A History of Jeans: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Though jeans have their start in the United States, they have become a staple of wardrobes across cultures and continents. From the United States to Indonesia, it’s the most unifying wardrobe item in the world. But how did this happen? Why have jeans become the go-to item to wear and how has the fashion changed through the years?

The History of Jeans

Once upon a time, jeans were a welcome advancement from burlap, which was worn by sharecroppers and even slaves in the U.S. southern states. In the early 19th century, cotton was a growing industry of the United States economy.

Eli Whitney’s cotton gin enabled mass production of cotton products, like shirts and pants, and decreased the price of clothing that was once only affordable for the upper class. However, much like today, the higher quality the cotton thread count, the more expensive. The tough twill that has become known as jeans was originally created in France.

When pressed in a heating process this formed a tough and durable cloth perfect for those working in rigorous jobs, like farming and mining. Also at this time, indigo, a common crop of the south, became a popular dying agent used by people of modest means to dye their cotton pants. The deep blue hid the inconsistencies in colouring of the natural cotton fibre. People working in the hot, humid climate of the south and dry heat of the west, who once endured scratchy, hot burlap, could afford to replace it with a more comfortable, albeit stiff alternative: jeans.



Jeans were first made both as pants for miners and as overalls, as an inexpensive means to hold-up pants for those working outdoors. These became wardrobe staples of those who worked on farms and were rarely seen on anyone living in cities.

In the 1860’s, Levi Strauss popularised jeans for both miners working in the west and for cattle ranchers and the brand is still strong today.

Lynn Downey works as a historian for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco and is responsible for Levi’s extensive archives of clothing, photographs, posters and artifacts. The jewel in this amazing archive is the world’s oldest pair of Levi’s- a pair “XX,” one-pocket jeans, which date back to 1879 and are valued at $125,000.


Unfortunately the archive is not open to members of the public, however there is a permanent display of choice pieces from the collection in the lobby of the Levi’s Headquarters in San Francisco.


James Dean – the greatest denim icon

Jeans: The New Norm

For its first one hundred years, the jean pant was worn mostly by men and more utilitarian than fashionable. But in the mid 1950’s, women and western society as a whole adopted the look.

Popularised by both a surge in “cowboy” films, or westerns, as well as the beatnik culture, with its leather, jeans and iconic figure James Dean, jeans took off. There’s a great post on Buddha Jeans blog all about James Dean – the greatest denim jean’s icon well worth checking out.

Young men wore jeans cuffed on the bottom while women wore them extra tight, cuffed or cut off.


The bad and the ugly…

Here’s some examples of jeans which are a little strange to say the least.
Peripheral Jeans
Starting with a pair of jeans that boasts a built-in keyboard, mouse, and computer speakers that play audio at knee height. The keyboard is wireless, and while it may just look like a graphic design on the pants, will work with any laptop or desktop computer. The fashionable gadget, named The Beauty and the Geek jeans, were created by product design student Erik De Nijs from Holland for a school project which required him to combine two brand items to create a new product. In part, he designed the Peripheral Pants to allow computer users more freedom of movement, but the main objective was to create a functional fashion meets technology item that would be seen as weird and wacky, and not necessarily a practical design.


Artistic Jeans ($27,000)

These jeans are the most expensive jeans in the World made by Levi’s. Artist Damien Hurst teamed up with Levi’s for this

Corset Jeans

Words fail me when it comes to these ladies jeans.

Bikini Jeans

Jeans Through the Years

No other piece of clothing better symbolises a fashion period or era, than jeans. Depending on who you ask, from 1970’s bell bottomed pants, to 1980’s stone washed, jeans have seen their share of fashion “faux-pas”, but were nevertheless popular during the period.

Today’s consumer has a number of options when it comes to buying a pair of jeans in terms of colour and style. With some much choice in high street shops and online, we are spoilt for choice with choosing the right pair of jeans.

Jeans are a staple in most people’s wardrobes and are acceptable dressed up or dressed down. From their humble beginning to the most popular wardrobe item today, it’s safe to say, jeans will be a part of our wardrobe for many years to come.

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