Bruce Springsteen wears jeans on the iconic cover of Born In The USA
Denim’s origins actually lie across the Atlantic, in Italy, where in the town of Genoa they created the sturdy fabric and used it for sails. The Italian word for ‘of Genoa’ happened to be ‘genuense’ and so the term ‘jean’ was coined. A little later, in the French city of Nimes, they admired this fabric and through trial and error managed to replicate it, and this time it was dubbed ‘denim’ because in French, ‘of Nimes’ is simply ‘de Nimes’.
So whilst it’s true that America didn’t actually invent their nation’s favourite material, like Shakespeare, they took someone else’s idea and made it better, and consequently, their own. And does anyone really associate denim with any country other than the United States?
Levi Strauss and his famous label
The German-born businessman Levi Strauss was the first person to bring jeans to the American market in the 1850’s, and began manufacturing them with a Californian tailor who had come up with the idea of using copper rivets to strengthen the design (basically those little metal studs you get on the pockets and seams).
Jeans at that time were mainly worn by workers, typically in factories or construction sites, as immortalised in the famed images of young men taking a lunch break whilst building New York’s sky-scrapers.
Workers on a lunch break from building New York sky-scrapers
The first person to make denim something genuinely stylish was James Dean, the gorgeous Rebel Without A Cause
actor who made them part of his uniform, and his brooding, effortlessly cool persona simultaneously turned jeans into a symbol of youthful rebellion, and also a totally acceptable form of casual-wear.
The weathered, stone-wash look was introduced by New York store Limbo in 1965, and was subsequently taken up by Bob Dylan, the poetic musician, and one of the Sixties’ biggest pop-culture icons. Such was the influence of Dylan, that when the Beatles turned up in US, they were all jangling pop and sharp suits. After becoming acquainted with the American singer, they became more mellow and spiritual, taking on a looser, more relaxed way of dressing, much like Dylan’s own slouchy but classic style.
The wholesome, all-American look of Charlie’s Angels
star Farrah Fawcett – all rainbow-hued sweatshirts, flicked blonde hair and denim flares , just about pulled jeans through the Seventies without too much sartorial embarrassment, but it wasn’t until the Eighties they would become a fashion phenomenon once more.
The New York born designer Calvin Klein started his label in 1968, and fast chalked up critical acclaim for his clean lines and chic minimalism, but towards the end of the Seventies he came up with the idea of launching a line of tight-fitting jeans featuring his name on the pocket label. Klein’s ‘designer jeans’ were an immediate smash hit, but what sent them into hysteria level was his 1980 ad campaign, where a jeans wearing, then 15 year old Brooke Shields breathlessly tells the camera that nothing comes between her and her Calvins.
Brooke Shields in the famous 1980 Calvin Klein ads
But by the early Nineties America had a new denim pin-up. Kurt Cobain was the surly, sensitive and talented front-man of Nirvana, who released their seminal album Never Mind
in 1994. The newly crowned genre of ‘grunge’, of which Cobain was the patron saint, rejected glamour and pretence, and focused on what was real and raw. And jeans fitted in perfectly alongside battered sneakers, murky knits and plaid shirts as the sartorial incarnation of that ideal.
Kurt Cobain (front) with his Nirvana bandmates
Then followed an uncomfortable moment around the turn of the Millennium when jeans got a little too Ghetto fabulous for reasonable taste, with the divas dominating the charts (J. Lo, Destiny’s Child, Eve) covering them in diamantes and gold bling. And denim’s reputation took a further battering when Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears turned up at the 2001 American Music Awards in matching denim attire (We mourn their break-up still, but not those terrible outfits).
Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake at the 2001 American Music Awards
Jeans were eventually valiantly hauled back into high-fashion by Phoebe Philo, and the soft, gently flared, high waisted versions she sent out onto the Chloe catwalk for Spring/Summer 04. What really cemented their place in style history was Plum Sykes’ 2004 novel Bergdof Blondes
, in which the heroine, glossy New Yorker ‘moi’ professes them to be her ultimate wardrobe must-have.
Chloe S/S 04, with designer Pheobe Philo taking her bow in a pair
The latter part of the decade saw rock reclaim denim, with glamorously scruffy guitar types like Alison Mosshart, Jenny Lewis, The Kings of Leon, and Queens of the Stone Age rocking skinny jeans with band tees and denim shirts. The popularity of the indie rock revival ended up with a saturation of too many ill-fitting drain pipes and Strokes impersonators unfortunately.
The Kills' Alison Mosshart, Kings of Leon's Caleb Followill, Jenny Lewis, and Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme
And now? Well blue jeans remain a style institution, as the year’s most celebrated and controversial music newcomer Lana Del Ray attests in her song where she croons ‘Blue Jeans, white shirt, you walked into the room, you know you made my eyes burn’
. The fashion press picked up on her own skinny fit favourites, worn with a nostalgic twist. Rihanna preens and pouts in a sleek pair of denims in the latest Armani adverts but opts for a more urban, low key approach in real life. And for ultimate proof they are the great American fashion piece – first lady Michelle Obama regularly steps out in jeans.
Rihanna in the new Armani jeans adverts