The History of Blue Jeans

The History & Reminders In Your Jeans

From Railway-worker’s-wear to Rebel to Regal ~ From Mine-shaft to Catwalk ~

Wear your jeans with a thoughtful appreciation of whence they came.


There are legends telling fantastic tales of how Columbus’s sails were made out of bleached denim and discrepancies and confusion about which textiles came from where. We take a little journey along the possible trial of influences and events, from ancient times up until today, in trying to establish the most likely origins of our blue jeans.

Ancient History

According to some research the discovery of dyed flax fibre found in a cave in the Republic of Georgia dates back to 34,000 BCE which suggests textile-like materials were made even in prehistoric times. Archaeologists is also said to have found 5000 year old cotton fabric in west Pakistan.

Possible Indian origins


Dungaree has traditionally been woven from pre-coloured yarn. Typically only the warp threads are pre-dyed with the traditional colouring agent indigo. Indigo doesn’t penetrate the cotton yarn like other dyes but sits on the outside of each thread. These molecules chip off over time, causing the fabric to fade and wear in a unique way. The weft threads are left uncoloured (white), resulting in the typical medium blue colour of the fabric.

Dungaree has historically been associated with working clothes and the working class. The term ‘Dungaree fabric’ has been used in the English language since 1605 and originated from the Hindi word ‘dungrī’. It is a coarse thick 2/2 twill-weave cotton cloth. The word was possibly derived from Dongri, a dockside village near Mumbai. In British English the term is used for all work clothes made from such fabric, and in American English for durable workman’s trousers, typically bib overalls or as part of the work uniform of soldiers. By 1891 Rudyard Kipling was using the word to refer to a kind of garment (in the plural) as well as a fabric. As a fabric, it is used largely the same way as jeans cloth and denim, to make durable and sturdy trousers. In many non-Anglophone countries, the words became interchangeable (British versus American English).


The second part of the story of jeans began in the city of Genoa, Italy, famous for its cotton corduroy, called either jean or jeans. The word was derived from the word “Genoese” meaning the pants worn by the sailors from Genoa. The jeans fabric from Genoa was in fact very similar to corduroy. During the Republic of Genoa, the jeans were exported by sailors of Genoa throughout Europe. The fabric was a fustian – a cotton, linen and/or wool blend.


After it reached France, the French weavers in the city of Nimes tried to reproduce the fabric but without success. However, with experimentation, and through trial and error, they developed another twill fabric that would became known as denim. Literally “de Nimes”, meaning “From Nimes”.


Despite the considerable involvement of England in India, none of the accounts of the history of these textiles mentions whether dungaree was imported to England from there. It remains unclear whether the English denim was actually dungaree, renamed by the British, or whether it had its origin in Genoa and Nimes, or all of the above. It has been established though that both fabrics, denim from Nimes, France and jean from Genoa, Italy, were imported into England during the 16th century. By the end of this period similar fabrics were produced in England. The original fabrics from Italy and France were produced using linen, wool and silk while England’s denim was produced from cotton. Thus England’s denim eventually became in essence the same as the original dungaree of India. Researchers are still not sure whether England’s cotton denim relates to “serge de nim,” meaning a fabric that resembled the part-wool fabric called nim. The two best possible explanations of how the two different fabrics got to have the same name might be that, either the English producers and/or merchants of the 17th century named their cotton fabric ‘serge de Nim’ because they thought that the French name sounded grander than the Indian and English origins and thus gave it a bit more cachet, or the name or fabric got confused, misinterpreted or mistranslated by merchants during the course of travel & trade. We might never really know.

By the 18th century jean cloth was also made completely of cotton, and used to make men’s clothing, valued especially for its property of durability even after many washings. Denim’s popularity was also on the rise. It was stronger and more expensive than jean, and though the two fabrics were very similar in other ways, they did have one major difference. Denim was made of one coloured thread and one white thread (like the original dungaree cloth) whilst jean was woven of two threads of the same colour.


Both types of fabric, denim and jean, was important into America, mainly from England, until factories started to produce it locally by the 18th century. A factory in the state of Massachusetts wove both denim and jean. American advertisements as early as 1846 showed working men wearing clothing which illustrated the difference in usage between jean and denim. Mechanics and painters wore overalls made of blue denim while working men in general (including those not engaged in manual labour) wore trousers made of jean. Denim was sturdy and strong while jean was lighter in weight and durability. Read on to see how it took around a century for clothing made from denim to become known as ‘Jeans’.

From Russia with studs

The true father of Jeans, as we know it, was Jacob Youphes. He was born in 1831, in the city of Riga, which at that time was part of Russia (now Latvia). In 1854, at the age of 23, he immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York where he changed his name to Jacob Davis.
At some point during the early 1870s Davis was asked by a customer to make a pair of strong working pants for her husband. The general complaint was that the working conditions of those days were harder than any work wear could tolerate for long. To create suitably robust pants for working, he used duck cloth and reinforced the weak points in the seams and pockets with copper rivets, which made Levi’s and a new generation of jeans famous. Once again a very simple little thing made the difference. His innovative pants were so successful that word spread amongst the labourers along the railroad. Soon, Davis was making his working pants in cotton duck and in denim cotton and before long he found he could not keep up with demand.

Jacob was buying the fabric for his brilliant invention from a shop keeper/fabric dealer called Levi Strauss. It was to Strauss’s eternal good fortune that Jacob couldn’t register a patent and needed a financial partner.

From bagels & beer to blue gold

Levi Strauss was born on 26 February 1829 in Buttenheim, Bavaria, Germany. He immigrated to San Francisco California in 1851, during the Gold Rush. Levi’s first business was a wholesale dry goods business, selling everything from clothing to umbrellas to bolts of fabric. Needing a financial backer/business partner in order to patent his process. 42 year old Jacob Davis approached 44 year old Levi Strauss for assistance since he already knew him as his fabric supplier and a shrewd business man.

Thus the single most important step in the life of Levi Strauss & Co. was taken and the auspicious partnership was sealed. On May 20, 1873, Strauss and Davis received the United States patent for using copper rivets to strengthen the pockets of denim work pants. Levi Strauss & Co. began manufacturing the famous Levi’s brand of jeans.

While Levi Strauss sold work jeans made with cotton duck (similar to canvas) and denim, it was an obscure, Jewish tailor working at 31 Virginia Street in Reno Nevada who added the rivets which brought them fame and fortune.

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The “Arcuate”, the double arch stitching on the back pocket, is a Levi’s trademark, which the company has repeatedly defended in court. During World War II the US Government deemed it to be decorative only, and prohibited it from being stitched into the pockets because items needed for the war effort, including thread, were being rationed. Rather than lose its trademark, the company had the Arcuate hand-painted onto the pockets. In 1936, Levi Strauss took the branding up a notch by being the first to sew a label (The little red flag next to the back pocket of its jeans) onto the outside of a garment.

Till death do us part

Levi Strauss never married and lived with his sister Fanny all his years in America. He died on September 26, 1902 in San Francisco at the age of 73 and left the business to his four nephews, Jacob, Sigmund, Louis, and Abraham Stern, the sons of his sister and her husband David Stern. He also left bequests to a number of charities such as the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum. Levi’s fortune was estimated to be around 6 million dollars. (About $161,169,231 today.) He was buried in Colma, California.

Jacob continued working for Strauss till the end of his life. He died in San Francisco in 1908. He was succeeded in the job by his son Simon Davis. According to some articles Simon ended up running the company and was instrumental in the company’s rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake and designed a coverall that became the company’s first nationally marketed product. According to the official Levi Strauss website, the above is credited to the four Strauss nephews. At the time of publication of this article, this Levi Strauss website also briefly mentions Jacob Davis only twice, seemingly ungratefully brushing over the enormity of his influence.

Jacob Davis remains pretty unknown and very little information about this innovative man is available. Don’t you wonder how different things might have been if he did not need financial assistance from our good man Levi Strauss? Even so, his tenacity deserves respect. They made a formidable team and he made a very positive difference in the lives of the Strauss family and influenced the fashion trends of the entire world.

The world

Jeans humbly & patiently served as work wear for many years, but its future was about to change drastically. Western movies of the 1930’s had a huge influence and caused the romanticising of jeans as typical cowboy clothing. By the 1950’s blue jeans became popular in American Pop Culture as it was symbolic of a protest against conformity. It was referred to as a part of ‘Western decadence’. Denim was glamourised in movies such as The Wild one starring Marlon Brando and Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean. More and more young people dreamed of taking part in the spirit of wild abandon and revelled in wearing jeans as a symbol of rebellion.

Schools & Universities banned students from wearing denim fabric. Teenagers and young adults wearing denim were often refused admission to movies, restaurants and other everyday hang-outs. Denim pants were traditionally referred to as “waist overalls” but by the late 1950s most teenagers were calling them jeans and Levi Strauss began to officially call their product ‘Jeans’.

One of many stories in which the perception of jeans were changed took place in 1951 when singer Bing Cosby was on a hunting trip with a friend. They entered their hotel in Vancouver, Canada to check-in. Not being familiar with Bing’s status as a major celebrity, the clerk simply took their appearance into account. The men were clad in denim and hunting gear, which was unacceptable attire for entry into any respectable hotel in those days. They were refused entry until the bellboy recognised Cosby.

The trend grew and during the 1960’s wearing blue jeans become more acceptable. By the 1970’s it was truly established as a fashion trend. The 80’s brought with it “designer jeans” and denim took to the catwalks. It took a little longer in South Africa and there was still a churchy taboo until well into the late seventies, especially for girls and definitely for well to do families on the ‘platteland’. Many very grand families’ offspring saw their souvenirs from abroad thrown out or rebuked at the dinner table. It was insecurely frowned upon and deemed socially unacceptable. Not unlike the raised eyebrows the hippy-look provoked. But blue jeans and denim retained its unique fortitude and expression, more resilient than all the trammelling social perceptions.

From Rebel to Regal

Denim has made a comeback in the world of fashion, and it definitely is here to stay. Today jeans and denim items are essential items and found in almost every wardrobe of all ages across the world. It has become a key element of global seasonal trends and fashion statements. Each season brings with it new styles, fabric behaviours, features, treatments and ornamentations. Studded denim jackets, jeans, cocktail wraps, long skirts, pleated minis, bikinis, shirts and suits are often featured on the runways of Dolce & Gabbana, John Galliano, Mui Mui and Prada to name but a few.

Denim has become a classic. I would like to believe that some of Jacob Davis’s humility, innovation and pragmatism influenced the nonchalant anti-conformist spirit which still lingers in the intrinsic spirit of my original, basic & blingless jeans. There also remains an air of fortitude surrounding jeans, reminiscent of the unsung heroes of the industrial revolution. Over 50% of denim is produced in Asia, specifically China, India and Bangladesh where most workers are still getting paid a pittance for creating iconic pieces of clothing for models to prance and peacock in and the rest of us to relax in.

Wear your jeans with a thoughtful appreciation of whence they came.