OpEd: The Swinging Blue Jeans

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Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis patented their riveted design on May 20, 1873.

The date is referred to as the birth of jeans.

But the iconic American garment has its origins and roots in old Europe.

The word "denim" comes from "de Nimes" a French town where the fabric was first made, while the word jeans comes from Genoa, Italy, Where, in the mid 1500s, sailors started wearing indigo-dyed clothes made with this strong, cheap and durable fabric.  

In the U.S. they were first designed as work wear for laborers on the farms and mines of America's Western states. Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor, was asked to make a pair of sturdy trousers for a local woodcutter; he struck upon the idea of reinforcing them with rivets. They proved extremely durable and were soon in high demand. His only problem was that he could not afford to patent them.

He contacted his fabric supplier, a San Francisco merchant named Levi Strauss asking for help. The rest is history. Cowboys, carpenters, miners, shore hands, farmers, immediately adopted them.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency became known as the "New Deal" because of the promises he made to the American people. This deal consisted of ideas to get the country and people back on their feet.

Soon, millions of Americans were working again. One of the programs was called the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC. Young men from all over the country lived in work camps. In Florida alone 40,000 Floridians participated in the CCC.

They received food and clothing and their paychecks were sent home to their families. Jeans were a prominent item of these packages and their popularity took hold. By the Second World War women were wearing them in factories and US soldiers overseas wore them around the liberated towns while off duty.

The trousers represented an easier, happier American way of life, which Europeans wanted to buy into after years of war and destruction.

In the 50s they were banned in schools, which naturally added to the fervor with which teenagers embraced them, fueled by movies featuring Marlon Brando In "The Wild One" and James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause" among others.

In the 60s jeans took on a political and cultural turn. They became associated with opposition to the status quo, the system and the establishment.

At Woodstock they were the ubiquitous uniform of the hippies and anti war movement. Torn, decorated, dyed, dirty, frayed, it didn't matter.

Bell bottom jeans ruled the 70s. In 1973, an Italian line named Jesus Jeans sparked a controversial morality storm launching sexually charged ads with the lines “He Who Loves Me Follows Me" and "Thou Shalt Not Have Any Other Jeans But Me.” The brand, despite initial strong opposition, successfully registered the name Jesus in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria, France, Italy, and Spain. (By 1997 the Patent Office had no problems in approving French Connection’s application to register FCUK as a brand for its jeans).

Gays also got into the action. The Hanky Code is a traditional form, not as widely used these days, of signaling to others what your sexual preferences and interests are. Gay men used this code to communicate with each other in the noisy and distracting environment of gay bars. It started in New York City in late 1970 or early 1971 when a journalist for the Village Voice joked that instead of simply wearing keys to indicate whether someone was a "top" or a "bottom" it would be more efficient to subtly announce their particular sexual focus by wearing different colored hankies from the back pockets of one's jeans.

In the 80s jeans took a sharp turn. Calvin Klein was the first to launch an advertising campaign where jeans were featured as fashion items that could be worn with jackets and ties. They were soon paraded down catwalks by high priced models and celebrities. Jeans, once more, had reinvented themselves. This time as a designer, expensive, stylish item.

Jeans are also a symbol of democratization; they put different classes on an equal playing field. They are relatively affordable and hardwearing, look good worn as well as new, and, Best of all, don't have to be ironed at all.

They have become man's best friend. The perfect sartorial object for all seasons. Ask a dozen people why they wear them and you might get thirty-six answers.

For some they're comfortable, durable and easy - for others they're sexy and cool. They are the easiest and most intimate thing you can wear, they adhere to the body and become a second skin. One of Levis most telling catch phrases is "Started by Us. Finished by You.” The other is "You Live in Jeans.”

Their chameleon quality, their ability to become all things to all people, is the secret to jeans' survival as clothing staple.

And after more than a century they do not seem to age, they endure, unfazed and preferably faded.


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