Today the words “denim” and “jeans” are used almost interchangeably in the United States. But this wasn’t always so. Their origins date back more than 400 years to Genoa, Italy, and Nimes, France. At the time the port city of Genoa was part of France and was known by its French name “Geane” or “Jeane.” It produced an industrial-grade fabric for work clothes called fustian “jean,” which was similar to corduroy. Dyed with indigo, the fabric made strong work pants for harbor workers. Back then, Genoa was a superior naval power, and the Genoese navy equipped its sailors with jeans, as they needed a fabric that could be worn both wet or dry.
Around that time, weavers in Nimes, France tried to reproduce the famous fabric made in Genoa but with no luck. Through trial and error, they developed another fabric that became known as denim because it was “de Nimes.” It was a cotton twill textile in which the weft passes under two or more warp threads. Warp threads were dyed in indigo while weft threads remained white. It was highly durable and used by people that needed clothes that would last a long time.
By the 17th century, jean was a crucial textile for the working class in northern Italy. This is seen in a series of genre paintings from that period attributed to the mysterious artist now nicknamed “The Master of the Blue Jeans.” Recently discovered, this series of 10 oil paintings depict poor people in simple domestic settings. Every painting has food or crockery in it and at least one child. Great attention is paid in the paintings to the blue clothing or pieces of cloth, which are often torn, wrinkled or soiled.
In 1853 in America, Levi Strauss moved to San Francisco to establish a western branch of the family’s dry goods business. Among other things, he sold a durable denim cloth to miners in the Gold Rush. One of his customers was Jacob W. Davis, a tailor from Reno, Nevada, who made functional items like tents, horse blankets and wagon covers. In response to a customer order for sturdy pants, Davis made them from denim he had purchased from Strauss and made them stronger by placing copper rivets at the places that pants rip most often—pockets and flies. When he wanted to patent these pants, Davis wrote to Strauss, and they went into business together.
Thus was born the American version of blue jeans, which has defined the clothing culture for more than 150 years. Originally designed for miners, modern jeans were popularized as casual wear by Marlon Brando and James Dean in their 1950s films, particularly The Wild One and Rebel without a Cause. This led to the fabric becoming a symbol of rebellion among teenagers as well as a symbol of sympathy with the working classes. Nowadays, they are worn by everyone, and they have become the most popular specialty pant in Western culture. Today, 75% of the designer jeans in the world come from California.