Day 501: The Origin Story Of Jeans

originally published May 15, 2013

When Jacob Davis wandered into the Levi Strauss & Co. wholesale dry goods company in San Francisco to buy some cloth, he had no idea he was going to change the world. Or maybe he did. People always ascribe an automatic naivety to the great inventors, as though everything had to be a happy accident.

Forget it – in my version of history, Jacob Davis walked into Levi Strauss’s wholesale store with a swagger, swinging his manhood in his hand like a pocketwatch. He’d had a dream the night before – he’d witnessed the future: greasers, stoners, cowboys, punks, hicks, and everyday everymen. And he saw the pale blue copper-speckled cloth that boldly enveloped their junk.

He saw jeans. And he knew Levi would be the guy who could hook him up with the materials he’d need to make it all happen.

Jacob Davis had been making a good living as a tailor, snipping, sewing and stitching without trying to reinvent the clothes he was tweaking to fit the Reno populace. Then one day in 1871, some woman whose name is lost to history wandered into Jacob’s shop and asked for a pair of pants that would hold up to the rigors of her husband’s work as a woodcutter. Jacob stitched together something out of heavy-duty duck cloth (which is not actually made from ducks – hey, I had to check), and reinforced the potential weak spots with copper rivets.

Jacob decided that what he made was not only functionally perfect, but it was also surprisingly bitching, or whatever word was used in the ‘bitching’ context back in the 1870’s. “Bully” maybe. He knew these things would sell like hotcakes (or, again, like whatever sold really well in the 1870’s; I don’t know if people really lined up for hotcakes back then the way they do now). But he needed a connection, a guy on the inside.

A guy with a crap-ton of material. Like maybe that guy out in San Francisco who sold him all his stuff.

When Levi Strauss wasn’t busy narrowly losing Abraham Lincoln Look-Alike contests, he was running his dry goods store, selling bay-area folks stuff like purses, combs, bedding, and a number of other non-wet things. Jacob paired up with Levi, filing the patent for rivet-reinforced pants together. The duck cloth was fine, but it wasn’t funky. Levi knew his fabrics, and he picked denim as the perfect material for this new crotch-hugging piece of indispensable clothing.

Denim is actually named for where it came. The idea of passing the weft under two or more warp threads (I have no idea what this means – just go with it) originated in the 1700’s in a place called Nimes, France. This is the slab of land where Julius Caesar’s Nile-weary soldiers were given a plot to call their own once their 15-year tour of duty was up. Nimes has a history that dates back to around 4000BC, maybe even further. But it was this little experiment in textiles that put them on the map. “De Nimes”, meaning “from Nimes” was shortened to ‘Denim’, and the rest was history.

Actually, that happened a long time ago, so I guess that was history too. Kind of a stupid saying, really.

Anyway, enough about Nimes.

It was the indigo-dyed denim fabric that Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss decided would be perfect for their product. The pants were a big hit with laborers, and with the Industrial Revolution exploding like soot-covered glitter all over the western world, laborers were a great demographic to capture. Men’s pants zipped up in the front, women’s on the right side. An odd choice, since arguably men are the ones with the dangerous zipper-catching body parts up front, but that was how it was to be.

Jeans actually originated in Genoa, Italy. They didn’t have the distinctive rivets though, and actually the material was more like corduroy than the jeans we know. But the name ‘Jeans’ (derived from the cotton fabric ‘jeane’ that the Genoans used to use) was not what Levi and Jacob wanted as their flagship product. The early Levi Strauss product was loose-fitting, and resembled a pair of bib overalls, but without the full-frontal bib. So Levi called the things ‘Waist Overalls’.

It was James Dean who helped to make jeans cool, more than 80 years after Levi and Jacob had spanked the first copper snap into a swatch of denim. In the 1950’s, jeans were seen in some circles as a symbol of youthful rebellion and something to be feared. They were banned in a smattering of restaurants, theatres and schools. Because those kids, dammit, they’d behave and follow all the rules if only they weren’t wearing those infernal blue pants!

There were some stupid people back in the 50’s.

By the 1960’s, jeans were more a symbol of ‘youth’, rather than ‘dangerous, obstinate youth who are probably just looking for something to light on fire.’ By the 70’s, they were as mainstream as floral-print shirt lapels that jutted out past the shoulder.

A store called Limbo in New York’s East Village gets credit for being the first establishment to wash the everloving hell out their jeans in order to sell them looking worn and broken in. This was in 1965. From that point, people started doing some funky stuff to jeans before putting them out on the rack.

Here’s a piece of trivia I didn’t know. Donald Freeland of my hometown, Edmonton, Alberta, was the first guy to use big rocks to rough up the fabric on its way to becoming jeans. Stone-washed jeans were first marketed by GWG in the early 80’s, and they became a mainstay of that horrible grotesque parade known as 1980’s fashion.

Pre-treating the denim with acryl resin, hypochloride, potassium permanganate and caustic soda creates the ‘acid wash’ look. More often than not, jeans that are pre-treated to look ‘worn in’ do a lot more environmental damage than those you can buy looking new. And make no mistake, these things have an ecological footprint: the average pair of jeans uses 919 gallons of water, from pre-treatment to regular washings, throughout its life.

If you think you’re going green with jeans that have been sand-blasted to look worn in when you buy them, you’d be wrong. Sure, you might be saving a stream and some fishies, but factory workers are in danger of contracting silicosis from the process. This has stricken more than 5000 Turkish workers so far, and killed at least 46. So yeah, you should still feel guilty.

I feel hypocritical picking on jeans. Sure, they might be somewhat of an elbow to the environment’s midsection, but they’re the only pants that pop up in my regular rotation. They were a symbol of western freedom and even acted as currency in the old USSR. Plus, they’re comfortable, and they’ll come in tremendously handy if I ever feel the need to become a woodcutter. Gotta love that versatility.

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