The Enduring Popularity of Denim

Denim has transcended social class, status and wealth, and in doing so has become the ultimate engine of self expression.
Marvin Gaye wearing a denim Western shirt and jeans with his signature red beanie whilst recording in Los Angeles, 1973.

The German born Levi Strauss received many letters from clients over the years attesting to the quality and durability of his most famous creation. In a note from 1942, Mrs M.H. English of Wyoming describes one of her afternoons, “going between here and Basin, we found a man who had run his car off the highway and was stuck. We hoped to get him back onto the road but had no chains or rope to pull him with. Finally we found a pair of old Levi’s Strauss in the back of our car. We tied one leg to our car and one to the front of his. We really had to pull, but the pants held and out he came”. Levi’s weren’t just for wearing, it seems. Many of the most iconic garments of the last century were designed purely with function in mind and the classic five pocket denim jeans were perhaps the most functional of all, not least because of the fabric they were made from.

Initially, the main wearers of denim jeans were gold miners in Western America from the mid to late 19th century. The sturdy fabric suited their physically demanding jobs; for them, their denim work overalls were tools they must rely on. Denim’s early life as a workwear fabric ensured it was long associated as clothing reserved for the lower classes. It was viewed purely as a necessity for manual workers and as late as the early 1930s, it had still not shaken this reputation. According to Tim Gunn of the Parson’s School of Design, “during the (early) ‘30s, jeans and denim and Levi’s were a very humble kind of product, it was about as far from glamorous as you could possibly get and people wore them with a lot of humility”. That all changed though with the rise of ‘the cowboy’. It’s hard to gauge just how much of an effect western movies and the image of the cowboy had on American style and its global influence, but it’s fair to say it was dramatic. Author and denim historian Lynn Downey described the shift perfectly, “enter the 1930s - when Western movies and the West in general captured the American imagination. Authentic cowboys wearing Levi’s jeans were elevated to mythic status, and Western clothing became synonymous with a life of independence and rugged individualism. Denim was now associated less often with labourers in general, and more as the fabric of the authentic American as symbolised by John Wayne, Gary Cooper and others”.


January 2018


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