Painted Bird Denim Edit

The evolution of Denim - the world’s most popular fabric

Imagine a life without denim.

A wardrobe staple for almost everyone, denim jeans and incarnations of denim have come a long way since emerging in the 1700s. No other clothing item has been worn for as long as the blue jean, from starting as practical work attire to becoming the most popular and desirable item in our wardrobes.

It is believed that denim was first invented in Genoa, Italy, as far back as the 1500s[1], and made for the Italian navy to wear while on duty. These Italian sailors of Genoa, were called Genes in Italian, which is said to be the origin of the word jeans. 

Although the Italians were the first to make it, the material itself came from a French city called Nimes. ‘De Nimes’, which means ‘from Nimes’ in English, gave the material its name.

But it was in America that the denim cult truly took off, when salesman Levi Strauss met a tailor called Jacob Davis. Together they would revolutionise the rough and tumble denim trousers worn by workmen of the late 1800s.  In 1873, Davis had been fielding complaints from miners about fabric tearing on their clothing, whilst labouring hard on the gold fields. Strauss provided financial support to patent Davis’ idea of adding metal rivets to the pockets and button fly of denim trousers, to make them more hard-wearing.

Metal rivets were a breakthrough in jeans and put Strauss’ ‘Levi’s’ denim on the map with an apparently indestructible pant. Different rivets, patterns, buttons and pockets have continued to influence ‘jeans fashion’ ever since. In 1936, Strauss added his signature red flag to the back pocket of his jeans, making them the first item of clothing to have a designer brand on the outside.

Also popular with cowboys and ranchers, in 1924, the Lee company (not to be confused with Lee Cooper) designed its jeans with deep U crotch in heavy denim, with rivets out of the way of the saddle.  Lee also made jeans for sailors and loggers to accommodate their specific work needs. In the 1926, their Cowboy jeans were the first to replace buttons with the zipper we know today. The “Hookless Fastener,” was also named a “Whizit” after the sound it makes.

Although not considered to be jeans as we know them today - the first pair for women, Levi’s ‘Freedom-All’ were released in 1918. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Levi’s introduced ‘Lady Levi’s’ - the first recognizable jeans made especially for the female form. Speaking of names, blue jeans were not officially called “jeans” until the late 1950s. Instead they were called “overalls” - not to be confused with what we call overalls today.

Levis for Women

Source -

However, in the 30s and 40s jeans were still considered work attire. The ladies’ style of the time was high-waisted, skimming the hips and with a straight cut leg. These jeans often had turned-up cuffs and practical front and back pockets, with a button fly. Some styles of overalls had been worn by women as work attire from around the time of WWI. The Second World War brought about changes in roles and circumstances to many women and saw an upsurge in denim overalls and dungarees being worn for practicality. After WW2, women continued to wear jeans for work and then at home.  A very loose fit with a rolled cuff was the signature style that lasted into the 1950s[2].

By the 50’s, new and varied versions of jeans emerged as the garment’s popularity spread - innovations included the zipper fly as east coasters were not familiar with the button up style.  Fun fact: Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha is the company which makes 90% of the world’s zippers for jeans. The initials YKK can often be found on the zippers. Check yours right now!

Other changes in men’s jeans were the replacement of button or snap on suspenders with belt loops. In the 1940s and 1950s, jeans slimmed down, lowered the rise, and overall lost their workwear status. Instead they became a fashionable symbol of rebellion for teens, emulating screen idols such as ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, James Dean. For women, the high waist, slim cut leg endured - a look that is just as current today.

1950's jeans

1950s slim cut women’s jeans. Source:

By the 1960s, women’s jeans still sat predominantly on the waist, but continued to get slimmer and tighter, in line with the fashion of pants and capris.

It was the 1970s that saw an explosion of new denim style - with the by-now ‘cult fabric’ reinventing itself in a whole new way. The shape itself changed- with bootcut and flares becoming the new norm. Flared jeans sat high on the natural waist, hugged through the hips and thighs, flaring out from below the knee into a large bell shape. Bell bottomed, highly decorated jeans with beading, hand-painted symbols and embroidery on them became a statement of non-conformity and a true expression of freedom. Flares were worn all day and swept the dance floors at night in the era of disco. Double denim started to get runs on the board, with jean jackets becoming standard ‘hippie wear’. Denim’s popularity expanded into skirts, vests, shoulder bags, boots and more.

The 1980s is the decade when designer denim was born - rock stars and celebrities wore denim and were used to market it - think Brooke Shields in her Calvin Kleins! Jeans of this era were high waisted, tapered, and pegged at the ankle. Overalls and acid-washed jeans came back full force, and new coloured denim hit the stores and featured in every person’s wardrobe!

By the 90s - music influenced fashion more than ever before, with hip-hop fuelling the popularity of baggy and pulled-low jeans. By this era, denim was most definitely mainstream, with Princess Diana the first royal to be seen wearing denim ‘on the job’.  New technology around stretch and comfort cemented the huge uptake of skinny jeans, which remain predominant today.

These days - when it comes to denim, pretty much anything goes. There is most definitely a modern movement towards sustainable jeans shopping as denim proves a timeless fabric that works for any lifestyle. The impact jeans have made on our lives is profound. Jeans have proven to be a consumer favourite, for well over one century - reinventing fashion with a style and shape for every body, in every country, from every walk of life.

Take a look at our timeless denim styles in-store!

1 comment

  • Michael

    Bring back the Colored Lee’s , especially the pinstriped

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