Emma McClendon, assistant curator at The Museum at FIT in New York and author of Denim: Fashion’s Frontier, looks back at the origins of blue jeans and considers how history is shaping denim’s future.
The ‘Cooper Collection Document’ tells the story of one of Britain’s oldest denim brands, Lee Cooper. Founded in 1908 it came only a few decades after denim as we know it was ‘invented’ in the States, and the brand quickly helped establish the fabric in Europe as the durable workwear material it is. Over 100 years later, with all the ups and downs that come with such a long history, Lee Cooper is back with a new line of premium denim, The Cooper Collection.
The Document talks to creative director Tillman Wröbel but also looks at denim in general, trying to establish different areas where denim has crossed paths with other cultural phenomena. For example, Hot Chip singer Alexis Taylor talks about the relationship between music and denim, Red Wing designer Aki Awasaki traces the connection between raw denim and workwear boots and French art director Jean-Paul Goude explains his quite controversial Lee Cooper TV ads from the early 1980s. Here, Emma McClendon, curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, helps trace denim’s role in fashion and establishes what makes it such a timeless material.
In 1999, TIME magazine declared the five-pocket, riveted blue jean the “Best Fashion Item” of the 20th century. With humble beginnings in workwear, it would seem more accurate to call blue jeans the ‘everyman’ garment, separate from and unaffected by the ebbs and flows of ‘fashion’. Fashion connotes exclusivity, prestige and constant change. Indigo jeans, contrastingly, are little changed since the late 19th century. They were designed for that lowliest of pursuits, hard labour, and continue to be worn as workwear. Blue jeans are also ubiquitous, which is the true poison of fashion – once a trend is everywhere, it is also obsolete. The early adopters have already moved on to the next big thing.
The Global Denim Project, a University College London-based organisation focused on establishing denim’s “history, extent, economics and consequences”, estimates that “on any given day, over half the world’s population is in jeans”. This is a truly staggering statistic. It is supported by numbers from Cotton Incorporated, which found that, in 2014, the average American owned seven pairs of jeans – the average in Europe was five, in Japan three and in Brazil six. This positions jeans as the great equaliser of clothing; the garment that can be found across ages, nations, races, and genders. The garment that has transcended fashion.
Yet TIME’s anointment of jeans as the ultimate fashion item does not seem entirely inappropriate, because if there is one defining feature of 20th-century fashion it is democratisation. Following trends following was no longer exclusively reserved for the elite, thanks to ready-to-wear and fast fashion. Trends also began originating on the street, among the young and less affluent, before bubbling up to the upper echelons of the couture salon. No single garment represents this seismic shift better than blue jeans, and their transformation into a luxury commodity. It is a paradox – jeans are simultaneously the pinnacle of 20th-century fashion, and also not fashion at all.
The modern blue jean as we know it was born in the late 19th century during the California gold rush. Many of the men who migrated out west in search of spectacular fortunes came with only the clothes on their backs. They were ill-prepared for the conditions they would face in the mines, and their clothes quickly fell to tatters. An entrepreneurial dry-goods salesman by the name of Levi Strauss teamed up with a Nevada-based tailor named Jacob Davis in 1873 to manufacture a solution: the riveted denim jean, the same style of riveted jean that is sold at countless retailers around the world today.
The metal rivets were placed at the trousers’ most problematic stress points: where the pockets connected to the trouser legs and waistband. The rivets reinforced the seams and ensured the pockets would not rip away from the rest of the garment. The heavyweight denim also offered a more durable alternative to other workwear fabrics of the time. Often, miners would wear the jeans quite large, as a protective layer over less durable clothing.The style became so popular among miners and farmers that it was coveted and copied throughout the American West.
By the 1920s, versions of the blue denim trousers could be found across the United States and even abroad, with key workwear brands like Lee Cooper pioneering sales in Britain.
Nearly 100 years later, denim sales have grown into a global market worth of $60bn. A key question that emerges is this: what has continued to make jeans relevant, generation after generation?
The classic way of answering this is to look at the multitude of cultural symbols that have imbued jeans with meaning. Figures from film, television, music and even politics have influenced consumers, be it John Wayne as the consummate American cowboy, Marlon Brando and James Dean as 1950s rebels, the denim-clad ‘flower children’ of the 1960s, or The Beatles performing to thousands of screaming teenagers wearing high-waisted jeans. These references helped transform jeans from a mere functional garment into a fashion statement. And they are still employed by advertisers today.
While these cultural figures help explain why we each own a pair of jeans, I do not think they adequately explain why we each own seven… To answer this, we have to go back to the jeans themselves, to their origin in workwear, and to the denim, to the way it ages, wears, breaks down and fades.
Denim itself is a warp-faced twill fabric made from blue and white cotton threads. The blue threads sit on top of the white threads making a thick, double-layer fabric that is durable and cheap – in other words, ideal for workwear. The blue threads are dyed through a process called rope-dyeing (also known as long chain dyeing). In this process, the blue colour builds up on the surface of the thread in coats. The dye never penetrates all the way through to the thread’s core. As the denim is worn, the blue coats begin to brush away, exposing the white core of the thread and leaving marks that are called ‘wear patterns’; no other fabric ages quite like denim.
Historically, wear patterns were made exclusively by the wearer. Today, most jeans have been artificially distressed to soften the fabric and mimic natural wear patterns that can take years to make. This shift in jeans production is due to consumer impatience that drove the denim market during the late 20th century. As distressed jeans became more fashionable in the wake of the counterculture movement of the 1960s, retailers recognised that the average consumer did not have the patience to wear out their jeans themselves.
These same retailers realised that if they could artificially accelerate the ageing process they could sell jeans at a premium price. Manufacturers began distressing jeans with a number of different techniques that are still used today: from stone washing and bleaching, to hand-sanding and even sand-blasting. Each technique comes with astoundingly negative effects, particularly on the environment. The wastewater alone that is produced from pre-aging denim is colossal, but the financial return is equally significant.
The original blue jeans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were made from a type of denim called selvedge. It is distinctive for its width; woven on fly shuttle looms, selvedge denim is only 29-inches wide. Selvedge is also distinctive for a strip of white threads that is woven down both edges of the fabric. The strip prevents the fabric from unravelling (adding to denim’s durability), and it is typically used along the outer seams of each leg to reinforce the jeans.
When the demand for jeans sharply increased during the 1960s, denim mills began switching over to larger, industrial-sized looms that could produce denim in twice the width of shuttle looms. By the 1980s, selvedge denim was largely a relic of the past. It could not keep up with the global production pace of trendy, disposable jeans.
During the early 2000s, the distressed and decorative ‘premium’ denim market hit a financial peak. Around the same time, the huge environmental ramifications of artificial ageing techniques started to come into sharp focus.
We are currently in a period of momentous change in fashion, as well as in broader culture. With the rise of ‘slow food’ and ‘eco-fashion’ movements, there has been a growing trend towards mindful consumption. As a result, there is a renewed interest in the authentic, durable and highly individualised jeans of the past, both on the part of consumers and also legacy brands who are embracing their heritage and the importance of their original products. Selvedge denim has made a significant return in the denim market in recent years because of this shift, as has ‘raw’ or untreated, unaged denim.
As consumers learn more about the true history and physicality of denim, the market will continue to evolve. Jeans were once highly personalised garments that were built to last. They were made from raw, blue, selvedge denim. This is where blue jeans began, and that is where they are heading next.
This essay features in ‘The Cooper Collection Document’ by Document Studios, an ongoing publishing project by Port’s fashion features editor David Hellqvist. The project looks at brands from an editor’s point of view and selects stories that are relevant to the readers, rather than being dictated by the brand’s in-house marketing team. Previous Document clients include Gap, Timberland, Kickers and Adidas.
Photography Dominic Davies
Art direction Charlotte Heal for Document Studios