Levi Jeans Turns 150! Flashback to Denim Fashion Through the Decades
Long before that little orange or red tag on your backpocket made you feel cool, Levi jeans were serving a much greater purpose. Who knew that Levi Strauss, a German Jewish immigrant who arrived in San Francisco in 1850, would forever change fashion with the invention of blue jeans? Originally invented in 1853 because Strauss saw a need for more durable pants during the Gold Rush, Strauss had a tailor make the first Levi’s out of tent canvas, eventually switching to denim with copper riveting at the seams and at the time were called overalls. Through the early 1900s, jeans grew in popularity with cowboys, lumberjacks and railroad workers. During World War II, they were declared a commodity, providing another boost to their popularity.
In the latter half of the 20th century, jeans hit it big all over the world, and were commonly worn in several different American subcultures. Greasers, punks, and hippies alike wore jeans. Blue jeans, to be specific. David Bowie even wrote a song about it! (Well, about a girl named Blue Jean, but still.)
Levi’s grew from a company with 15 salespeople, two plants, and almost no business east of the Mississippi in 1946 to include a sales force of more than 22,000, with 50 plants and offices in 35 countries by the 1980s. Marlon Brando, James Dean and tons of Hollywood bad boys continued to don blue jeans in films through the century, popularizing the boxy style of jeans worn in their films, often with the bottoms rolled up. For a while, this was the very symbol of cool.
Just in case anyone forgot about bellbottoms, as they seem to be coming back into style – again! In the 1960s, blue jeans were for the free-love revolution. Often they were paired with denim jackets as well, and included patches with symbols like peace icons and flowers. Landlubber jeans (founded in 1964 by the Hoffman Corporation of Boston) were the jeans to wear in the ’60s and ’70s. American jeans became so cool by this point that they were deemed illegal in the USSR, along with The Beatles!
Charlie’s Angels actress Farrah Fawcett and model Lauren Hutton were all about wide-leg blue jeans in the 1970s. Denim skirts and vests came into the picture as well. In 1977, Gloria Vanderbilt launched her world-famous designer jeans, which were tighter than other jeans, and met with great success. Jeans became smaller again too, with slim-fitting, straighter legs. Other popular ’70s brands like Jordache and HASH also jumped on this trend of slim jeans and embellishing the back pockets.
Then of course came Daisy Dukes. Inspired by Catherine Bach‘s character on The Dukes of Hazzard, barely-there cut-off shorts were a huge fashion trend at the end of the decade and into the next. Judging from what college students don in summer nowadays, I’d say they’ve never really gone out of style!
Calvin Klein introduced even tighter-fitting jeans in the mid-1970s, and they took off as well. In 1980, they ran a controversial ad with 15-year-old Brooke Shields, in which she said “You want to know what comes in between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” This received some backlash, understandably, and was even deemed child porn by some. The brand itself didn’t suffer much from the publicity, however, and is still in business. Other competitors to Strauss included Sasoon, Wrangler, Ralph Lauren, Gucci and DKNY.
Guess jeans were another major popular brand of the 1980s. Sex kitten models like Carla Bruni and Claudia Schiffer that first donned the jeans in all the fashion mags. Every teen girl in the ’80s wanted that little white and red triangle on their butt. Stars like Michael J. Fox‘s Marty McFly sported Guess denim clothing specifically made for him in the 1985 hit Back to the Future. But it was in the 1990s when best-known model Anna Nicole Smith shot to stardom as their spokesmodel and oh-so channeled Marilyn Monroe with her look as the brand continued success into the ’90s and is still strong today.
By the 1990s, Levi’s had some pretty stiff competition, and closed down many of its plants. One rival was the new wide-legged, Los Angeles-based company JNCO. The 1990s were all about comfort, and giant clothes paved the way. Inspired by East L.A. trends and founded in 1985 by Moroccan brothers Jacques Yaakov Revah and Haim Milo Revah, these ultra-wide-leg denim jeans became so immensely popular in the 1990s that it’s hard to imagine the decade without picturing the jeans. With a logo designed by an L.A. graffiti artist named Joseph Montalvo (aka Nuke), word quickly spread about the jeans from its origins near West Coast beaches to suburbs and skate parks across America, at which point, as the decade and century were coming to a close, they became too popular to be cool anymore. By 2001, the JNCO showroom had closed down. But, like many fashion trends, this one also seems to be making a comeback!
All in all, jeans remain one of the most common types of clothing people wear all across the world. Which is pretty cool for an idea that came out of some miners wearing out their pants too quickly!