a symbol of freedom and individual expression almost everywhere they exist.

So just how did this robust, indigo cotton-twill pant come to have more followers than Madonna and the Church combined? While sexy, all-American images of the Marlboro Man or James Dean may first come to mind, you might be surprised to learn that thinking about 16th-century Italian seafaring military men would be more accurate.

That's right -- jeans, one of the most iconic American contributions to fashion has an old-world relative somewhere in the Genovese Navy more than 500 years ago. Sailors needed a strong, durable, and comfortable material that traveled, and they found it in a denim-like material that came to be called "jeans," many think, after the word "Genovese." (Take note lovers of distress: The navy would clean their jeans by dragging them in the wake of their boats, which, between the sun and the salt, would bleach the pants!) Some legends even date jeans 100 years earlier to Christopher Columbus, who, it is said, used the material to outfit the sails on his boat.

Actually, denim and jean began as two completely separate items. The word "denim" appears to have come from a contraction of the French town "Serge de Nimes" (de Nimes=Denim). In the 1500s, it was the first town to produce the ancestor of denim, back then a durable and stiff mix of silk, wool, and cotton. The difference was that denim was more expensive and woven with one white thread and one colored thread (just like the jeans of today), while jeans were softer and woven with two colored threads.

It wasn't until the 1850s, in a dust storm of shimmering gold, that the first American jeans were born in the Wild West. Leob Strauss (who later changed his name to Levi) followed 49ers and other Gold Rush workers to California and began the first American jeans wholesale business. They were called waist overalls back then and quickly became a sensation among gold miners and cowboys alike. They were made with sturdy cotton denim and, for the first time, featured metal rivets to make pockets sturdy enough to carry pure gold.

They sold for $1.50 back in the 1850s -- no cheap hangtag back then - but no one could have foretold that the future of the Gold Rush miner's garment of choice would one day be stamped with the most popular celebrities, styles, and movements of the modern age.

Tags: Deluxe Denim
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