The denim guide part 1 – history

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If there ever was a type of clothing that never goes out of fashion, it has to be denim. The styles and looks change over time, but the fact is that the popularity of denim, or blue jeans, has been near constant for the better part of 60 years. The basic sturdy blue cotton fabric has shown quite amazing persistence and staying power.

Did I say basic? I should really have said something like amazingly complex and involved, with countless variations, secrets and an almost voodoo-like mystique surrounding it. Still talking blue jeans, yes, and keeping it real, squire, totally.

[Disclaimer: Denim is a very serious business, with serious guys having serious discussions about it in serious internet forums. I’m writing this guide based on my perspective on things and don’t lay claim to being 100% accurate on all arcane aspects of denimology.]

Would you like to learn more? Join me for a multi-part guide to denim, from a middle-aged guy’s perspective, starting with:

The history of denim

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Denim as a fabric is a cotton twill said to originate from the French town of Nimes back in the 1500’s, hence the name “de Nimes”. The origin of the word “jeans” is the French phrase “bleu de Genes”, literally meaning “the blue of Genoa”. Genoa was where the first denim trousers were made, though the “blue” part is a mystery, as explanations vary.

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So what makes denim different from other, less mysterious, cotton twills? Well, it comes down to the weft and warp threads, and their colours. The warp thread is the thread set up in the weave, and the weft is the thread that is woven. For denim, the weft will pass under two or more warp threads, which produces the familiar diagonal ribbed pattern of the fabric.

Also playing a part is that only the warp thread is dyed, using indigo to get the characteristic blue colour. The weft is left as plain white. The result of this is one side of the denim showing the blue warp threads and the inside the white weft threads, which then results in the fading characteristics that only denim has. And fade is very much part of the denim deal, but we’ll get back to that a little later.

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The white weft thread gives a white inside

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The blue warp thread gives the blue outside

The jeans we know and love today originate back to the 1870’s, when three of the big names in denim today, Wrangler, Lee and Levis emerged around the same time, all making denim overalls and dungarees of similar types. The style of the time were baggier bib overall types, later evolving into bib-less trouser styles.

Levis have been touted as “the original jeans”, much to the chagrin of Lee and Wrangler, though this is likely mainly due to Levis having the better handle on marketing, and also a better understanding the value of patents. Lee appear to have been around longer though, making similar styles, so they may in fact be the true originators.

The German émigré Levi Strauss partnered with tailor Jacob Davis to created solid work clothing, with an innovation in the form of reinforcing the points of stress with metal rivets. Interestingly, they received a US patent for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings” in 1873, for their work with rivets.

I’ve always been of the opinion that the rivets are more about style than having actual utility value, though I’ll accept that for real work wear rivets may hold more value than when used in a less harsh environment. That means that if you’re on all fours working a mine-shaft, yes, rivets may be useful. Not so much if you’re comfortably seated on your office chair working the phones, even if you’re really working hard.

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Though long popular in the form of loose-fitting work wear, it wasn’t until the 1950s that jeans became popular. And then through exposure in American pop culture as a symbol of protest against conformity. James Dean is often heralded as the poster boy of blue jeans after his film “Rebel without a cause”. Much like how the punks causing fits of consternation among the elders with their attire in the late 70’s, wearing denim was unacceptable to society at large.

Strange to think that something that today is acceptable almost everyone could be seen as such a shocking garment only 60 or so years ago, right? Is there any equivalent item of clothing today that would cause such a reaction? Heck, even the vile UGGS won’t get you thrown off the bus (which is a shame, really).

As the denim trend grew during the 1960’s it became more acceptable, and by the 1970’s it was a bona fide fashion trend. The 1980’s brought the “designer” jeans and denim had made it to the catwalk. That’s a long way from being the sartorial equivalent of a bright orange Mohican and a safety-pin through your nose.

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Today denim is unavoidable, a staple of most wardrobes. Anyone reading this that doesn’t own a single pair of jeans may qualify for a prize.

And yet, more so than probably any other item of clothing, there is an incredible variety. There is almost literally a pair of jeans for everyone, regardless of what their style is, from hairy biker to willowy Parisian model girl, from solid work wear to the most cringingly bling style.

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Keep reading when I get into types of denim washes and cuts in my next post.

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