Denim jeans are everywhere these days. You cannot leave the house without seeing them. We wear jeans to work and school. We wear them out with friends. We wear them with suit coats, ties, and dress shoes. Yet it wasn’t always this way.
What most of us now consider an everyday fashion item was pretty exclusive at the turn of the 20th century. Not in the sense of being expensive or highly fashionable, but exclusive because very few people wore denim jeans. They were not considered daily clothing. It took a couple of Hollywood films and some budding young actors to change that.
Reinforced Work Pants
Denim is a type of textile with origins dating back to at least the mid-19th century, perhaps even earlier. What we know as the modern pair of jeans was birthed from a pair of reinforced pants made by Nevada tailor Jacob Davis. His pants proved so popular with manual laborers that he could not keep up with demand. He partnered with Levi Strauss & Co. to mass-produce them on his behalf.
From that point through the early part of the 20th century, denim pants were more or less work pants for manual laborers. They were popular with farmers, ranchers, railroad workers, and factory workers. We all know why. Denim is extremely durable yet simultaneously comfortable.
Denim jeans remained workwear through two world wars and into the early 1950s. But then something happened. Hollywood put out two films that would change the course of American fashion forever. The first film was A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando. The second was Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean.
The lead characters in both films wore denim jeans and white t-shirts. Incidentally, the white t-shirt was considered workwear at that point as well. However, both characters were rebels for their day. They struck a chord with young people – so much so that jeans and white t-shirts became the clothing of choice for young people.
Gradually Gaining Popularity
Toward the end of the 50s, jeans and white t-shirts had become more commonplace as everyday clothing. The 50s turned into the 60s, when flower power and Vietnam where the big topics of the day. Whatever rebel attitude remained from the late 50s only blossomed in the 60s. And with it, more people started wearing jeans as everyday streetwear.
By the time that the 70s rolled around, denim was competing with polyester as the main fabric for daily clothing. Denim eventually won the day. By the 1980s, just about everyone was wearing jeans as casual wear. Pantsuits were dying on the vine while three-piece suits were reserved for the board room. Denim was so popular that manufacturers started making jackets, purses, and just about everything else they could think of from denim.
Denim in the Modern Era
Denim has only grown in popularity since. Today it is one of the most common fabrics in the clothing industry. At the root of it all is the trusty pair of jeans. Just about every adult in the U.S. owns at least one pair. Most of us own several pairs.
At stores like The Stockist in Salt Lake City, you can find designer jeans that cost a pretty penny. You can also go down to Walmart and buy a decent pair of jeans for less than you would pay for a fancy dinner at a four-star restaurant. There is a pair of jeans and a jean brand for everyone. And what started it all? Two films and a teenage rebellion in the 1950s.