Blue jeans have been described as “democracy in fashion,” and rightly so.
Whether you’re busted flat in Baton Rouge or a highly paid celebrity jet setting around the world, you probably have a pair of jeans made from denim—a truly democratic fabric.
Prized for its rugged durability, denim is also inexpensive and softens and fades with wear and washing. Each and every pair of jeans takes on character as unique as the individual wearing them. Nowadays you can spend a lot of money on a pair of designer label jeans that have been prewashed and artistically faded, or you can buy a pair of stiff, basic five-pocket blue jeans and transform them to make your own personal statement.
Denim is arguably the fabric of the American West. What isn’t widely known today is that denim was a popular textile long before the settling of the West.
By some accounts, denim is a gift from France, like those other all-American symbols, the Statue of Liberty and french fries. The word “denim” may be a corruption of serge de Nimes, a fabric from a factory in Nimes 400 years ago. No one knows if that was the same indigo blue-on-white diagonal twill weave we’ve come to know and love.
A recent Manhattan art exhibit, “The Master of the Blue Jeans,” included 17th-century paintings depicting Italian peasants wearing clothes that look like denim. In fact, the word “jeans” comes from the pants worn by Genoa sailors in the 1600s. Reports of indigo-dyed serge cloth similar to modern denim date to the 1300s—the late Middle Ages. Legend has it that denim sails helped Columbus—another Italian sailor—find America. You wouldn’t find five-pocket styling treatments back then, but denim fabric had some legs, as it were.
Denim may even have been worn by patriots fighting in the American Revolution. A post-revolution account records a visit by George Washington to a New England denim factory.
Denim didn’t really hit its stride in America until Levi Strauss started offering his famous riveted “waist overalls” to California miners and camp followers in 1873, nearly 20 years after he introduced denim as an alternative to the coarse, stiff and ubiquitous canvas duck used for tents, wagon covers and work trousers throughout the Old West.
Denim’s star keeps climbing. Designers have been playing with denim and finding new applications of this well-worn fabric for years. From jeans and jackets to shirts and skirts, fashion remains true blue to denim.
Denim, the fabric, may fade, but as an icon of the American West, it endures.
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