The riveting history of blue jeans
I still mourn the loss of two pairs of my favorite jeans. There was the one I tore, along with the legs in them, while I was climbing over a barbed wire fence. And there was the one that someone spilled bleach on. I’m not saying who but it was someone I’m married to.
You might think both pairs had fashion potential as distressed jeans, but these had gone way beyond distressed to distraught. So had I.
There are few things more gratifying than finding a pair of jeans that fit and few things sadder than having to part with a pair you love. I doubt I’m alone in that sentiment either. I read that a whopping 96 percent of Americans own blue jeans. And I thought we couldn’t agree on anything.
This fashion staple recently turned 150 years old. And if anything calls for celebration, it’s jeans. On May 20, 1873, businessman Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis were granted a patent to create work pants reinforced with metal rivets on blue denim “waist overalls.” The rivet idea was Davis’s. The cash was Strauss’s and the patent for “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings,” the innovation that gave birth to blue jeans as we know them, was granted to both men. Had Davis been a richer man we’d be wearing Jacob’s instead of Levi’s.
Technically the story of blue jeans began long before 1873. Heavy pants dyed with indigo were worn as far back as17th century India. Talk about vintage clothing. And in America, enslaved people were making and wearing them before goldminers and gunslingers did. It was the rivets that did it for Strauss and Davis—that and clever marketing. It makes me wonder what goldminers and gunslingers wore before they had blue jeans. Khakis?
Anyway, while this is all…uh…riveting, as far as I’m concerned the most important development in jeans history came in 1934. That’s when Levi Strauss & Co. introduced Lady Levi’s, the world’s first jeans made exclusively for women. The second most important was when manufacturers started making jeans with stretch denim.
The creation of women’s jeans was a big deal, considering that as late as the 1950s there were laws in some parts of the country making it illegal for women to wear pants at all, let alone jeans. Our foremothers had to choose between being arrested and getting their dresses caught in their bicycle spokes.
Defiant women still did it though and until 1934 they had to borrow jeans from the men in their lives when they wanted to risk arrest. Women could actually vote before they could legally wear pants, and you could say they voted for jeans. Today the average woman owns seven pairs, though apparently we only wear four of them—not all at once.
We do love our jeans and for good reason. They’re comfortable and versatile. You can wear them to roller skate or to work—depending on where you work. I doubt they have jeans day at Buckingham Palace or the White House. But I think they should.
They’re durable. We could wear the same pair for decades if styles didn’t change—and bodies. Also if we stayed away from barbed wire fences.
And they’re low maintenance. Barring a mishap with a plate of spaghetti, you can wear them many times before washing them. Some experts say as many as ten times or when they start to smell, whichever comes first. Then just turn them inside out and wash them in cold water. Don’t use bleach.
Dorothy Rosby is the author of Alexa’s a Spy and Other Things to Be Ticked off About, Humorous Essays on the Hassles of Our Time and other books. Contact her at www.dorothyrosby.com/contact.