A History Of Blue Jeans: From Miners' Wear to American Classic

Jeans had humble beginnings as tough work clothes, but their evolution and popularization over the years have made them an enduring part of the American image.


| July/August 1990


Samoans have lavalavas. Greeks have pom-poms on their shoes. Japanese have kimonos. Austrians have those Chico Marx hats but with deer fir pins. Out of our melting pot and our push west came the clothes that are a part of the American image: a pair of jeans. And the history of blue jeans is a quintessentially American story, with working-class origins, entrepreneurialist spirit, and an egalitarian attitude towards fashion.

If you could take the hand of an angel and fly back to your own best day, it is doubtful that you would be wearing a three-piece suit. No, I don't mean your wedding day, but the day you felt yourself most comfortable and full of purpose. Chances are, you would have been wearing a pair of jeans. Blue jeans, Levi's, dungarees, denims: cotton work trousers of heavy blue drill that gain comfort and character with age.

Downstairs, I have a drawerful of old jeans that I can't bear to throw out. Jeans live with you so intimately that they take on a life of their own. Haven't you ever reached for a pair of gabardines with the intention of attending a meeting, when a pair of jeans, hanging in the closet with a ranger belt already looped through, stopped you: Whoa, pilgrim. Look out that window. That's some day, right? Hang those clerking pants back up and let's get out of here. 

Founding Fathers of Jeans History: Levi Strauss and Henry David Lee

In 1853, a Bavarian immigrant named Levi Strauss, an astute merchant in San Francisco, responded to the gold-rush need for tough miner's clothes. He had his stock of brown cotton tent canvas run up as plain trousers, no belt loops and no back pockets. A cinch belt in the back kept them up. Scrabbling among too many rocks and too little gold, crawling along shafts, wrestling timber supports and balky dray mules, Strauss's "overalls" lasted. They were cheap and they felt good.

Strauss switched to denim (from serge de Nimes, a twill made in southern France) and had it dyed in reliable, uniform indigo. By the 1860s, Levi Strauss's blue pants were daily wear for miners and farmers and cattlemen throughout the West. In 1873 he bought, for $69—the price of the patent application — an idea from a Russian immigrant tailor in Reno for making miner's pants stronger by riveting the critical seams. They were nicknamed jeans after the city of Genoa, where sailors wore blue cotton canvas.

By 1880 the Levi was full-blown, with orange stitching (including the trademark "arcuate" design across the back pockets, once the functional anchor for pocket lining), bar tacking, rivets, watch pocket and the "Two Horse" leather patch. Lot numbers are assigned to products and, for the 01-weight denim used, the "waist-high overalls" are called 501s. It's true; more so than most of the thin ghosts we call up for our heritage, Levi's are rooted in the real stuff.





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