The History of Denim

If you’re wearing denim, turn the cuff over to see what it looks like on the inside. Are the cotton threads white? According to denim purists, this is a sign that the denim you’re wearing is true denim — that the way the woven fabric was dyed, either with rope or long-chain dyeing, created this classic denim look. The blue dye doesn’t seep all the way through the threads, which is why, over time, your jeans get that faded appearance, and why the underside of the heavy textile remains white.

Denim, as a textile, has evolved enormously over its long history. Its use as a durable workwear for laborers in the mid-1800s has metamorphized to include an array of colors and garment styles, as well as the introduction of other textiles that made it more flexible. But the way we think and feel about denim also has changed considerably.

A Hazy Beginning

Some of the very early history of denim is pretty foggy. It’s been published that France originally crafted the textile, and that it gets its name from de Nimes (meaning “of Nimes,” a city in the South of France), but Emma McClendon, author of Denim: Fashion’s Frontier, suggests that denim most likely originated in Britain, mainly because England was at the forefront of developing strong textiles, “and likely the British gave the fabric a French-sounding name, to give it a certain je ne sais quoi on the market,” she said during an interview on the podcast Dressed.

Denim as Workwear

Denim’s popularity in the U.S. comes into focus in the 19th century, when it was recognized as the preferred textile for workwear and was worn by Gold Rush prospectors, miners, Chinese laborers building the transcontinental railroad, and enslaved people. Levi Strauss & Co. is credited with the birth of the blue jean, having patented the first riveted “waist overall” in 1873 that made the pants stronger “at points of strain, like the pocket corners and base of the button fly,” according to the company.

A Shift in Association

In the mid-20th century, prior to World War II, an exhibit created by the Fashion Institute of Technology points to the emergence of two new cultural associations with denim: “Western wear” and “play clothes.” This period is where denim gets its romanticized view as an icon of Americana. On the silver screen, gunslinging cowboys like John Wayne wore denim. Jeans also became a consumer favorite for casual wear during weekends and vacations. By the 1950s, denim became associated with the “bad boy.” Polite society was disturbed by its growing association with biker gangs and teen turmoil, so much so that in 1955, several denim mills and manufacturers organized to create The Denim Council, hoping to redirect its reputation. Some school districts even banned students from wearing jeans.

The Counterculture Movement

What might be considered the most ubiquitous form of clothing became a political statement for hippies during the ’60s. Many wore it in solidarity with the working class, purging denim from thrift stores as a declaration against “the material-driven consumer culture of postwar America,” according to FIT. Designers began riffing off of the ragged counterculture aesthetic with productions of worn-looking clothes and shoes. The same can be said for the hip-hop movement of the ’90s. Sagged jeans made by Tommy Hilfiger were worn by artists including Snoop Dogg and Wu-Tang Clan, and the style became associated with prison and gang culture.

A Fixture of Fashion

While there were glimmers of designers, such as Elsa Schiaparelli, making higher-end denim ensembles, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that denim truly sprung onto runways as a luxury item. In 1999, Gucci debuted a pair of $3,000 feathered jeans. During this same period, Japanese denim brands garnered international attention for their old-school techniques and the reintroduction of selvedge denim. In his book Ametora, W. David Marx wrote, “The country does set a global standard for luxurious fabrics, high-quality sewing, innovative production techniques, and ingenuous treatments.” Japan, which once tried to replicate America’s western-style denim, was catapulted to the forefront of denim quality.


Today, denim is among the most universally loved textiles. It’s been reported that, on any given day, more than half the global population is wearing jeans.

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is an assistant editor at 425 magazine. Email her.
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