In 1957, Levi’s denim ran an advertisement featuring a clean-cut young boy dressed in jeans, alongside the slogan “Right for School”. Outrage ensued, with adults across America reeling at the suggestion that jeans were suitable attire for children. They were for the under class, the rebel, the anti-authoritarian; a wardrobe staple for the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean and John Wayne.
The term ‘jean’ first appeared in the 1800s in reference to a cotton cloth used to make trousers. While the origins of the term ‘denim’ are frequently debated, it was invented as a sturdy fabric for the working classes. Designed to withstand frequent wear and tear, denim was introduced into the USA in the 19th century. The California Gold Rush saw an influx of miners travelling to the West Coast; with them came a need for a durable workwear garment. Wholesalers Levi Strauss & Co. catered to this need, having patented a new style of blue jeans with copper rivets. Denim jeans became the uniform of workers; honest, unpretentious and hard working. Moving into the 1930s and a fascination for all things Western pervaded the public conscience. While authentic cowboys had been wearing denim as a practical garment for country life, Western films were now establishing jeans as garments for a rough, rugged lifestyle that defined freedom and individualism. The vast wilderness served as symbolic landscape for the film’s hero; stars such as John Wayne and Gary Cooper represented the all-American anti-hero, dressed, of course, in denim jeans. Fans would travel to Western states to purchase a pair of Levis, desperate for a taste of the cowboy lifestyle.
Into 1940s wartime and American GI’s travelled with their cherished jeans, wearing them during downtime and thus spreading the word overseas. While denim production decreased during this period, the end of the war signalled the beginning of a new era. Denim was no longer solely reserved for workwear, and instead represented the leisurewear of prosperous post-war America.
In 2019, denim jeans are ubiquitous in society; they’re a staple in wardrobes across the globe. Dressed up, dressed down, straight or skinny, there’s a style for everyone, and their universal appeal doesn’t look to abate any time soon.