Denim – The Fabric of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

By Audrey Stanton

Today, I reached for a pair of light washed denim jeans which I wear approximately once a week. Without thinking, I was pulling on a garment which holds so much history in its seams. Denim is a cotton twill fabric, traditionally dyed with indigo, and most commonly used in the production of jeans. The denim fabric has become almost a neutral one in many cultures and can be seen in different garments daily. Denim has made its way to the mainstream of most societies, although it didn’t start off that way.


YESTERDAY – A Brief History

Denim received its name from the city in which it originated: Nimes, France. If you break down the word denim it becomes; “de Nimes” meaning “of Nimes.” Although the French created the infamous fabric, America has historically been the biggest fan of the versatile material.

18th Century
  • Since the late 18th century Americans have been wearing and using denim to create durable garments for working-class citizens. The California Gold Rush provided the popularity of this fabric because strong, long-lasting, pants were necessary for gold miners. Businessman, and Bavarian immigrant, Levi Strauss teamed up with tailor Jacob Davis to create a denim company in 1853. The duo provided American miners with jeans which were able to withstand the test of time. Little did the two know, they would create a brand which has held onto success throughout recent history.
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  • Laborers wore denim somewhat exclusively by laborers until the 1930s. Cowboys shown wearing jeans in Hollywood movies gave the material a new life among the public. However, as WWII raged on denim production dropped due to rationing. One exception though was denim worn by soldiers who sported them while on leave. Brands such as Wrangler and Lee established themselves after the war was over and denim production picked up again.
  • The material received a new look and characterization as the 1950s rolled around. America only began recognizing teenagers as an age group in this decade, and rebellion was beginning to rise. Famous movie stars such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Marylin Monroe played characters which all distinctively wore jeans while breaking societies rules.

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  • In the 1960s, denim became synonymous with independence, as more women were sexually liberated and going off the college. In addition, the hippie revolution embraced the fabric. Free spirits donned them with flares, embroidery, and all sorts of personalized paraphernalia. This specific obsession with self-expression through clothing which carried on into the 1970s.
  • As America moved into the 1980s, two extreme opposite ends of society adopted denim: the punk subculture and high fashion. In one decade the jeans went from leisurewear for the masses, to another luxury garment to lust after. Designers like Calvin Klein and Armani began incorporating jeans into their collections and elevating them for years to come.

DENIM TODAY – Environmental Impact

Due to fashion’s cyclical nature, jeans can be found today in all shapes, styles, and washes. Most manufacturers use dyes made of synthetic chemicals to create the washes and designs on denim pants. These chemicals are toxic and poison waterways, as well as present a health-risk to whoever comes into contact with them. The 2018 documentary Riverblue expertly outlines the dangers which come with conventional denim manufacturing: excessive water use, water pollution, toxic chemicals, and overall a large carbon footprint.

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TOMORROW – Sustainable Innovation

While the statistics are currently grim, there is hope for the future of denim! Brands, factories, and scientists are coming together to create sustainable and innovative systems for jeans. Techniques like upcycling, toxic-free dying, water/energy efficient manufacturing, the use of organic cotton, water recycling, and zero waste production. With these new systems, there’s hope for a cleaner fashion future full of stylish denim.

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Sources: “Denim History – Origin of Denim.” History of Jeans, 2019. Hendriksz, Vivian. “A Brief History of the Rise of Denim.” Fashionunited, 12 Apr. 2018. Wright, Jennifer. “The Complete History of Blue Jeans, From Miners to Marilyn Monroe.” Racked, 27 Feb. 2015.

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