How did white jeans become fashionable, and how were bell-bottom jeans born? Denim history is full of stories, big and small.
We chose six stories that illustrate the complicated and ever-evolving history of this popular garment.
Levi’s was not the first company to make denim jeans.
By the time Levi’s started making jeans in 1873, there were already many established denim producers in the US, one of them right next door to Levi’s. Herman Heynemann opened his business in 1851 at 33-55 Battery Street in San Francisco. He probably made denim clothing already a decade before Levi’s. His brand was called Can’t Bust Em (acquired by Lee in 1946.)
According to Graham Marsh and Paul Trynka, every US region had its own denim workwear maker, and competition was fierce. It is unquestionable that Levi’s was the first company to make jeans with riveted pockets – the patent was filed in 1873. But were those pants actually the first pair of jeans?
The blue denim jeans as we know them now developed in different parts of the US simultaneously. “Jeans were not invented – they evolved democratically, like so much Americana,” writes James Sullivan.
Hamilton Carhartt opened his business in Detroit in 1884. Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls were made in Wisconsin from 1895 onwards. Boss of the Road was launched before 1900. The list goes on. Big retailers like Montgomery Ward, Roebuck, Sears, and JCPenney also had their own denim lines.
The bootcut jeans were born in the early 40s.
Levi’s always had plenty of rivals around the country. One of the fiercest ones was H. D. Lee Mercantile Co from Kansas City.
Lee launched their first pair of jeans probably in 1924 (before this, they were famous for their overalls). The pants were called ”101 Cowboy Waistband Overalls”. Like the name indicates, Lee’s main market was the cowboys of the Mid-West. This leads us to the born of the bootcut jeans:
In 1941, rodeo star Turk Greenough helped Lee to revise the fit of its “cowboy jeans.” Greenough’s wife, burlesque dancer Sally Rand tagged along. She snagged a pair and had them refitted: tighter but with a slight flare to fit the cowboy boots. A so-called bootcut was born.
World War II changed the jeans.
When America entered World War II, the jeans changed too. All the manufacturers were asked to minimize the use of crucial materials for the war efforts. In Levi’s’ case, it meant the disappearance of copper rivets and buckle backs. A painting replaced the double stitching on the back pockets. The denim jacket’s pocket front flap was also removed.
The double stitching returned in 1947 but the buckle backs never did.
White jeans became fashionable thanks to mods.
In the mid-60s, English mods wore white Lee Westerner jeans and jackets. The white Lee jeans had been introduced on the American market a couple of years earlier, in 1959. Levi’s followed suit in 1960, launching white jeans under the Slim Fit label.
The mods were obsessed with fashion, clothes, and music. They were known for their smart looks, short haircuts, scooters, and rebellious attitudes. They were the first generation with disposable income. The subculture originated in London in the late 50s.
But why did the mods love white jeans? Maybe because the white jeans suited the minimalist, modern aesthetic the mods preferred, and because the white jeans were something different, a novelty. White jeans stood out – like the mods.
Calvin Klein designed the first pair of designer jeans.
By the mid-70s, Klein was already an established name in fashion after winning three consecutive Coty Awards. He dabbled in jeans design already in 1976. They sold for fifty dollars a pair but did not become a success.
Klein tried again in 1977. He studied the classic Levi’s 501 for inspiration. He lowered the rise and accentuated the posterior. This time a pair sold only for $35, and the company sold 200,000 pairs in one week – partly because of the huge publicity Klein’s daughter’s kidnapping caused during the time of the launch! (The daughter was safely released after a couple of days.)
The demand for Klein’s jeans was so huge that the manufacturing company struggled to keep up. The men’s version was launched in 1979.
Fellow designers and the traditional denim industry were not as enthusiastic as the public. “Only a pig would put his name on jeans”, commented Halston.
Stone washing was initially made with lava rocks.
Vintage collectors and denim fanatics have always appreciated worn-in jeans with visible greases and whiskers. Since the 60s, denim companies have tried to speed up the aging process and soften and alter denim by pre-washing and treating it with various methods.
Hollywood western wear designer Nudie Cohen might have been the first one to experiment with stone washing in the early 70s. Whenever he was clothing cowboy stars for movies, he would wash the actor’s clothes with a stonewash cycle to make them look old and authentic.
The method became commercially viable and more widespread after Mark Emalfarb discovered this business opportunity. He was scouting lava rocks from around the world for his garden business when he heard about apparel manufacturers purchasing large quantities of pumice stone (a mixture of rock and volcanic ash). Soon he was shipping three hundred ocean containers of lava rock each month to denim brands like Guess, Lee, Levi’s, and Wrangler.
As you can guess, all the mining and shipping lead to pumice stone shortages and ecological distress and complaints. In the 80s, new chemical methods replaced the actual stones.
Sullivan, James: Jeans. A Cultural History of an American Icon. 2006.
Marsh, Graham & Trynka, Paul: Denim. From Cowboys To Catwalks. A History of The World’s Most Legendary Fabric. 2002.