Jeans. An undeniable fashion staple and arguably one of the fashion essentials found in the closets of different spectrums of people in the world – women, kids, men, stylish, non-stylish, creatives, artists, models, athletes, professionals, career moms, college students, etc. Point is the possibility of meeting someone who doesn’t or has never owned a pair of jeans in their lifetime is rare and unheard. So much so, that a trip to any retail mall without the sight of someone somewhere wearing a pair of blue jeans would have you question if non-wearing denim-aliens have invaded us.

This wardrobe staple is seen across the globe and is now considered one of the most classic pieces of clothing everyone should own. However, where did blue jeans come from? How has denim risen to its current popularity in American fashion? This versatile fabric has found its way into every closet. Still, like the many staples of fashion, most wearers are unaware of the refreshingly intriguing history of denim, from its creation, first practical uses, and to how it became a (functional) fashion staple in everyone’s closet.

Photo by lan deng on Unsplash

The origin of denim is a complex one. Its credited creation depends entirely on where we decided to begin in its fashion history. In the 18th century, there were those in Nimes, Frances, who accidentally created variation denim as a response to replicating an Italian fabric called serge. However, the history of the true American blue jean began when Levi Strauss brought them to the U.S. in the late 19th century. Jacob Davis, a tailor in Nevada, was running into an issue with the pants he was stitching for miners to wear; the fabric was not strong enough to withstand their working environments. After creating riveted trousers, pants that were made with snap fixtures, and a duck cloth material, Davis enlisted the help of Strauss to take out a patent on them. Their manufactured trousers corporation skyrocketed, but it wasn’t until the release of Levi’s 501 styles in 1890 that denim jeans truly began.

A late 1800’s Levi advertisement.

Initially, blue jeans were worn by a particular type of people. From miners and workers to cowboys, blue jeans’ climb to the top of the fashion world was slow and steady. Over the decades, jeans were being more and more manufactured, created in a variety of cuts and silhouettes popular to its time. In 1936, Levi Strauss added his signature red flag to the back of his jeans, making it one of the first pieces of clothing to have a designer label. While jeans were traditionally worn for work, this marks the beginning of their integration into fashion. Also, in the 1930s, Vogue magazine featured denim jeans as a fashion look for the first time, thus further transitioning them away from only being a practical uniform.

Farmers wearing denim jeans in the 1930’s.

By the 1950s, jeans became an in-vogue fashion trend, popularized by younger generations as Hollywood utilized them to be symbols of rebellion and teen youth. Denim jeans began to embody the American spirit in fashion. The rise of jeans also coincided with the movement of women wearing pants, more specifically denim, by the mid-20th century. The 1960s were infamous for its spirited, free love movement, and jeans were essential to the fashion culture. American fashion culture embraced the blue jean as something of freedom that came with a trend of embellishing and personalizing jeans. Designers pushed the limits of how jeans were styled and what styles of jeans could be worn; we owe the variety of jeans to its history as cuffed ankles and bellbottoms soon came into play. By the 1970s, denim as a fabric was taking over the fashion world, with the popularization of denim skirts and tops. Denim jeans continued its claim to fame in the fashion world as brands in the 80s started labeling designer denim, such as Calvin Klein. The 1990s was where we saw the emergence of grunge popular culture, and the structured denim pant underwent a significant change with the introduction of baggy jeans. With the turn of the century, however, jeans once again went through a completely different phase: the ultra-low rise and the infamous skinny jean.

It is no doubt that the denim jean in American history is a complex one. American fashion in itself is a constant change, and the 20th century is an attest to that claim. Within that century alone, jeans became an incredibly versatile article of clothing. It was a perfect medium to use as a reflection on the culture at the time, and today, there is no single type of denim jean. With an abundance of styles to choose from, everyone can find a denim jean that matches well with their fashion style.

 

Long live denim!

In April of 2013, Bangladesh experienced a catastrophic loss. The Rana Plaza building, also known as the Dhaka garment factory, collapsed due to a structural failure. With over 1,000 total deaths and at least 2,500 injured, it became known as one of the largest industrial disasters in history. It did not take long until protests began. From Bangladesh to the Philippines, exploited workforces rushed to the streets to stand up against harsh working conditions. Oversees countries, especially in Asia and Africa, are known for having extensive populations subjected to working for the mass production of fashion. Precipitating the Dhaka garment factory collapse, two innovative women began a movement: Fashion Revolution. 

 

The Fashion Revolution, a response to the tragedy, is a campaign that focuses entirely on promoting sustainable fashion. It is notable for its trendy hashtag ‘#whomademyclothes’. It gives a spotlight to workers, like those in the Rana Plaza, that make the bulk of the resources large-scale brands utilize to mass produce the clothes we see in stores. It calls to action for consumers to pay more attention to where their clothes come from and to understand the cautions such factory employees are subjected to while earning little for their work. Often the compensation for what they do is overlooked and campaigns like the Fashion Revolution are frontiers for common consumers to take a step back and care about those workers. Those workers are generally responsible for a majority of how mass production in fashion continues today, but it is not something new. There exists a history of campaigns against the human labor workforce since the rise of industrialization across the world. However, even in the 21st century, the world still revolves around the exploitation of a lesser group. Fashion is no stranger to such campaigns. Brands have gotten away with oversees production of their products, paying very little to make expensive clothes. This pattern of behavior is what we consider today to be fast fashion. Campaigns such as the Fashion Revolution are here to combat that. 

British actor Emma Thompson takes part in the Extinction Rebellion. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

 

 

Sustainable fashion is a diverse umbrella term. It deals with a plethora of concerns in regards to today’s fashion industry, whether it is about the way clothes are created to the way clothes are used or discarded. In this case, movements like the Fashion Revolution are concerned with how mass production in the industry exists. The average consumer often overlooks that to mass produce clothes, it takes a great deal of both industrial and natural resources. From excessive water usage and pollution from cargo travel to the little wages and long hours of people in offshore factories, the mass production of clothes hides a dark secret. In everyday fashion and consumption, the go-go-go attitude to stay with consistently changing trends is a major incentive for big retail brands to continue the way they produce clothes. However, in the recent years, sustainability has grown a substantial following. 

A change in the fast fashion industry is a must. Whether it’s the Fashion Revolution or in the sustainability movement – both go hand in hand with each other – fashion plays an imperative role in our footprint on this earth. Brands and consumers are beginning to strive for change in the attitudes towards fashion, that, despite the accessibility of fast fashion, conscious consumption is a practice that is necessary. It is vital to stand against the age-old practices of fast fashion and mass production. Eco-friendly and ethical choices are much easier to make than one would think. Information on where your clothes came from and who/what made them should not be something that major retail brands and chains keep a secret. Sustainability does not just begin end with the way clothes are produced. Sustainability is a concern for all aspects of fashion: the source, the production, and the consumption. The collaborative efforts between producers and consumers is the only way we can see significant change in the fashion industry, because fashion is never going to go away. Fashion is meant to be an expression, a celebration of life. It should not be something that continues to disregard those that play an important role in keeping it moving. 

Perhaps next time you buy an article of clothing, whether it’s a brand new pair of jeans or a sweater, ask yourself: “Who made my clothes?”