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Where Do Blue Jeans Come From?

The garment most associated with America has roots in India, France, and northern Asia

Indians were the first to wear cotton - American Indians and India's Indians. By about 2800 BC, cotton was being grown in present-day Mexico as well as in what are now Pakistan and western India. India was exporting cotton cloth to the Mideast by 1500 BC. The tropical plant with its long seed fibers was grown in Italy and Spain by AD 700. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land in the 11th and 13th centuries popularized the cloth in Europe. Later, the fiber would fuel the Industrial Revolution and become "king cotton" in this country. Man-made fibers had dethroned it by the 1970s.

Denim, the "most American cloth," didn't originate in this country at all. Denim began in France as serge de Nmes (twill fabric from Nmes - pronounced "neem"). "De Nmes" was later shortened to "denim." Denim is still a twill fabric. Twill is one of the three basic ways in which cloth is woven. (The other two are tabby and satin.) Because of the way it is woven, twill fabric has a pattern of parallel diagonal lines in it. Look closely at your jeans sometime. See the lines?

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How handy are you with a needle and thread? You'd have to be pretty handy if you had one of the first "hookless fasteners" on your jeans. The early zipper was a hook-and-eye contraption that had to be taken out before washing and then sewn back in afterward. Otherwise, they would rust. Whitcomb Judson presented his idea at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It had taken him 20 years to come up with a marketable item. It would take another 10 to persuade the public that it was useful. The US Postal Service was the first to place an order with Judson, for 20 mail bags with the fasteners. The devices jammed so frequently, though, the bags were discarded. Swedish-American Gideon Sundback designed a better version in 1913 (the drawing above is from his patent). In 1923, B.F. Goodrich introduced rubber galoshes with "hookless fasteners." Mr. Goodrich coined the name "zipper" based upon the z-z-z-z-ip!' sound the boot-closures made.

You've heard about men being shocked by women wearing pants. But what about men being shocked by men wearing pants? Trousers were "barbarous" to toga-clad Romans as late as AD 397. Pants had been developed by nomadic horsemen in Asia. They needed them to stay warm. The fashion spread, and the controversy continued: French rebels scorned knee breeches for longer-legged pantalons in 1789. The Duke of Wellington, an English national hero, was later denied entrance to his club when he showed up in long pants.

Indigo dye - it put the "blue" in "blue jeans" - is so cherished that it led to a Nobel Prize. The long-lasting dye was first used 4,000 years ago in India. It comes from the leaves of a plant related to the pea family. (The name indigo comes from the Latin "indicum," meaning "from India.")

England monopolized indigo production from its India colony until the 1890s. That's when German scientist Adolf von Baeyer made synthetic indigo - and won a Nobel Prize in 1905 for his work.

Levi Strauss (left), a Bavarian immigrant, arrived in San Francisco in 1850 to sell goods to gold miners. "Shoulda brought pants to sell," his customers told him. "Pants don't wear worth a hoot in the diggin's." So Strauss hired a tailor to make durable trousers out of brown tent canvas. Success! Strauss added blue denim in the 1860s. Rivets came later, when Reno, Nev., tailor Jacob Davis suggested them. Davis had developed the process when one of his huskier customers complained about the durability of his trousers. In 1872, the first recognizable pair of what we would call "blue jeans" were born. But they weren't called "jeans." "Jeans" meant "cheap pants" then, so the garments were called "waist over-alls." Davis and Strauss had a patent on the design, so no competing pants were allowed until 1908.

Denim Dates

1873 - Levi Strauss's revised, riveted "waist over-alls" are introduced. They are exclusively a workwear garment. Back then, they had a much fuller cut than today. They had only one back pocket, a watch pocket, a cinch in the back, and a button fly. No belt loops, as belts were too expensive for working men. The pants had suspender buttons instead.

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1902 - A second back pocket is added.

1908 - Strauss and Davis's patent on riveted clothing expires. Competitors may enter the market.

1922 - Belt loops are added, but suspender buttons remain.

1930s - John Wayne and Gary Cooper begin wearing jeans in Western films.

1937 - Suspender buttons are removed, but snap-in ones are provided just in case.

1940s - Wartime shortages eliminate the crotch rivet and the back cinch. Decorative stitching is also eliminated. Instead, workers paint on the designs.

1954 - A zippered fly is introduced. Jeans start being popular among teenagers when "teen rebel" movie stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando wear them.

1960 - The name "jeans" is finally used in advertising.

1963 - Pre-shrunk jeans arrive.

1970s - Jeans are now a wardrobe staple. The "in" look is a tight top with extraordinarily wide "bell bottom" legs. Stonewashed jeans arrive later this decade.

1980s - Secondhand jeans became popular, and a rip or two is considered stylish. The tapered-leg look is cool.

1990s - "Vintage" jeans become popular. Manufacturers try to imitate the worn-out look.

1997 - Flared legs and hip-huggers are "in" again. The '70s look is back.