Sunday, March 29, 2009

American sportswear may well have begun with the invention of the DENIM JEAN and a resourceful tentmaker named Strauss...

The story goes that back in the 1850’s, a tent purveyor named Levi Strauss noticed how mining for gold in the California mountains wreaked havoc on the miners’ clothing. With the canvas he sold to these forty niners for tents and wagon covers, he fashioned work pants from the same rugged cloth. Rugged as they were, the work pants were less than ideal with regard to comfort. Intent on finding a way to merge comfort and functionalism, Strauss had his work pants sewn up with a more comfortable cotton twill fabric that was equally as rugged, a little known cloth from Nimes, France called denim (a corruption of the phrase "de Nimes").

A decade later, Strauss designed what would become the classic American jean, a design inspired by a Nevada prospector who insisted on carrying rocks in the pockets of his Strauss-built work pants. Unfortunately, the rocks would cause the seams at the pockets to tear. Seeing this, Strauss got the idea of placing copper rivets at all stress points through out the pant. It did the job. Soon, "Levi's" with the copper rivets, spread in popularity beyond the gold rushers, becoming a clothing staple on ranches and farms throughout America's heartland.

By the late Fifties, teenagers adopted "Levi's" denim jeans as a badge of identity, a form of rebellion against prevailing fashion. Two decades later, with designer labels firmly taking root in the American fashion landscape, jeans became the focus of every Seventh Avenue talent worth his tape measure. In fact, names that no one inside or outside of fashion circles ever heard of began surfacing on jeans labels and became instant icons: Sassoon, Jordache, Sergio Valente, were just a few of the new "designer" names on disco-inspired jeans successfully marketed to the masses. Indeed, so confident and wildly aggressive were the business minds behind Jordache that they spent millions on advertising, creating a demand at retail even before there was an actual jean.

Once made, Jordache jeans became instant classics of a sort, offering a tight-fitting sexiness for the disco and beyond that the big three jeans producers, Levi-Strauss, Lee and Wrangler, had yet to consider. The jean as sexy sportswear phenomena grew throughout the late Seventies and into the next decade, spawning the most unlikely names ever sewed onto a denim waistband, including the heiress turned designer Gloria Vanderbilt and New York Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson.

As the Eighties unfurled, these tight-fitting, disco oriented jeans faded as fast as mirrored ball discos. Power suits and American traditionalism returned and fostered a spiraling popularity in jeans. It was not until Ralph Lauren wore a pair of blue denim Levi's, rolled at the cuffs, with a tuxedo jacket to a fashion industry awards ceremony that jeans began to be viewed in another light: that of an offbeat icon of American fashion.

One of the most important, if unwitting, purveyors of basic blue jeans as classic fashion statement was Andy Warhol, whose wardrobe consisted solely of Levi's 501's and white cotton T-shirts, with a Brooks Brothers button-down and tweed jacket for dressier occasions. Ultimately, not only did the denim jean go on to live in fashion infamy as an American classic, it eventually became one the most important fashion exports of all time. And probably still is.

4 comments:

  1. I have heard from French friends and in-laws that it was the French who invented Denim. Can you elaborate on this myth?

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  2. You're right, Diego, denim fabric was created in Nimes, France more than two centuries ago. The word is a corruption of the phrase, "de Nimes."

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  3. Had to post regarding first riveted back pockets... It was a Nevada tailor and Levi customer, Jacob Davis, who started adding rivets to back pockets. There is a letter from Jacob Davis to Levi Strauss requesting help to pay for a patent for this rivet idea. Obviously, Levi was a sharp business man and took Jacob up on this proposal and ran with it...

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  4. Does this letter still exist or do you have a copy of it? I've not heard this story before and am duly skeptical as to its authenticity. Old Levi was more than a little inventive in his own right and I would not be surprised that others would lay claim to his ideas.

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