Monday, April 22, 2013

Who Wore the Pants: Blue Jeans and American History

When we think of blue jeans, we think of denim jeans, most often a five pocket style that has evolved since the late 19th century. A partnership between a tailor and a dry-goods salesman for riveted work-wear, originally made of jean, a thick, canvas material, led to the founding of Levi Strauss and Co. The pants, known as product style 201 (the 501 would come later) had one back pocket, suspender buttons, rivets at the stress-points, and were intended to be worn over pants, explaining their name: waist-overalls. After the expiration of its exclusive patent on riveted denim work-wear, the market for jeans exploded, though only among hard-wearing, hard-working men. Fast forward through the depression and toward the post-War suburban economic boom, and blue jeans become a symbol of outlaw style, much to the marketing frustration of manufacturers, who touted crisp blue jeans as “right for school.” An essential visual symbol of the sexual revolution; jeans were worn by nearly every young man and woman at Woodstock and Vietnam War protests. With the advent of improved milling and processing of denim, as well as outsourced manufacturing, the multi-billion dollar worldwide denim industry now produces thousands of styles, cuts, finishes, and adornments on variations of the durable miner’s pants from San Francisco’s gold-rush era. Worn by CEO’s and heads of state, jeans have become a ubiquitous symbol of American culture and style. After billions spent in research and technological development, within the past 15 years, inspired by Japanese-cult status and collectability, denim manufacturers have returned to the more traditional processes of shuttle-loomed fabric, buckle-back cinches, and other elements found on the earliest surviving samples of blue jeans. Forever associated with gold-prospectors, cowboys, outlaws, rockers, and American culture, blue jeans thrive as fashion’s most iconic garment.

Arts and Culture: National Archives

To learn more about the history of blue jeans, see Archivist David Benjamin. The Adrian G. Marcuse Library and archives have a range of books about blue jeans and American History.

Posted on April 22, 2013 I Blog post by David Benjamin, M.A., M.S.L.I.S. (LIM College Archivist)