From Brando to Britney | How Denim Became Iconic (and Where it Went Wrong)

The fascinating, tumultuous history of a fashion classic

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Nov 9 2018, 5:29pm

How does a piece of clothing become an icon? In this new series, The Threads of Time, we dig deeper into the surprising stories behind sartorial staples.

What links the following: James Dean, Tony Blair before his blood-soaked misadventures in Iraq, and a pre-meltdown Britney Spears? No, it’s not the fact that all three were ultimately doomed, or even that the disasters that befell them were depressingly inevitable (although both are undoubtedly true). The answer we were looking for is that all three were famously fans of denim.

Denim, usually in the form of the humble pair of jeans, is arguably the world’s most popular fabric. Over the years, it’s been worn by everyone from supermodels to soccer moms. Yet despite this ubiquity, denim somehow still carries certain set of counter-cultural connotations. “Everyone owns a pair of jeans, yet they’ve somehow maintained that degree of authenticity,” explains Emmanuelle Dirix, a lecturer in fashion history at Central Saint Martins. Wearing jeans means something, in a way that ordinary trousers don’t.

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Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake serve up a "memorable" red carpet moment at the 2001 American Music Awards. Photo: Frank Trapper / Alamy

James Dean’s costume department in Rebel Without a Cause, for example, used denim to mark out their leading man as a smouldering icon of youthful rebellion; Britney used it to remind herself who her date was at the 2001 American Music Awards; and Tony “I’m a pretty straight sort of guy” Blair wore denim in an ill-advised attempt to show that he was indeed “a pretty straight sort of guy”. (Either that, or it was yet another tragic attempt to ape his buddy Dubya.)

But if denim today is seen as symbolising youthfulness (or at least a casual lack of stuffiness), that hasn’t always been the case. And the story of how it entered youth culture, and became a shorthand for all that, is an interesting one.

"Facing brutal persecution, many of Nîmes’ Huguenot weavers simply upped sticks and left"

Before there were jeans, there were dungaris. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word we now spell as “dungarees” entered the language in the late-17th Century, and referred to the thick work overalls worn by Portuguese sailors. Usually dyed indigo blue, these were made of a thick fabric known as dongari kapar, after the area of Mumbai where it was sold.

Denim, however, was developed somewhere different. “Nîmes always had a textile industry, since Roman times,” says Guillaume Sagot, over the phone from the small French town. “From the 17th to the 19th Centuries, people worked making cloth,” and their tough, indigo blue fabric - known as toile de Nîmes, later Americanised as “denim” - put the town on the map.

As the founder of Ateliers de Nîmes, Guillaume has spent the past four years looking to revive the sector in his hometown, making denim jeans “de Nîmes” again. In the process, he’s become something of an expert on the fabric and its origins. “Back then, a lot of Protestant Huguenots lived in the region,” he explains. They were the master cloth makers, working mostly as individual traders in small, family-run workshops.”

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Ateliers de Nîmes make classic jeans in the town itself, bringing the item back to its origins. Photo: Courtesy of Ateliers de Nîmes

“When there were the religious wars in the 17th & 18th Centuries a lot of them left and went abroad,” says Guillaume. Facing often brutal persecution (including a process called dragonnades, in which government troops were stationed with Protestant families and actively encouraged to abuse them), many of Nîmes’ Huguenots simply upped sticks and left. “They went to Italy or they went to England, or to the US. They had the knowledge to work with cloth, and took that with them. So the last remnants of the textile industry in Nîmes shut at the end of the 19th Century.”

In the course of researching his town’s history however, Guillaume has found some interesting relics. “We’ve found documents; we found an order book of export orders. I also found documents saying the denim used in the first pair of Levi's came from the town of Nîmes.” Because, of course, it wasn’t until a German arrived in San Francisco in the middle of the gold rush and decided to make trousers from denim that the fabric really took off.

Guillaume takes up the tale: “Levi Strauss was an ironmonger - so he sold nails, rivets, that sort of thing. He had canvas, but it was the canvas that you'd use on wagons or tents. He arrived in the States, in New York, and from there, he travelled to San Francisco. He managed to sell a lot of nails, rivets, and work tools on the way, but when he arrived in San Francisco, he had a lot of canvas left over. He said to himself ‘right, I'm going to make trousers’. So he made it with the wagon fabric.”

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Levi Strauss (left) and Jacob Davis (right), who patented riveted jeans together in 1873. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

These first few prototypes were beige or brown, instead of the distinctive blue. But Strauss quickly found he’d run out of material, and the wagon canvas was far from ideal for trousers. “It was very thick, and it wasn't comfortable to wear,” says Guillaume. Stumbling across a stock of denim, Strauss quickly saw its potential. And then, in 1873, he and a fellow tailor, Jacob W. Davis, patented the idea of reinforcing the pockets with rivets, so prospectors could put tools or gold ore in them without them ripping.

The story goes that Davis came up with the idea, but didn’t have the money to apply for the patent, so wrote to Strauss asking for help. "The secratt of them Pents is the Rivits that I put in those Pockots. I cannot make them up fast enough… My nabors are getting yealouse of these success."

"'The secratt of them Pents is the Rivits that I put in those Pockots,' wrote Davis to Strauss"

His spelling might have been off, but you couldn’t fault the idea. The pants the two of them made began flying off the shelves. But while the jeans they were making in 1873 would be instantly recognisable to Levi’s fans today, they had none of the cultural caché.

In fact, for the first 50 or 60 years of their existence, the idea that jeans might one day become fashionable was laughable. These were work pants, pure and simple, and all about function over form.

“Denim wasn’t considered a high-quality fabric,” says Guillaume. Even the name “jeans”, a bastardisation of the French Gênes , meaning Genoa, hinted at their workaday origins: Genoa had been a major port, and gênes was a term the French used for the sailors’ indigo workwear, known in English as dungaris.

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Tom Mix was one of the 1920s Hollywood stars who rocked jeans in Westerns. Photo: Flickr

Things began to change in the 1920s, when Hollywood costume designers put the stars of Western movies in denim. But, for the most part, jeans were still seen as cowboy-themed fancy dress. It wasn’t until after World War II that young men and women began to sport these working pants as an act of deliberate rebellion against dress codes.

“All items that start off as workwear and then become fashion have to go through the stage of being adopted by a youth subculture,” explains Emmanuelle Dirix. “In the late 40s and early 1950s in America, you start getting biker gangs - what we'd later define as ‘rockers’ - wearing jeans purely as an aesthetic item.”

A defining moment for denim was its appearance in The Wild One, sported by a young Marlon Brando. “Not only is he wearing denim,” says Dirix, “it's fitted denim. And there are a lot of close up shots of his bottom in that film - which is a very nice bottom, it has to be said. But that’s where it gets that association with bad boy behaviour and ‘cool’.”

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Marlon Brando in The Wild One - the close-ups of his denim-clad posterior were a big moment for jeans' cultural significance. Photo: Alamy

The fact that jeans weren’t supposed to be worn in polite society made them the perfect thing to wear for the new youth of America. And according to Dirix, the moral outrage from the older generation was real. “Certain schools in the US banned kids from wearing denim, because it became so associated with delinquent behaviour. It's only really in the late 60s and early 70s where it shed that association.”

"Jeans were banned in East Germany until 1974, with rules forbidding kids from entering dance-halls if they were wearing 'riveted pants'"

If jeans were becoming more acceptable in the West, behind the Iron Curtain they were still seen as dangerous symbols of degenerate attitudes. They were associated not just with youthful rebellion, but with American, capitalist youthful rebellion (which of course was what made them alluring in the first place). Jeans were effectively banned in East Germany until 1974, with rules forbidding kids from entering dance-halls if they were wearing “riveted pants”.

These days of course, everyone wears denim. “My mum has a pair of jeans,” is how Dirix puts it. Yet somehow that aura of rebelliousness still clings to them. And while they’ve gone through many iterations in the post-war era - from the bell-bottoms of the 1970s, to the baggy gangster rap pants of the 1990s, to the skinny silhouette that’s dominated for the last 15 years - they’ve never really gone out of fashion. They've cropped up on catwalks in every decade since the Second World War, adorned album covers (from the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers to Springsteen's iconic Born in the USA - pictured above), and sold in their billions all around the world.

“They are a mainstay, a classic,” says Dirix. “The colours and styles might change, but denim will probably always be in fashion in some form.” It still doesn’t forgive Britney Spears’ matching American Music Awards outfit though. “That,” says Dirix, “was awful."