Denim and jeans: making of a fashion icon

back of pair of Lee denim jeans with label

Denim is a well-known word, linked mostly to clothing, a fabric linked to jeans, a fashion staple. Both words tell a fascinating story about the origins of these icon fabrics and clothing. This blog looks at the history of denim and jeans, from their invention at the end of the 19th century through to the popular clothing of today.

The word ‘denim’ comes from a fabric called ‘Serge de Nimes’, made in the French city of Nimes. Denim is a type of cotton twill textile; its unique colour is a textured blue, given by the fact that the warp threads passing underneath the weft threads are indigo dyed, while weft threads remain plain white. This is why the fabric has two colours: blue on the outside and white on the inside.

Indigo Dye, Världskulturmuseet, CC BY

The word Jeans comes instead from the Italian city of Genoa, where another similar fabric was made and called ‘jean’. Genoa’s jean fabric was a fustian textile resembling cotton corduroy, used for work clothes thanks to its affordable price and durability. The uniforms of sailors from the Genoese navy, for instance, were made of jeans. Denim was first produced to imitate jean, but it was of a higher quality and resistance, and therefore it was used for overalls and smocks. 

The fabric started being used in the United States at the end of the 18th century, when gold miners needed clothing that could withstand heavy working, without tearing or wearing down. Jeans, more or less as we know them today, were an intelligent invention developed by a businessman and a tailor, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis.

Teen fashion. Erik Holmén, c. 1953, Stiftelsen Nordiska museet, CC BY

Their collaboration led to many experimentations, finally finding the right fabric: a particular kind of denim, inspired by the European one, but produced by an American manufacturer. The initial design was simple –  these trousers were soon used by miners, factory workers, farmers and cattlemen. In 1873 they patented the model, which soon became mass-produced, and featured some fundamental elements: apart from the fabric, jeans had to have two pockets in the front and one on the back, and the places where trousers tended to tear were reinforced with copper rivets.

During the 20th century, designs changed, as well as their cultural significance mostly thanks to cinema. 

In the 1930s, denim and jeans became popular thanks to Hollywood cowboy movies. In the 1950s, denim symbolised a desire for young people to be different from their parents. Jeans reached a hip, iconic level being worn by James Dean in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. In the 1960s and 1970s, denim and jeans were a symbol of counterculture.

Today, jeans and denim are commonplace, and not just in trousers – one of the most common, flexible, enduring and desirable icons of fashion.

RELATED: Explore more denim and jeans on Europeana Fashion

By Marta Franceschini, European Fashion Heritage Association


Europe at Work: Share your Story

Did you or your family work in the textile industry? Share your story and help us tell the story of Europe through our working lives in the past and the present.

photograph of man working in a factory surrounded by machines, the words 'Share your story' and a logo saying 'Europe at Work' are above

Feature image: A pair of blue jeans, Gift by Inga Britt and Tage Skoglund, Gävle. Gävleborg County Museum, CC BY-SA

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