Jeans: The History of Everyone’s

Christina Knight | January 21, 2022


American Experience: Riveted: The History of Jeans premieres Monday, February 7 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Ripped by design or threadbare from years of use, and with cuts, widths and stretches to fit any body, jeans today are ubiquitous and no longer linked to an identity, lifestyle or job. It’s something nearly everyone can agree on today – jeans are an essential wardrobe staple. Depending on age and background, people might call them dungarees, denim pants, or “blue jeans,” though the woven cotton fabric called denim has long expanded its colors from its original indigo dye. To give us an idea of the history in our own closets, the PBS documentary series American Experience will begin its new season with Riveted: The History of Jeans.

Five men stand in front of vehicle holding large tree truns. Each man rests his hand or hands on an upright mill tool.

Jeans-clad members of Ola self-help sawmill co-op. Gem County, Idaho. Photo: Library of Congress

The jeans documentary will share the fascinating and surprising story of the iconic American garment, from its roots in slavery to the Wild West Gold Rush days. Whether linked to youth culture, the civil rights movement, rock and roll, hippies, high fashion or hip-hop, jeans carry the history of American culture and politics.

But for at least the past 40 years, jeans have become international. At any given moment, half the people on the planet are wearing them, according to James Sullivan, author of “Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon,” who is among the diverse cast of historians, authors, designers and so-called “denim heads” interviewed in Riveted.

Two young Black boys stand on a dirt path next to field. They are barefoot and wear caps and denim clothing. A few houses and barn is seen in distance.

Boys wearing denim at Gees Bend, Alabama. Photo: Library of Congress

The story of jeans usually begins with Levi Strauss (1829 – 1902), a Jewish Bavarian immigrant looking to make his fortune selling garments to the 49ers during the California Gold Rush. But half a century before Strauss, enslaved people in the American South were wearing a precursor of denim made from a coarse textile known as “slave cloth.” The blue hue of jeans came from an arduous dyeing process using the indigo plant. Eliza Lucas, the daughter of an 18th-century colonial governor in Antigua, has long been credited as the savvy entrepreneur who jump-started the Southern economy with indigo production. Left out of this narrative are the West African enslaved people, whose invaluable expertise for growing, processing and dyeing the plant had been brought with them to the U.S.

Women welders walk away from a door and wear denim overalls and helmets

Women welders wearing denim overalls on the way to their job, circa 1943, at Todd Erie Basin dry dock.
Stocktrek Images, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Though Levi Strauss is typically credited with the “invention” of blue jeans, Riveted reveals the story of Russian-American tailor Jacob Davis, who added reinforcing copper rivets to the pants. This innovation created a garment so strong that it came to clothe nearly all American laborers by the 1930s.

The rise of dude ranch culture would change the perception of blue jeans as working-class attire. A huge fad in the 1930s, American women of a certain class vacationed at these working ranches, helping with the chores and enjoying a taste of the cowboy life made popular by Hollywood. These women were able to wear pants, perhaps for the first time. Jeans soon evolved into a piece of clothing not just for labor but for leisure, moving off the pages of the Sears catalogue and onto the pages of Vogue magazine.

A man smiles and pats the face of the dark brown horse standing close to him.

President Ronald Reagan wears jeans, a jean jacket and cowboy hat while standing next to his horse “Little Man” at Rancho Del Cielo, 1977. Photo courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

During the postwar era, jeans were once again reinvented. Suddenly, denim pants weren’t just about freedom and the Wild West; they were now the emblem of bad boy cool. From the moment Marlon Brando donned a pair of Levi 501’s in the motorcycle-centered The Wild Ones, jeans would never be the same. For the first time, being a “teenager” became a distinct phase of life, and jeans were the unofficial uniform of teen rebellion, prompting some schools to ban them. Jeans manufacturers fought back, forming the Denim Council, which launched a multimedia campaign to convince the public that jeans would not corrupt their children.

The story of denim in the 1960s frequently focuses on how the hippie counterculture turned blue jeans into a vivid garment of protest. Often overlooked is denim’s key role in the civil rights movement, according to Tanisha Ford, professor of History at CUNY, who reveals the story of the denim-clad Black college students who traveled south to organize protests. These “rebels with a cause” transformed the garment into a potent symbol of solidarity with the Southern Black working class.

By the 1970s, jeans had evolved into a billion-dollar industry, finding a home in nearly every closet in America. The rise of “designer jeans” and labels such as Jordache, Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt made jeans a designer item many could now afford. Sales skyrocketed, and high fashion, previously reserved for the elite, began merging with mass culture.

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The emergence of hip-hop in the 1980s and 90s pushed jeans into a new realm. Baggier cuts and subversive takes on preppy high-end brands such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger reflected anti-establishment and rebellious notions. As Kim Jenkins, professor in Fashion Studies at Ryerson University and principal researcher for The Fashion and Race Database, notes: “Not only do we see hip-hop artists able to remix sounds, like in music, but they’re also able to take clothing and remix it for their own means. To get your hands on that clothing and wear it is subversive in a way. Because it is saying, ‘I’m not supposed to be wearing this. But look at me: I am.’”

Boot cut, flare, ripped and faded. Mom jeans, dad jeans, skinny jeans. Everyone has their favorite style and their favorite pair. “Jeans are the perfect, quintessentially American item through which to examine the complex story of America,” says American Experience executive producer Cameo George. “They reflect their times and provide a unique and unexpected starting point for discussions of race, gender, class and culture. And they’re also one of the few things we all agree on—we all love our jeans!”

Written, directed and produced by Anna Lee Strachan and Michael Bicks and executive produced by Cameo George, Riveted: The History of Jeans premieres Monday, February 7, 2022, 9 p.m. ET (check local listings) on American Experience on THIRTEEN and the video apps for PBS and THIRTEEN Explore.

Riveting Interviewees

Illustration of young man in blue jeans holding basketball next to two smaller teens also wearing jeans. The ad says: Follow the leader...wear Levi's. America's finest overall since 1850. More popular than ever on campus and playground

Popular Levi’s advertisement from the 1950s. Photo: Levi Strauss & Co.

 

Stephen Aron is President and CEO of the Autry Museum of the American West and Professor Emeritus of History at UCLA.

Daina Berry is a Professor and Chair of the History Department at UT Austin.

Adrienne Rose Bitar is a historian at Cornell University and author of Romancing the Dude Ranch, 1926-1947.

Tanisha C. Ford is Professor of History at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where she teaches courses on African American history, biography and memoir, and the geopolitics of fashion. She is the author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul.

Rabbit Goody is a textile historian and master weaver who has created historically accurate fabric for films including Amistad and The Color Purple.

Bill Hayes is author of American Biker: The History, the Clubs, the Lifestyle, the Truth.

Tommy Hilfiger is an American fashion designer and winner of the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.   

Melissa Leventon is a specialist in European and American costume and textiles and former Curator-in-Charge of Textiles at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Emma McClendon is a fashion historian, curator, author, and former Associate Curator of Costume at The Museum at FIT. She is the author of Denim: Fashion’s Frontier.

Catherine McKinley is the author of Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World.

Evan Morrison is a historian of denim and founder of the White Oak Legacy Foundation which aims to preserve Greensboro, North Carolina’s long history of denim production.

Kimberly Jenkins is Assistant Professor of Fashion Studies in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University and the founder of The Fashion and Race Database, an online platform filled with open-source tools that expand the narrative of fashion history and challenge misrepresentation within the fashion system.

Seth Rockman is Associate Professor of History at Brown University and author of the essay “Negro Cloth: Mastering the Market for Slave Clothing in Antebellum America.” 

Jonathan Square is Assistant Professor of Black Visual Culture at Parsons School of Design and author of Negro Cloth: How Slavery Birthed the Global Fashion Industry.

Valerie Steele is director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  See FIT solve a jeans riddle for its 2015 exhibition “Denim: The New Frontier.”

James Sullivan is author of Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon.

Holly George Warren is an award-winning author whose books include How the West was Worn.

 

A Black man in overalls and longsleeve shirt and cap stands in row of big-leafed plants.

Sharecropper’s son in denim overalls worming tobacco. Wake County, North Carolina. Photo: Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress