Denim Through the Ages

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The History of Denim

"Hollywood costume designers put all the bad boys in denim." Lynn Dawney

We all wear denim, sometimes we don't even realise how much denim truly represents our contemporary generations. But where does it come from, who invented it?

Here are some more or less known facts and about denim and jeans. Enjoy!

De Nimes in the 16th century

Jeans emerged in the cities of Genoa, Italy, and Nimes, France. Gênes, the French word for Genoa, may be the origin of the word "jeans" as it referred to the popular colour: 'Bleu de Gênes'. In Nimes, weavers tried to reproduce jean but instead developed a similar twill fabric that became known as denim, from 'de Nimes', meaning "from Nimes". Genoa's jean was a fustian textile of "medium quality and of reasonable cost", very similar to cotton corduroy for which Genoa was famous, and was "used for work clothes in general". Nimes's "denim" was coarser, considered higher quality and was used "for over garments such as smocks or overalls". Nearly all Indigo, needed for dying, came from indigo bush plantations in India till the late 19th century. It was replaced by indigo synthesis method developed in Germany.

By the 17th century, jean was a crucial textile for working-class people in Northern Italy. This is seen in a series of genre paintings from around the 17th century attributed to an artist now named The Master of the Blue Jeans. The ten paintings depict impoverished scenes with lower-class figures wearing a fabric that looks like denim.

Moreover: Genoese sailors used jean to cover and protect their goods on the docks from the weather. During the Republic of Genoa (17th, 18th centuries), sailors exported jeans throughout Europe.


Dungaree was mentioned for the first time in the 17th century, when it was referred to as cheap, coarse thick cotton cloth, often coloured blue but sometimes white, worn by impoverished people in what was then a region of Bombay, India a dockside village called Dongri. The Hindi name of this cloth was "dungri". Dungri was exported to England and used for manufacturing of cheap, robust working clothes. English began to call "dungri" cloth a little different and it became "dungaree".

1870s American Jeans

Despite the fact that Navy sailors first strutted around in denim back in the 1500's, it wasn't until the 1870's in the gold rush boom that denim took off. This was when Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant - a name now synonymous with denim - created a strong style of workers pants with rivets that was quickly adopted by Californian coal miners. Originally made from uncomfortable hemp, Strauss eventually discovered and started using the twilled cotton cloth that originated from the French town of Nimes and denim, as we know it, was born. Levi Strauss & Co.'s became even more popular when they introduced blue jean overalls in 1873.

By 1880 the Levi was full-blown, with orange stitching (including the trademark "arcuate" design across the back pockets, once the functional anchor for pocket lining), bar tacking, rivets, watch pocket and the "Two Horse" leather patch. Lot numbers are assigned to products and, for the 01-weight denim used, the "waist-high overalls" are called 501s.

Breakthrough in Popular Culture

Before WWII, denim was largely worn by workers in the West countries, whilst eastcoasters had romantic notions of the cowboy - rugged, independent and American. Affluent easterners would escape humdrum suburban life to holiday on "dude ranches" - working farms where they could play at being cowboys - and wearing jeans was part of the experience.

The 50s

When they did start to be worn as casual wear, it was a startling symbol of rebellion - the spirit captured by Marlon Brando in his 1953 film The Wild One and by James Dean two years later in Rebel Without a Cause. "If you were a 15-year-old boy in 1953 you wanted to be Marlon Brando," says Downey. Dean and Brando wore denim off-screen too. Both represented a subversive counter-culture - a group of young GIs just returned from war, who rode around the US on motorcycles instead of moving to the suburbs and having children.

The 60s

Worn by teenagers and young adults they were often refused admission to movies, restaurants and other everyday haunts when wearing them. By 1961, on screen beauties like Marilyn Monroe in, 'The Misfits' had adopted denim too, and were even doubling it up with a jacket. The 60s brought denim customisation, with embroidering, painting and patch-working the norm, in fact, the more psychedelic your jeans were, the better! It's around this time that the first denim stores in Europe were opened, and denim shorts for ladies started appearing.

The 70s

The 70s marks the beginning of an era in which to wear jeans simply wasn't enough. They had to be flared. It was not uncommon, for people to slit the back of their flare hem and sew in a coloured, triangle piece of fabric to make their flares even bigger. The biggest being known as 'the Elephant flare' ( it gives the idea, doesn't it?). The teeny-tiny 'Daisy Duke short' was made popular by American pop culture shows like, 'Dukes of Hazzard', along with hip huggers, which would show much of the lower abdomen. Studding your jeans, or even adding graffiti to them was popular. Matching denim jackets to go on top were a must, and new processes became commonplace like stone washing and pre-shrinking (so they did not shrink as much when you wash them at home).

The 80s

The 80s brought with it "designer jeans" and denim took to the catwalks - Gloria Vanderbilt, Calvin Klein and Guess, just to name a few. New styles included acid washes, where the denim is soaked in Chlorine that removed the top layer of blue denim. Matching jackets were still a thing, double-denim every day.

The 90s

Loadsa denim! Overalls, dungarees, pinafores, shirts, skirts, dresses and long shorts, that were high-waisted, ripped, baggy, dirty, distressed and dyed. There was a certain sense of freedom with denim, anything went. Customisation was key and the bagginess meant that silhouette was not an issue. In case you didn't know: the high-waisted 'mom' jean which is popular today, comes from this era (mind blowing right?)

The 2000s

Ultra low rise was desired on all jeans. Bootcut was the shape of the time, and they needed to be distressed. Large cargo pockets and boyfriend jeans became popular and so did the denim mini skirt. Today jeans are a staple of everybody's wardrobe and often a key element in seasonal trends and fashion around the world. Each season brings with it new cuts, features, treatments and embellishments. However, it's always back to the classics that we turn to, for inspiration, comfort and quality. Have a look at the great collection of retro denim we have, from authentic vintage Levi's jackets and trousers, to our Rokit Recycled collection that features tons of Levi's shorts, perfect for the festival season about to come! Get your alternative and unique pair now!