Who Invented the Jeans?

I was solving a crossword puzzle and one of the prompts was “Italian city from which we get the word ‘jeans.’” I didn’t know this word was Italian, so I decided to dig a little and look at:

Who Created the Jeans?

First of all, as a French, I should have known this! The original name for denim fabric was “Serge de Nîmes,” and it was developed in the French town of Nîmes. This strong twill fabric has a distinctive blue-and-white look due to the use of colorful warp threads and white weft threads during weaving. Because of its toughness, the fabric was perfect for work clothes and uniforms.

What those weavers from Nîmes were doing initially was trying to copy the fabric from the pants produced in Genoa, Italy—that were referred to as “jeans.” These pants were used as part of naval uniforms by the Genoese Navy. The term “blue jeans” traces its origins to the French phrase “bleu de Gênes,” which means the “blue of Genoa.”

The history of why the jeans are colored blue is linked to another country. The indigo-dyed cotton fabric was worn by workers in Dungri, India, in the 16th century, giving birth to the term “dungarees.” This fabric, known for its durability and deep blue color, captured the attention of European traders. As a result, indigo-dyed fabric started making its way to European markets.

It seems that the story started in India, continued in Italy, and concluded in France. But at that time, denim and jeans were two different fabrics.

Although, it is important to note that all this is mostly speculative. It seems that this origin story is not set in stone. The indigo dye really is an Indian product, but did the Italians copy the dungaree? Did the French copy the Italian jeans to create the denim? Most probably, but apparently, this story has been built on more deductions than facts.

James Dean in Jeans in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

The American Blue Jeans

Today, American blue jeans are synonymous with Levi’s, but the story didn’t start there. The Indigo dye came to America with the African slaves. At that time, Indigo was a valuable plant, and making dye from it was even more valuable. But slaves also produced the cotton that was necessary for the weavers in the North to make the denim jeans that were sold back to the South for them to wear.

The blue jeans were already workers’ clothes by the time Levi Strauss came from Germany to New York, in 1851. There, his brother had a family business, a dry goods store, and Levi went to San Francisco to expand the franchise, in a way. He opened the Levi Strauss & Co. wholesale house in 1853. Five years earlier, the Gold Rush had taken over California and there was one thing the miners needed: good clothes.

A tailor from Reno, Nevada, Jacob Davis was working there, buying clothes from Strauss, but faced a problem as the jeans were often ripped because of the fragility of the pockets. To fix that, he reinforced the corners of the pockets with metal rivets. It worked and Davis wanted to patent his innovation but didn’t have the money. He went to Strauss with a proposition and the two men became associates, one provided the idea, the other the money. They received the patent no.139,121 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on May 20, 1873.

After that, Levi Strauss recruited Jacob Davis to take charge of the mass production of their product, the riveted blue jeans. They made a fortune as the patent protected them for two decades—after that, a lot of copies were created. The workers of America simply called their jeans “Levi’s” as it was the only maker.

The success was so huge that, with time, the story was rewritten and became as simple as Levi Strauss invented the Jeans.

The Everyday Man Blue Jeans

The way that jeans are portrayed in popular culture has a significant impact on how they evolved from being a work item to a worldwide fashion phenomenon. Denim started its path into teenage culture and revolt in the 1950s. With their rebellious performances in films like “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Wild One,” icons like James Dean and Marlon Brando helped bring jeans to the forefront of fashion.

In the 1960s, jeans made the transition from the workplace to casual wear and were widely popular. The hippy movement, punk, grunge, and other subcultures all continued the denim trend. Because of its versatility, denim has survived shifting fashion trends.

You may also be interested in Who Invented the Sewing Machine?

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