The true history of blue jeans is fascinating and tied to the evolution of fashion and the textile industry. Blue jeans have become an iconic piece of casual clothing and have been worn by millions of people worldwide. Here’s an overview of their history.
The Birth of a Legend
The origins are European, with Italy playing a crucial role. In fact, denim, the fabric that started it all, originates from Nîmes, France (the etymology of the term indeed comes from “serge de Nîmes”). However, the turning point occurred around 1860 when French manufacturers elected Genoa as their port for trade with the United States.
To understand the origins of denim, we need to take a step back to the 15th century. During this time, an extraordinarily sturdy fabric called “fustian blue” began to spread throughout Europe. It was dyed using woad extract, a plant capable of producing a blue color that reached its peak use in the late Middle Ages.
Initially known for its use on ships as a covering for goods, fustian was originally produced in the town of Chieri, in the province of Turin, Italy. However, over time, this production was soon surpassed in importance by the city of Nîmes in France. It was from here that the term “etim” (cloth from Nimes) originated, evolving over time into the word “denim.” This new fabric had a distinctive characteristic: the warp and weft were dyed in two different colors, white and indigo.
The fabric from Nîmes quickly gained popularity, especially in England. Numerous shipments departed from the port of Genoa, and even local fishermen began making work clothes using this fabric. Blue soon became the predominant color in Genoa, earning it the name “blue de Genes,” which would later inspire the term “blue jeans.”
Over the subsequent centuries, denim saw increasingly widespread use, thanks in part to falling cotton prices. Furthermore, the indigo color, due to its tendency to fade, became affordable and was not in demand by other textile markets.
As time passed, denim crossed the oceans and arrived in America. Here, it was primarily embraced by miners and laborers who were seeking a durable yet affordable material for their tough work. Despite the durability of denim, the pants worn by these laborers frequently tore.
In 1873, Jacob W. Davis, a tailor from Nevada, received a request from the wife of a lumberjack to make a pair of denim pants. These pants were intended to withstand heavy labor and needed to be robust.
However, Davis had a brilliant idea: he applied copper rivets to the parts most prone to wear, such as the pockets. This ingenious innovation proved effective, as the pants no longer wore out as quickly.
The Invention of Sturdy Canvas Pants
The news spread quickly, and the demand grew. At this point, Davis decided to approach a larger textile merchant who could provide the necessary funding and meet the increasing demand. This merchant was Levi Strauss.
Strauss had moved from Germany to San Francisco in 1853 during the Gold Rush. After founding Levi Strauss & Co. with his brother-in-law David Stern, they began selling various fabrics and materials to men seeking their fortune in the gold mines, operating out of a small shop near the mines.
In 1873, Davis wrote to Strauss, proposing to patent the use of rivets to make pants more durable.
On May 20, 1873, Jacob Davis, who had recently entered into partnership with Levi Strauss, registered the modern denim jeans. The patent number under which it was filed is 139,121.
The patent request was approved, marking the official beginning of blue jeans.
This is how Strauss and Davis decided to collaborate to produce this garment on a large scale.
The Spread of Jeans
The story of blue jeans is still in its early stages. Blue jeans began to gain popularity among laborers and cowboys due to their durability.
Imagine; it’s the very same source of inspiration for our garments. In fact, Spirit of St. Louis draws on the style of the times in which this long history is set, harkening back to the original design of that era.
Over the years, jeans became increasingly widespread, but initially, they were still primarily considered as workwear.
Iceman by Spirit of St. Louis perfectly embodies the spirit of American pioneers. Derived from a garment that existed between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, it is crafted from premium 16-ounce Japanese denim.
Although inspired by the pioneer era, Iceman is more current and modern than ever today, suitable for leisure, work, and cocktails.
From heavy-duty workwear to a symbol of rebellion and finally, fashion.
In just over a hundred years, all the evolutions of blue jeans have accompanied the social and generational changes in the West, ultimately becoming a cult.
Jeans in pop culture
During the 20th century, especially after World War II, blue jeans began to be adopted by young and rebellious individuals. They became a symbol of protest and non-conformity.
In the 1950s and 1960s, movie stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean contributed to increasing the popularity of jeans, turning them into an image of youthful rebellion.
1970s and 1980s
Jeans continued to evolve in various forms, styles, and washes. During the 1970s and 1980s, jeans became increasingly fashionable and were embraced in various contexts, from pop culture to rock music.
Globalization and diversification
In the 1990s, jeans became a global clothing item. Fashion companies began creating jeans in different shapes, cuts, and washes to cater to a broader audience’s preferences.
Today, blue jeans have become an essential element in many wardrobes. They are available in a wide range of styles, from classic straight cuts to skinny jeans, flares, and more. Jeans have become so ubiquitous that they are worn in both casual and formal settings, adapting to a variety of situations.
The history of blue jeans is, therefore, a story of evolution, fashion, and popular culture, taking this garment from being a simple workwear item to a globally recognized style icon.
Spirit of St. Louis brings the traditional blue jeans back into your wardrobe: rugged and durable, crafted from premium 16-ounce denim, and exceptionally beautiful.
Why are they called Blue Jeans?
The history of blue jeans we’ve shared so far is only the second part. What you might find more interesting is the story before Levi Strauss!
Blue jeans get their name from the fact that they are primarily made of a sturdy, blue-colored cotton fabric. The term “blue” refers to the color, while “jeans” refers to both the material and the style of the garment.
The origins of the names
The fabric used to make jeans is known as denim, which is characterized by its diagonal weave pattern. Originally, denim fabric was dyed with indigo dye, giving it the characteristic blue color. This color came from the fact that indigo was one of the natural dyes traditionally used for fabric dyeing.
So, the association between the blue color of denim fabric and the term “jeans” led to the name “blue jeans.”
The word “jeans” has French origins and may derive from the term “bleu de Gênes,” meaning “blue of Genoa,” referring to the city of Genoa in Italy, where denim fabric is believed to have been originally produced.
The history of how denim and blue jeans made their way from the city of Genoa, Italy, to California, USA, is a story of migration, trade, and innovation.
Origin of denim fabric and the name Blue Jeans in Genoa
Denim fabric, the material used to make blue jeans, has ancient roots and comes from the French term “serge de Nîmes,” which refers to the city of Nîmes.
“Serge” is a term that describes a kind of fabric, often made of wool or cotton, with a distinct diagonal weave pattern visible when closely examining the fabric. The main characteristic of serge fabric is its diagonal weave, which makes it strong and durable. This type of fabric has historically been used for various clothing items and accessories, including pants, jackets, dresses, and coats.
The term “serge” has ancient origins and has been used to describe fabrics of different qualities and compositions. In the context of “serge de Nîmes,” which contributed to the term “denim” by merging the last two words “de Nîmes,” it refers to a rugged and sturdy type of fabric that was produced and worked in the city of Nîmes, France, over the centuries.
In summary, “serge” is a term used to denote a type of fabric characterized by a diagonal weave and exceptional durability.
The city of Nîmes in France has historically been associated with the production of this rugged fabric. However, weaving and dyeing techniques that led to the creation of denim were already present in various parts of the world, including the Middle East.
This type of fabric was popular in Europe long before the advent of denim as we know it today. Nevertheless, similar weaving and dyeing techniques to those of denim were also found in other parts of the world, including the Middle East and Asia.
Would you like to have a pair of blue jeans like the ones from the past?
Spirit of St. Louis reproduces garments based on the design of original American models from the late 19th century to the 1950s. Handcrafted by Italian tailors from our region, we capture the workwear style of the era we’ve been telling you about.
The journey to America
In the 17th century, during the age of exploration and colonization, denim fabric made its way to North America through transatlantic trade. It is believed that some types of fabrics similar to denim were also present in the early European settlements in the American colonies.
The evolution into Blue Jeans
The transition from denim fabric to the widespread use of blue jeans in the United States began primarily during the California Gold Rush in the 1840s-1850s. As we’ve seen, Levi Strauss started supplying sturdy cotton fabrics to miners and manual laborers in the region during the Gold Rush period.
But what does Genoa have to do with it?
The significance of Genoa
Genoa, in the collective imagination, is associated with the production of durable and high-quality fabrics, although it’s important to note that the evolution of denim and blue jeans was influenced by many different sources and places over time.
Genoa played a role in the production of fabrics similar to denim and in the development of weaving and dyeing techniques, but it’s not the only place involved.
The connection to Genoa lies in fabric production and trade. Genoa was a significant center of maritime trade and commerce in medieval and Renaissance Europe.
The true history of Blue Jeans at the crossroads of European trade
Fabrics from various parts of the world were bought and traded in Genoa. In particular, sturdy and durable cotton fabrics from the Middle East and Asia might have been present in the Genoese market.
When these fabrics reached Nîmes, France, they were processed and improved upon. Over time, the fabric called “serge de Nîmes” developed, known for its strength and durability. This is where the term “denim” originates.
The history of how the term “jeans” came into use is a bit more nuanced, but it is believed to be derived from the French word “gens,” meaning “people,” as pants made from this fabric were often worn by laborers and common people.
In summary, the association with France in the name of denim fabric (serge de Nîmes) may stem from the refinement and processing of raw fabrics that arrived in Nîmes from various places, including Genoa. So, while the fabric’s origin may be linked to various parts of the world, the terms “denim” and later “jeans” developed through a series of cultural and commercial influences.
Why is indigo used as the color?
Another piece of the puzzle to complete the story of blue jeans is why the color indigo is used.
Few people know that the origin of the indigo color is in Japan, with a millennial tradition.
We talked about it in this article that describes Cinquetasche; our 1950s blue jeans.
The cult of indigo color began around the 10th century in Tokushima, on the southern island of Shikoku, where it is still largely produced today. Over time, indigo color would become ingrained in Japanese culture and a recurring color in art, from painting to ceramics to textiles.
It is extracted from the dried leaves of the indigo plant. After harvesting, these leaves are soaked for three or four months in water, then mixed with ash.
But why just indigo?
The use of indigo color in dyeing textiles, including denim fabric used for blue jeans, has historical and practical roots that date back to many different cultures and times. Here are some key reasons why indigo color was used:
Availability of natural pigments
Indigo is a natural dye obtained from certain plants, particularly the indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria), and other plant sources. This pigment was relatively abundant in some regions and could be extracted and used for dyeing fabrics.
Resistance to light and washing
One of the advantages of indigo as a dye was its resistance to deterioration caused by sunlight and washing. This made indigo-dyed fabrics more durable and suitable for clothing that would undergo heavy use.
Tradition and symbolism
In many cultures, indigo was associated with symbolic meanings. For example, in some parts of Asia, such as India, indigo was considered a sacred color and was often used for traditional textiles. In other cultures, indigo color was associated with nobility, power, or social status.
indigo had the ability to penetrate deep into textile fibers, contributing to color stability over time. This feature was particularly advantageous for fabrics that needed to withstand daily wear and frequent washing, such as jeans.
Indigo color gave fabrics a unique and distinctive appearance. Indigo-dyed jeans had a characteristic blue hue that enriched and changed over time with use and washing. This contributed to creating a recognizable and desirable aesthetic for blue jeans.
In summary, the use of indigo color in dyeing textiles, including denim for blue jeans, was driven by the availability of natural pigments, the color’s resistant and stable properties, and its cultural and symbolic significance. Indigo became a distinctive element of blue jeans and contributed to defining their appearance and durability over time.
Think about it; even today, the city of Tokushima remains the nerve center of the production of this color, which numerous dyers use for their fabrics, especially denim. They prefer to concentrate along the banks of the Shinmachi River that runs through the city center.
How Blue Jeans are dyed in the rest of the world
Unfortunately, most of the time, in the rest of the world, the indigo color is created chemically, causing significant environmental damage and ranking denim treatments at the top of the list of causes of water pollution.
In fact, the chemically created color is composed of a combination of benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrocyanic acid, which are not known for their health benefits.
This is why Spirit of St. Louis produces using only Japanese denim dyed with natural indigo. This is to provide an extra guarantee of quality and environmental sustainability!
Who was the first to think of indigo?
The first to use indigo color on jeans (a garment invented in 1871 by Jacob Davis) was Levi Strauss (who patented it along with Davis in 1873). Strauss took advantage of the massive migration, due to the gold rush in California, to open a shop in 1853 selling items, tools, and utensils needed by workers.
Once he noticed that these workers were often in need of durable workwear, he decided to produce garments of the type invented by Jacob Davis and chose to dye them with this very faded color.
Rediscover the original Blue Jeans
At this point, all that’s left for you is to discover what true blue jeans, steeped in a long tradition, are all about. We prefer to leave it to the skilled hands of Italian tailors who help us produce the highest quality pants.
To do this, we have chosen a fine Japanese denim (16 oz.) dyed in the traditional way: with real natural indigo.
Discover Iceman, the blue jeans from the late 1800s and early 1900s; rich in details and as robust as they used to be.
If you’re fascinated by the 1950s, we recommend our Cinquetasche. It’s an authentic reproduction of the American legend.
Did you know the true story of blue jeans
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Would you like to have a pair of blue jeans like the ones from the past?
Spirit of St. Louis reproduces garments based on the designs of original American models from the late 19th century to the 1950s, adapted to today’s style preferences. They are handcrafted using the traditional Italian method by local Italian tailors.