The history of denim jeans

Denim today is worth over $50 billion per annum with demand rising every year by 5%. The humble denim jeans weren’t always this popular, and in this blog, we’ll look at the history of them.

Denim is a fabric with its roots in Italy. Weavers in Genoa, Italy invented the cloth in the 16th Century. Teramo Piaggio was credited with first dying it blue in 1538. The cloth was used to make sails and hardwearing outfits for sailors. Piaggio is not only credited with dying it blue, he also used it to paint on, including his painting Passion of Christ. During the time Genoa was a major producer of cloth and it was exported around Europe. The bales of cloth arrived in London and the cloth was marked Cloth from Jeane. This is where the terms “Jeans” comes from. The cloth proved very popular in England as a fabric for making farmer’s clothes from.

Originally denim was a mix of linen and cotton, but demand for a softer cloth led to the fabric becoming 100% cotton. This made the fabric less grainy and more comfortable, whilst still keeping its strength and durability.


Why is it called denim?

Denim is a contraction of the name of a cloth name in Nimes in France – serge de Nimes. Serge de Nimes was a hugely successful commercial cloth and by the 18th Century, the fabric producers of Nimes were outproducing Genoa. This name the Nimes the undisputed main producer of the cloth and the term “denim” was born. The production of the cloth made Nimes the third most important industrial city in France.


The story of modern jeans

In 1858 a German Immigrant to the United States had a store in San Francisco California. His name was Levi Strauss and he specialised in importing cloth from Europe. He regularly sold cloth to a tailor from Reno Nevada called Jacob Davis. He made work trousers from denim and he found that he had people bringing the trousers back with damage to them in certain areas. He had the idea to rivet the cloth together in these places he had to repair most often. That included the pockets and at the bottom of the fly.  Lacking money to apply for a patent for this process, Jacobs approached Strauss to suggest they go into business together. They received a US patent 139,121 on 20th May 1873 and the patented denim jean was born. The jeans were a runaway success and by 1890, the Levi’s 501 were born.

The trousers were the reserve of construction workers, cowboys and lumberjacks under the dude ranch craze of the 1930s when East coasters would visit the west and buy the work trousers they saw out West.  These hardwearing trousers were now a fashion item.

In 1955 a young actor called James Dean started in a film called Rebel without a Cause. With increased incomes and social scene of the teenager being born in the 1950s, Dean’s iconic look was something to be copied across America and the world. His Levi’s jeans, a white T-shirt and red leather jacket was the look everyone wanted. Denim jeans were now rebellious and were adopted by the young as a fashion item and the rest they say is history.


There will be few places on earth where you’ll not find someone wearing denim. It’s come a long way from its humble beginnings in Genoa.

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