A Brief History of Jeans


On this date in 1873, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis received a patent for the process of putting rivets in pants, and modern jeans were born. But that's not the whole story.

We bet you think that jeans started as an American trend, specifically among gold miners in California. That's not, however, exactly right: the history of jeans actually goes all the way back to eighteenth-century Italy. Genoan sailors of the time wore particularly snappy outfits made from denim; the word "jeans" coming from "Genoa." For that matter, the word "denim" refers to a type of cotton cloth called "Serge de Nimes," which literally means "cloth from Nimes," a town in the south of France.

What America deserves credit for is popularizing the product, not inventing them. The first American jeans were made from slightly different fabrics than their European counterparts, but plantation labor eventually made cotton widely available in the States. By the time the Gold Rush started in 1848—not, as the NFL might have you believe, '49—cotton denim jeans were the standard. But the miners didn't pick up the trend until 1853, when one Leob Strauss moved to San Francisco, changed his name to Levi (nobody knows why), and started selling his pants wholesale. (There's another guy who doesn't get credit nearly as often, although he deserves it. Jacob Davis, a tailor from Reno, Nevada, was the guy who figured out how to put rivets in the corners of pants; he collaborated with Strauss.) A hit among the miners, the jeans were sturdy enough to handle rough work and repeated washings. Strauss shrewdly capitalized on that fact. In 1886, Levi's Jeans even bore a leather label showing them being pulled between two horses to emphasize how durable they were.

Still, jeans remained the workwear of the rough and tumble West well into the mid-20th century. They started to trickle out to the general public in the 1930s, as Hollywood Westerns started sweeping across movie screens, introducing audiences to macho types sporting jeans as they lassoed cattle, slung guns, and engaged in other cowboyish activities. A decade later, another manly-man archetype picked up the trend: the World War II soldier, who often wore jeans and overalls when off the job. Finally, in the 1950s, teenagers and rebels, with or without causes, realized that jeans would make them look tough, aloof, and hardscrabble "“ without requiring them to actually do any of the dirty work of cowboys or soldiers. Once James Dean and Marlon Brando donned a couple pairs, there was no stopping the trend.

This passage was written by Mary Carmichael and excerpted from mental_floss presents In the Beginning, available here.