It’s difficult to imagine life without blue jeans. They’re resilient and comfortable, they go with (almost) everything, and they make glorious Lana Del Rey song titles. But how did a simple piece of workwear become the wardrobe staple we know today? From the birth of the iconic Levi’s 501 in San Francisco to the high-fashion runways of Milan, we track the evolution of denim in its best—and worst—incarnations.
Levi Strauss patents his denim using copper rivets to reinforce weak spots in pants. The jean, as we know it, is born. 1890 Levi’s rebrands its “XX” jeans as the “501.”
1920s and '30s
The western becomes a pop-culture obsession, making the cowboy an American icon.
American G.I.s wear denim off-duty while fighting in Europe, popularizing it abroad.
In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean defines denim-ized cool for many a generation.
Marilyn Monroe rocks a denim jacket in The Misfits.
Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, and Calvin Klein make denim high fashion.
The Gap is founded.
People decide their ankles need more room and upgrade to bellbottoms.
The hanky code is invented, so men (finally!) know exactly what other dudes want in the bedroom. Gay small talk takes a holiday.
The Rolling Stones’s Sticky Fingers album cover illustrates the dangers of VPL (Visible Penis Lines).
Touko Laaksonen (a.k.a. Tom of Finland) gives up his job in the Helsinki office of McCann-Erickson to be a full-time illustrator.
The Clash forms, and tight black denim finds it calling.
A 15-year-old Brooke Shields appears in controversial Calvin Klein ads, informing the world that nothing gets between her and her Calvins.
Jenny Shimizu’s CK ad pairs androgyny with denim.
Tony Ward and Bruce LaBruce star in Hustler White.
Britney and Justin wear matching denim outfits at the VMAs. We all die a little inside.
The runways of Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, and Saint Laurent look back—on punk, ’80s street style, and rockabilly, respectively.