Denim: “Young, Sexy, and Rebellious”
Known for its sturdiness and longevity of wear, denim as a fabric long seemed more suited for workmen’s clothes than for fashion, which traditionally celebrated the luxurious, rare and beautiful. Cotton twill most commonly dyed with indigo, denim was first produced in the French city of Nîmes—“denim” deriving from “serge de Nîmes.” The hardiness of the fabric made it appealing to laborers for wear as over garments like smocks and overalls. A similar yet thinner and poorer quality fabric that was produced in Genoa at the same time became known as “jeans” (from the French name for Genoa, Gênes) that was sewn into blue trousers for the Genoese navy and farm workers (the predecessor of our “blue jeans”). In 1872 a tailor in Nevada—Jacob W. Davis—used the heavier denim to make a part of study work trousers, which he reinforced with copper rivets at the pocket. Much stronger than any other work wear available in the American West, Davis was so overcome with orders that he reached out to the wholesaler he ordered the denim from, Levi Strauss. They became partners and patented the design. The quintessential American jean was born. Denim and jeans remained the domain of the working class for almost one hundred years—except for a few high style forays—before becoming an integral part of fashion in the 1970s.
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Mentions of denim in women’s fashion magazines in the late 1800s and early 1900s are meager—most often discussed as a cheap and serviceable suiting fabric. The first designer to play with using denim in fashion was Claire McCardell. Known for her classic American designs that were effortlessly flattering, elegant and easy to wear, McCardell was fascinated by the way heavy denim could be tailored around the body and sought to use it in novel ways. In 1942 she introduced the “Pop-over”, a denim housedress complete with a matching quilted mitt and pot holder that hung from the waistband—perfect for the housewife who spent her day (in McCardell’s own words) “cooking, dusting, scrubbing, painting, pottering…” McCardell went on to use denim for dresses, playsuits and jackets—often with blue jean style topstitching as a decorative element. Her influence was so strong that by 1948 Harper’s Bazaar thus described its use for playsuits and sundresses: “The longer you wear it, the fairer it grows. Its blue fades to the color of the sky, its texture becomes like velvet, its sturdiness softens to suppleness. It is the stuff that jeans are made of—and some of this summer’s most dashing sports clothes.” Vogue educated its high-class readers on the merits of denim in 1950: “washable, opaque, able to stand up to a long hot day.” By 1952 it had made it’s first foray “out of the kitchen and farmyard” to eveningwear in the form of a dress, “pewter-colored and strapless, the bodice encrusted with gleaming beads and framed with a fractional spencer”—though made by New York designer Mollie Parnis, the term “designer denim” was not used until two decades later, to describe heavy printed denim dresses by Grace Taylor.
The idea that blue jeans could be elevated and made into a thing of fashion began to slowly percolate during the 1970s. A growing number of new brands appeared who sold jeans at the same price point as Levi’s but with more consciously fashionable cuts, and “jeaneries” opened in malls across the country filled with jeans in every color and style. “Fashion jeans” were an increasingly growing market, and in 1976 Fiorucci brought to New York their skin-tight, wet look jeans that were the perfect style for the nascent disco movement. That year Calvin Klein made the first pair of designer jeans, which were produced as part of his mainline collection and sold for $50—roughly 5 times the cost of a pair of Levi’s. The following year Klein was approached at 3 a.m. at Studio 54 by fashion executive Carl Rosen, head of Puritan Fashions Corporation, to discuss a licensing deal. According to Klein, “I immediately said yes. To me, jeans were a state of mind that was young, sexy and rebellious.” Klein designed the jeans, Puritan subcontracted out the manufacture and they launched the collection in early 1978 with 200,000 pairs sold in the first week (at the cheaper price of $25 per pair). The little white Calvin Klein patch on the back pocket appeared on the famous bum of Patti Hansen in 1979 and very controversially on 15-year-old Brooke Shields the following year.
Also in 1976, Gloria Vanderbilt—an aristocrat, actress and artist who had recently showed her first fashion collection—teamed up with the manufacturer Murjani on a line of jeans. Murjani had been looking for a blue-blood figurehead with a globally recognized name, and with Gloria they found the ultimate partner and perfect surname to embroider on the back pocket (along with her swan logo on the front coin pocket). By tying together a venerable, respected name with the uniform of student demonstrators of the 60s, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans became “one of the most dramatic American business success stories of the decade.” They launched on the market in December 1977 and sold “a little over six million pairs” in the first year. Known for a lean, flattering cut that worked on almost all women (not just super thin models) the billboards declared, “Vanderbilt jeans hit all the best places. Your waist. Your hips. Your rear.” Gloria brought to the collaboration her color sense (the jeans were produced in a wide array of colors and also different fabrics) as well as indefatigable work ethic that allowed her to go on never-ending promotional tours of department stores across the country.
Even the legendary nightclub Studio 54 joined in the designer denim craze. With the 54 logo stitched on the back, their ads revealed a nude model pulling on a pair of jeans with the slogan "Now everybody can get into Studio 54." An over-saturated market led to a designer jeans slump in the early 1980s, though the introduction of stonewashed denim by French designers Marthe and Francois Girbaud revitalized sales in 1982 (and created one of the key trends for the decade). Not just for jeans, denim became a mainstay on international runways in the 1980s. Beloved by Azzedine Alaïa, Thierry Mugler and Kenzo, denim was intricately tailored into everything from mini dresses to power suits.
Capitalizing on jeans’ rebellious and youthful reputation, designer jeans brands exploited that connection in their marketing (particularly with Calvin Klein) and also by expanding the concept of jeans to be more of a lifestyle—as Klein stated in 1991, "In the Seventies, we were selling jeans. Today, we're selling jeans, but with a lot of clothes surrounding the jeans. Today, it's an attitude. It's what you wear with jeans. It's what you wear instead of jeans.” That same year Karl Lagerfeld remade the iconic Chanel suit in denim, sensationally signifying the true merging of high and low that had been slowly occurring in fashion over the previous three decades. By the mid-1990s denim’s cross-over into fashion was complete and sanctified by an exhibition at the at the Palais Galliera museum in 1994, "Histoires du Jeans.”
Working in denim—both in jeans and other garments—can be seen as a way for a designer to align themselves with the rebellious, rock ‘n’ roll energy encoded in the fabric. Alexander McQueen’s dangerously low-cut “bumster” jeans were front-page news when shown on Kate Moss in 1996, yet started a trend for low-slung denim that continued well into the new millennium. Since his spring/summer 2001 show, Hussein Chalayan has often played with emphatic topstitching on heavy denim. Eliding high and low, Jean-Paul Gaultier has repeatedly turned to this simple fabric in his work—most memorably with a sculpted denim strapless dress culminating in an ombré feathered hem was the star of his spring 1997 collection, while his spring 2010 couture show opened with two full-length ensembles made from denim jackets and skirt tailored immaculately.
In the late nineties and early aughts there was a rebirth of interest in designer, high-end denim. Magazine and party pages were filled with actresses, models and socialites clad in sleek, dark indigo pairs and filmy, going out tops. A seemingly never-ending parade of new brands (Earl Jean, G-Star, 7 For All Mankind, Frankie B.) appeared to keep up with the whetted desire for more denim, while many of the big fashion houses began producing luxury jeans as part of their main lines. For Gucci’s spring/summer 1999 collection, Tom Ford designed what were memorably called “multicultural jeans—pants that combine the Yankee Americana of faded blue denim, Native American-style brown feathers, South African Ndebele beading and Indian decorative mirrors.” They cost as much as $3,800 a pair. In 2002—following his 80 lb. weight loss—Karl Lagerfeld collaborated with Diesel on a line of skintight blue jeans, while that same year Michael Kors produced a limited-edition line of hand-stitched jeans.
Since the early 1980s and the dawn of designer denim, the fashion press has repeatedly announced that “denim is over,” yet it is clear from leafing through any magazine in the last forty years that denim and jeans have only become more ubiquitous. While jeans were once seen as a key factor in the increasing casual nature of dress in America, the growth of athleisure has now made jeans into the more dressed-up option. The global denim market was valued $12.7 billion in 2017 and while the majority of that is made up from mass-market and fast fashion brands, most major designers today design some kind of denim (whether for their main lines or for a specific jeans line). Vetements’ reworked vintage jeans (from 2014 and 2015) led the way for their collaboration with Levi’s for spring/summer 2017. Taking the idea of luxury denim to the extreme, the embroidered cropped jeans from Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2017 collection cost $3,795 while Gucci currently has for sale a very 80s pale denim jumpsuit for sale for $5,300 on their website. Yet for all this tarting up and embellishing, exorbitant prices and cheap knock-offs, the reputation established by Brando and Dean is so deeply engrained in our understanding of denim that no amount of designer jeans and poorly fitted mall copies have shaken its rebellious spirit nor altered its inherent qualities of hardiness and comfort—jeans still remain the garment of choice for rebels and wannabes, workmen and suburban parents, college kids and fashionistas.