DENIM (a deconstruction)
As a child born in the 90s, there is no escaping an era of denim-wearing bliss. I cannot overemphasize how much my parents loved and embraced each era of blue jeans; I can take it one further and show you:
But let’s look beyond my own denim crazed childhood to the greater significance of one of the world’s most momentous fashion trends.
While I’ve made my assumptions in regards to the birth of denim as the versatile and influential American icon that it is, I still wondered how such a mainstream piece of clothing could stand as a sartorial staple to so many emerging subcultures throughout the 20th century. Keep in mind deconstructing one of the greatest fashion trends of the 1900s is difficult. Time magazine listed it as fashion item of the century back in 2000. To further explain its complexity, I should mention, I currently have more tabs open on my browser than I have ever before. And it’s causing due stress, so let’s get to it.
In my search for a more in depth understanding of the history of denim, I came across Valet Mag’s sweet little history recap I learned that this rugged twill-woven fabric has been around a lot longer than Levi Strauss and Co. with mention of a sturdy denim commissioned by Columbus for his ship’s sails. By the 17th century trousers were being fabricated for the Italian Navy, and my guess is it didn’t take long for the benefits of this material to catch on.
Let’s skip ahead to 1873, when Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis got a patent for their riveted blue jeans. A few decades later denim trousers and jumpers were part of the soldier's fatigues used during WWI. Back on U.S. soil workers and inmates alike wore chambray shirts, denim trousers, coveralls, and occasionally the chore coat as protection from sun and harsh working conditions. As you can see up until this point in history denim had a strictly utilitarian function, almost sacred in its devotion to pragmatism. Alongside advancements in denim fabrication, the material began to really resonate as a working man’s clothes.
And finally, where things ultimately began to take a significant turn in the denim world: the post-war era of the 1940s offered a new found confidence in the American people in the form of consumption and procreation. A notable moment in history pointed out yet again by Valet Mag, "—the 1946 Labor Day issue of The American Weekly magazine focused on the working man dressed in dungaree overalls, a chambray shirt and work boots. – a huge leap for work wear —pushing denim into the nation's consciousness and equating it with something honest, hard-working and most of all, American." Blue jeans also hit Hollywood in the 1940s with films like Thousand Cheer in 43, in the famous scene where Gene Kelly gets DOWN with several cleaning supplies. Denim continues to make its appearances in major motion pictures, such as on the bum of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 and on James Dean’s bum in Rebel Without A Cause in 1955. At this point denim work-wear has the added association of rebellious adolescent angst. It wasn’t just who was wearing them and the type of defiant characters they played, but also the style of Levi’s new slimmer-fit and straighter-legged 501 jeans introduced in 1947 and meant to appeal to a larger demographic in the post-war era.
To my understanding, from this point until the late 80s denim was sort of untouchable in its sex appeal and cool vibes, allowing it to emerge as a symbol of innovation through the adaptation of an American standard. Altering blue jeans from their simple utilitarian origin and bringing them into the wild world of fashion created a divide in the type of consumers purchasing denim. There was the young boomers ready to rock in their new fitted jeans, bell bottoms, and eventually completely distressed styles. And their parents that wanted nothing do with it. I see this divide as an important part of what happened in the early 90s with more denim advertisements geared towards family values and a new wave of designer denim that a wider demographic could relate to.
Don’t get me wrong, there was still “80s cool” with bands like the Ramones tight, distressed jeans and TLC’s swaggy baggy “90s hip” with XXXL denim. But this marketable denim gained favor, and from it the mom jeans were born. And I’m not talking about 1960 slim, high-waisted blue jeans that are on trend again and literally being marketed as ‘mom jeans’ by Topshop and Reformation. I’m talking about the type of chambray pleated monstrosities worn in most retirement communities in Florida with all the comfort and no shape. The type of ill-fitting denim that President Obama, as the modern day icon of dadisms, was so highly scrutinized for back in 2009. I can’t figure out if our generation is trying to redefine vintage blue jeans as ‘mom jeans’ – or if this should be a term solely reserved for poorly fitted denim. The argument could even be made that as trends change and designers explore fit, a baggy denim might quickly be back on trend.
Ultimately my point in writing about denim wasn’t to fill you in on every turn denim has taken in fashion history or elaborate on how it came to represent each counterculture of the late 20th century. Instead, I wanted to emphasize the massive scale that this material exists on and the many connotations that are now as deeply ingrained in this fabric as the indigo that makes it blue. Like an architect redesigning the chair, the appropriation of denim; a staple in the American wardrobe, is what allows it to continue to thrive in the fashion world.
Just as relevant in fall ready-to-wear 2016, take a look at Miu Miu’s collection of denim beauties or at Vogue's collection of top 50 denim moments on the runway. Also, if you happen to be in NYC, a very inclusive history of denim exhibit is showing at FIT till May 7th, 2016.