Denim Revolution

From working men to timeless trend.

The first pair of riveted, patented Levi Strauss jeans were created in 1873. They were created exclusively for men until the mid to late 1970s when they finally began producing jeans for women. Before then, it was seen as rebellious and inappropriate for women to wear denim trousers. According to our very own Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at FIT, “In the 1950’s, there was a book called Wife Dressing by Anne Fogarty. … She says, once women get married, their clothes should express their husband’s position. They should always wear a girdle, and they should not wear blue jeans, even around the house, because it’s seen as being too casual, too much of a teenage, youth style.”

In the past, society has always associated jeans with masculinity and the “working man.” After all, jeans were invented in the time of the California Gold Rush when durable work pants became a necessity. People often correlated jeans with miners, cowboys, the “Marlboro Man,” farmers, factory workers, and bikers. Now it was time for women to enter the mix. The Marilyn Monroe films Clash By Night in 1952, River of No Return in 1954, and the The Misfits in 1961 all had a unanimous shock value to them: the feminine, glamorous, sex symbol of America, wearing denim. The jeans she wore in each of these films were actually re-cut from pairs of men’s work jeans.

At this time in American history, jeans began to be viewed as a form of “cultural mutiny.” After having seen denim strutted by the likes of Marlon Brando in the film The Wild One and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, straight and narrow parents began forbidding their children from wearing jeans; a few schools actually banned denim from being worn within the classroom environment. Levi’s responded to the controversy with ads that proclaimed, “Right for School.” By the times these advertisements took off, the age of the hippie began.

The hippies washed, beat, patched, studded, and embroidered their denim. Individuality was key in expressing their style. Youth at the time gained even more access to this “blue gold” after Don Fisher opened The Gap and Tommy Hilfiger opened his first store, a head shop called People’s Place. Jeans were worn by college students all across America—both young men and women.

Giorgio Armani once said, “Jeans represent democracy in fashion.” They have been donned by the miners of the Gold Rush, rocked by the rebellious American youth of the 1950s, individualized by the hippies of the 1960s, and proudly worn by the strong women seeking equality in the 1970s. Denim blue jeans have always been a pivotal American staple. Some might even call them the single most important American contribution to worldwide fashion. Jeans are worn by those of all different walks of life, always have been, always will be.

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