Denim The History of an American Icon cover

Denim: The History of an American Icon

Published On: May 16, 2023

Last month we offered up a discussion about Denim Washes and Techniques. We hope you enjoyed it and learned some useful tips and tricks you can use for your brand.

That conversation got us thinking and, out of the blue, something interesting occurred to us.  There is no single fabric that has had more of an impact on the fashion industry than denim. From its very humble beginnings it hit the market strong and has only gained momentum since.

Better still, this is a market that shows absolutely no sign of fading anytime soon. The global denim jeans market is forecast to be worth around $76.1 billion U.S. dollars by 2026, up from $64.5 billion U.S. dollars in 2022.

We hope our lighthearted look at the history of denim inspires you to try your hand with this well-loved and storied fabric.

Leave it to the French and the Italians

When it comes to all things fashionable, we must always tip our hats to the French and the Italians. Whether intentionally – or inadvertently, as in the case of denim – they always manage to be at the forefront. Even if, in this case, the forefront was in the late 17th century.

At that time, weavers in Nimes, France, made the first modern denim – completely by accident – while trying to replicate the process of producing another popular heavy duty fabric called “serge”. The new coarse, sturdy, cotton fabric was called “serge de Nimes”.

This new cotton fabric quickly became popular with the working class in France and England. And for good reason. It was practically indestructible and stood up to numerous wears and washings. As the fabric became more and more popular, English and French merchants shortened the name ”serge de Nimes” to “denim.”

Simultaneously, Italian textile workers in Genoa had been producing a fabric made with indigo dyed wool and cotton. Visually, it was somewhat similar to the French denim fabric, and it too was often used by members of the working class. Sailors, in particular, were partial to the warmth (thanks to the wool blend) and durability of the new Italian fabric.

They made all manner of clothing from this durable indigo/white fabric – from trousers, to overcoats, to long dresses – and they called all of these clothing items “blue jeans.” The term “jean” is a shortened term for Genoa.

So, technically speaking, at that time, jean (Italian) with its warm wool blend and denim (French) made from 100% cotton were two distinctly different fabrics.

Levi Strauss Hits the Mother Lode

Mr. Strauss and his brand is a pretty well-known American success story. No discussion of denim is complete without touching on it. And maybe we can clarify a few misconceptions while we’re at it.

For background context, in early- to mid-19th century America, the wool blend jean fabric (developed in Genoa, Italy) was already being used for trousers and overcoats. Typically it was dyed a solid color, usually indigo blue, olive, or brown.

On the other hand, denim fabric (developed in France), spun from both white and indigo cotton yarns, was also used in America to create durable workwear for mechanics, cowboys, and farmers. In other words, tough jobs that called for tough fabric.

So the popular myth that Levis Strauss (born 1829) was the first to use denim fabric in the US is actually not true. He did, however, identify a unique niche for the study fabric and found a very innovative way to capitalize on the market.

At the age of 18, Strauss emigrated to the US from Bavaria and began working with his brothers, selling wholesale dry goods in NYC. Being an enterprising young man, he quickly decided to head west to San Francisco to cash in on the California gold rush.

He was not alone. San Francisco, and the Sierra Nevada mountains due east, were teeming with thousands of miners all hoping to strike gold. In fact, more than 300,000 people came to the territory during the Gold Rush.

But Strauss had no interest in mining gold. He had a better idea. Levi realized that this growing market of miners needed pants that could withstand weeks and months of daily wear, without shredding to rags. So he went to work creating trousers from thick denim. The stitching was heavy duty. The durable fabric protected the wearer from scrapes and cuts.

By identifying and answering the needs of a potential consumer, at the young age of 20, Levi Strauss created an overnight sensation! Every miner from Sutter’s Mill to Death Valley was wearing Levi’s “waist overalls”.

But Levi was not one to rest on his laurels and there was even more innovation to come. After two decades of building quite the prosperous business, Strauss partnered with Jacob Davis, a tailor, to secure a patent for the construction of a denim workwear pant that was riveted around the pocket seams; the one place where Strauss’ original pants, though relatively sturdy, often ripped. In 1873, the U.S. Patent office granted their patent application, and the modern American denim jean (with rivets) was born.

Fun Fact: If you’re interested in celebrating, the Levi Company considers May 20, 1873 the birthday of blue jeans.

The lesson to be learned here for any entrepreneurial-minded designer? Identify a market niche and give them even more than they ever knew they wanted. Case in point: When Levi Strauss died on September 26, 1902 at the age of 73, his estate was worth about $6 million (equivalent to $149,200,000 in today’s dollars). That’s a lot of gold nuggets.

Hello, Hollywood

The pants that we currently know as “blue jeans” didn’t receive this moniker until the 1950’s. Prior to that, they were a durable workwear item simply called “waist overalls,” and were worn almost exclusively by farmers, ranchers, blue collar workers, and sometimes, by children.

Then, along came Hollywood.

Celebrities such as James Dean in his Lee Jeans (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), Marlon Brando wearing 501 Levi’s (The Wild One, 1953), and Marilyn Monroe, also in Levi jeans fashionably topped with a Lee Storm Rider jacket (The Misfits, 1961), all deserve no small amount of credit for the rise of denim jeans as an important, uniquely American, fashion statement.

Teens at that time were obsessed with the silver screen. Hollywood quickly and easily convinced most of the baby boomer generation that denim was what you wore if you were a badass.

In the Sixties, the beatniks, and then the hippies, continued wearing jeans, and rebelliousness became the dominant theme of youth culture. This pervasive attitude fueled the counterculture, who adopted the uniform of blue jeans as a not-so-subtle way to “stick it to the man.”

Even as late as the 1970’s, jeans were seen as a subversive protest against traditional authority and codes of behavior. Ironically though, what started as rebellion, became a popular, socially acceptable staple of the American wardrobe by the 1980’s.

Basically, we wear jeans today because, with no small thanks to Hollywood, our parents and grandparents decided they were pretty cool.

The Future of Denim

As we mentioned earlier, the future of denim is as bright as ever. Designers are innovating everyday using this sturdy, reliable, not to mention, iconic,  fabric. And with new washes, distressing techniques and advances in sustainability, denim is posed to be bigger than even Mr. Strauss could’ve ever dreamed of.

We hope you enjoyed  this abridged history of everyone’s favorite fabric. If you’re inspired to try your hand at denim, we’d love to help you get started. Feel free to reach out to us at or give us a call at 800-916-0910.



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