History of Jeans and Denim

The history of jeans is the story of modern civilization, from farm life to celebrity glamor. Denim is the most iconic of all fabrics, and blue jeans are a part of life around the globe.

Demin is the most popular fabric around the globe, and blue jeans are the iconic fashion.

Denim “not only exists in every country in the world but in many of these it has become the single most common form of everyday attire, ” state anthropologists Miller and Woodward (2007, p. 27).

Let’s start our time travel journey with the question, “What is twill?” because denim, the fabric of jeans, and khaki are basically this same textile.

What Is Twill? A Traditional Cotton Textile

Twill is what makes denim – and khaki — so comfortable to wear. Add to this, twill is a rugged fabric, and the enduring popularity of this cloth becomes clear.

Twill is traditionally cotton with a diagonal weave.

Most textiles have more stretch or “give” on the bias. Dresses are cut on the bias to enhance the drape.

The diagonal weave of denim is what makes jeans so comfortable, as the cloth adapts to your body and movements.

How Twill Is Different From Denim?

To explain the difference between What is twill? And denim, let’s look at the colors of the threads that are used.

In denim, the top thread is colored, woven over the white thread (according to in-weave’s e-bay guide.). Twill fabric uses the same color thread for both warp and woof (the two directions of the thread).

Today, cotton twill may be a blended fabric. Additional stretch may be provided by elastane or Lycra. Polyester helps the garment resist wrinkles.

The traditional color is indigo blue. This is a natural plant dye that has been known since prehistoric times (John, 2006). Indigo does not dissolve in water, so dyeing twill blue takes a lot of processing.

Pre-Washing Denim Is Not Good for Environment

All that processing means that a lot of water is used.

The New York Times (2011) reported that Levi Strauss, the blue jeans manufacturer, and cotton growers were doing their best to reduce a large amount of water made in growing cotton and processing the fabric, including dying.

Levi-Strauss estimated that the average blue jeans pants consume 919 gallons of water in their lifetime.

Denim History Starts in Nimes, France, for the Modern Era

Historical accounts agree that denim fabric originated in Nimes, France, in the 1600s – hence the name de-nim or “of Nimes.”

Sailors liked the rugged fabric for their work pants. It molded to their bodies, was easy to roll up against flooded decks, and could be worn even while wet.

A similar fabric made in Genoa, Italy, reportedly furnished the word jeans for these tough pants.

Art World Shakes Up History of Jeans

Denim history got a jolt in 2010 when the Canesso Gallery exhibited paintings from the 1600s showing poor folk in Italy dressed in blue denim.

The anonymous 17th-century Italian painter is hailed online in this New York Times blog and Denim Blog.

Blue Jeans Become Iconic American Fabric

Goldrush miners were the first to love a newly-patented design of dark blue denim pants. The pockets were reinforced with upholstery rivets. The history of jeans takes off at this point.

In turn, farmers and World War II factory workers came to love jeans and adopt them as a uniform.

Hollywood had a lot to do with making jeans the cowboys’ clothing of choice. These range riders actually were decreasing in number as the garment rose to popularity, writes Salazar (2010).

Denim Colors Rebellion and Rebellious Fantasies

The cowboy is another quintessentially American icon – neither part of city life nor farm life, but the one who rides into town to restore justice.

The association of this loner archetype with high ideals shaped the history of jeans in ways that continue to resonate with American values.

Rebellious youth of the 1950s adopted jeans as their fashion statement, modeling themselves on James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

Russian youth paid big bucks during the Cold War years to deck themselves in this iconic symbol of American life, jeans.

Next, denim history and the history of jeans entwine with the youth culture of the 1960s. The individuality of jeans in molding themselves to the wearer’s body was taken to a new level with embellishments of patches, embroidery, and painted-on designs.

Designers and Fashionistas Appropriate the Working-Class Garb

The working-class history of jeans and denim took a contradictory twist in the 1980s, as high-end labels got into the business.

Pre-washed and later stone-washed jeans were sold, sometimes with built-in fraying and rips, to women who never risked breaking a fingernail doing something so plebian as the laundry.

Ironically, pre-washing and pre-fraying were usually out-sourced to workers in Mexico and other less highly-paid countries. The pants are then worn by wealthy people who never wash the dishes, no less anything rugged enough to fray and rip this durable fabric.

Miller and Woodward call this the illusion of the wearer’s “intimate relationship” with the pants.

The Mysterious Origin of Denim

In fashion circles, there has long been a fierce debate over the origin of jeans. After all, since jeans are popular almost everywhere in the world, who wouldn’t want to claim them?!?!

However, the dispute over the two commonly accepted homeland possibilities for jeans – Nimes, France, “de-Nime” became denim, or Genoa, Italy from the French name “genes” – is heating up.

Currently, husband and wife fashion designers Francois and Marithe Girbaud are partnering with the Parisian-based Canesso gallery to try and answer this age-old denim question.

On display at the Canesso gallery is a recently discovered painter from Northern Italy, one who depicts the everyday lives of 17th-century peasants as they go about their chores but are dressed in denim! This new painter has been dubbed the ‘Master of Blue Jeans.’

The Master of the Blue Jeans
Courtesy of France24

This is the earliest visual record of a jeans-like fabric. Up until then, written accounts, like those of a 17th century English tailor, were the only evidence of the existence of a denim-like fabric from Genoa. But the discovery of these paintings seems to prove, once and for all, that the Italian fabric predated the French.

While there will continue to be arguments among scholars over the true source of denim, we jeans-wearers can just be content that this comfy, durable material came into existence at all!

History of Blue Jeans: What Blue Jeans Mean to Us and Worldwide Popularity

History of Blue Jeans

The history of blue jeans represented youth rebellion (and rebellious fantasies). Now that everyone wears denim, from Wall Street stockbrokers to grape-pickers in California, blue jeans make us anonymous.

Hollywood movies created the image of the heroic cowboy loner wearing rugged blues.

From Cowboys to Fashion Models in Less Than A Century

This part of the history of blue jeans is ironic because the population of range riders was declining at the very time that blue jeans were becoming popular.

The cowboy is another icon of American culture. This longer is neither part of city life nor farm life, but the one who rides into town to restore justice.

So this Hollywood-ization of blue jeans gave rise to the vision of the outsider and idealist wearing blue jeans.

Denim Becomes Youth Symbol in the 1950s

Rebellious youth of the 1950s adopted jeans as their fashion statement, modeling themselves on James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

Next, denim history and the history of blue jeans become a symbol youth culture of the 1960s.

Students cast aside their dress pants, shirts, and ties, or skirts and sweater sets — uniforms that prepared them for their professional lives.

They tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, and adopted clothing that was comfortable and bright.

Patches, embroidery, and painted designs added unique touches to the individuality of jeans in molding themselves to the wearer’s body.

Youth people throughout Europe paid big bucks to adopt this American fashion, from Lebanon to Russia.

Designers and Fashionistas Want to Look Working-Class, Too (Heavens Knows Why)

The working-class history of blue jeans and denim took a strange twist in the 1980s when high-end labels got into the business.

These hand-aged garments, each one unique, were worn by people eating in the best restaurants and driving cars that cost several times the value of the homes of the people who made them.

It is, perhaps, the modern version of Marie Antoinette at Versailles. The last Queen of France outfitted herself and her court as shepherdesses, so they could play at being pastoral.

The Meanings of Blue Jeans

Salazar speculates that people love blue jeans because they are a way of expressing who we are outside of our work lives. They proclaim, “I am real. I am authentic. I am me.”

Many employers and fine restaurants do not allow denim and blue jeans.

Salazar also suggests jeans make us anonymous, and I can fade into the crowd. Jeans are uni-sex, neither male nor female, and worn by both rich and poor, and thus classless.

History of Denim Is Global

Miller and Woodward claim that the “average American woman owns 8.3 pairs of jeans” (p. 337, citing a 2005 study by Cotton Incorporated). At least half the people in the United Kingdom wear jeans.

Brazilian jeans are a style unto themselves, made in a stretchy fabric designed to look like blue denim. Miller and Woodward explain that this textile stretches tautly like a body stocking to emphasize a favorite part of female anatomy in that culture.

Their report concludes: “We have found that firstly, denim is the most ubiquitous textile in the world; secondly, it has become the most personal and intimate of all items of clothing, as reflected in distressing [pre-washing, frays, and tears]; and thirdly, at least in some areas, it has become the secure base of most women’s anxious relationships to their wardrobe and a common solution to the task of getting dressed on a daily basis” (p. 345).

The world loves blue jeans, and denim is everywhere.

Are Blue Jeans and Denim A Part of Your Life? Share What You Think

I’ve mostly given up wearing jeans. What about you?

A close friend loves her jeans for everyday tasks. What role does it play in a wardrobe? Is it age-appropriate at 50? 60? What about 70 and 80?

Do you wear jeans and denim for some things and not others? Would you wear jeans for gardening but not for going to the supermarket? Would you wear a denim blazer but not slacks?

Have you tried Not Your Daughter’s Jeans or other pants with figure-shaping panels? We’d love to know.


  • John, P. (2006). Indigo reduction in the woad vat: A medieval technology revealed. Biologist, 53(1), 31-35.
  • Kaufman, L. (2011, Nov. 1). Stone-washed blue jeans (minus the washed). Accessed Mar. 4, 2012, at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/02/science/earth/levi-strauss-tries-to-minimize-water-use.html?_r=3
  • Miller, D., & Woodward, S. (2007). Manifesto for a study of denim. Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, 15(3), 335–351.
  • Salazar, J. B. (2010). Fashioning the historical body: the political economy of denim. Social Semiotics, 20(3), 293-308.
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