Denim has proved itself a fundamental textile since its inception in the early 20th century. Through the years its styles have adapted in order to fit the social and political climates of the times. However, one can’t help but wonder: what happens to all the outdated denim as trends continuously change?
Denim has always been a staple. Both functional and fashionable, its malleable form and ability to adapt to pop culture has successfully established it as a prominent garment. In each decade through the 20th and 21st centuries, denim has stood out as a unique contender.
The history of the words denim and jeans, which have with time become interchangeable, is sufficiently interesting. Fashion Encyclopedia states that the term jeans has been in circulation since the 1600s, in which it was first used as a word to describe a rough type of textile worn by working men. The origin of the word is derived from the region in Italy where the fabric, genes, was produced – Genoa. Textile weavers from the Names region of France sought to replicate their Italian neighbors. They conceived a durable fabric that is synonymous with blue jeans. Eventually, American manufacturers altered the name from serge de Nimes to denim.
The contemporary indigo-dyed blue jeans we know and flaunt today were designed through the collaboration between Levi Strauss, a merchant who had the funds to invest, and Jacob Davis, a tailor with a historic idea. During the California Gold Rush, as everyone was clamoring towards the mines to find precious stones, the two-saw opportunity elsewhere. Denim, they realized, would be the perfect pant to sell to all those looking to dig deep in the dirt.
Two things made Strauss and Davis’ denim unique. The first was Davis’ design of copper rivets – which were strategically placed alongside pockets and belt loops to hold them in place (as they were common areas that tore off). The rivets were a hit among the California locals who wore denim consistently and needed it to be durable. The second was their use of indigo to dye the denim dark – a clever solution meant to hide stains.
In the beginning, they offered two pant options: the classic blue denim kind, and a pair made of a fabric known as “duck cotton (similar to the rough canvas used for tents). The dark blue denim trumped the latter for various reasons, and the pair exclusively began to sell denim with their copper rivets. With time, the pants came to be known as jeans, or more commonly, Levies.
Though at first serving purely for function, the sexy, sometimes stiff, dyed cotton with time transformed itself into a fashion figure. The prominence of denim may not have thrived had it not been for the Hollywood influencers of the 50s, who wore denim to replicate the popular Western films of the 40s. As actors like Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe donned the look, denim became a popularized trend, and eventually, an American staple. By the 70s, the New York Times was reporting on denim and its “renaissance”, declaring that Levi Strauss had experienced a 38 per cent increase in output at the start of the decade, compared to the year prior.
Perhaps, at its core, the allure of denim lies in its versatility. Though casual, it still manages to give off an aura of put-togetherness, mixed with a sense of cool which can’t be denied to the wearer. The fabric, which was built to last, also tends to age gracefully, making it sustainable before sustainability was even a thing. The more faded, older, and worn in, the better. “They have a psychological appeal in an era when young people are searching for fundamental truths and are repudiating the establishment” stated the New York Times in an article published in 1971. Denim, it seemed, could also be used to make a statement.
In the 70’s it was counterculture. In the 80s, it came to be about sex appeal. In 1981, Calvin Klein, who just three years prior became the first high-end designer to produce a denim diffusion line, launched an ad campaign that is still referenced today.
The stretchy, spandex-clad denim of the previous decade disturbed this structure. Spandex has the effect of degrading the strength of fibers, and extracting it from cotton is no easy task. By the early 2000s, according to a Washington Post article published in 2013, nearly every pair of jeans produced had contained at least a small tint of stretch to them, making them worthless to Crane. As a result, the company has since had to adapt and seek alternative resources outside of the waste stream; a heavy loss for the sustainable potentials of denim.
The Bottom Line
Perhaps the biggest takeaway is how each stitch and patch are meant to serve a greater purpose, predominantly to extend the lifespan of the garment for as long as possible. The jeans worn today, with their effortless blend of chicness paired with comfort, reveal that practicality and function may be making their long-awaited comeback in denim. The desire to shop locally, vintage, or investing in pieces that will last for decades, including in eco-friendly specific lines, makes it feel like denim may soon experience yet another renaissance. Who knows, maybe in the wake of the conversation, we may solve other issues plaguing the denim industry – such as the heavy reliance on the water during dyeing techniques and the use of bleach. But that’s a topic for another time. For now, we’ll tackle spring cleaning, and recycling any outdated denim we find through viable means.