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Fashion History - Jeans and Dungarees

Updated on January 4, 2018
Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

Jeans - Rear Patch Pockets

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America's Most Iconic Garment

Jeans are the iconic garment of the 20th century, adapted by each generation to suit its own mode of self expression. Known as dungarees, blue jeans, and once called waist overalls, they are tough, long lasting, and practical.

Jeans are the quintessential American garment, representing rugged individuality, rebelliousness, and adaptability. The famous denim pants have moved from standard work issue to status symbols worn by the elite. They've been rare and over priced commodities sought after by wealthy fashionistas and the uniform of activists associated with workers' movements. From cowboys to movie stars, jeans reign supreme as the most popular anti-fashion garment of modern America.

What's in the Name?

The term "jeans" became popular in the mid 20th century, referring to blue denim pants with a form fitting cut and riveted pockets. But older sources of the word exist.

The word "jeans" is said to derive from the French for sailors from Genoa, Italy who wore pants made of a sturdy cotton, linen, or wool blend twill called fustian. In the 16th century, that fabric was called "Jene Fustyan." By the 18th century, jean fabric was all cotton, used to make work clothing in several colors, including a popular indigo blue. Pants made from this fabric were called "jean pants."

The word "denim" may be an Anglicized version of the French "serge de nimes," a mostly wool fabric of the 17th century.

Dungarees were made of a coarse, heavy duty fabric dyed blue and used for work pants. In the 18th century, the town of Dungari, or Dungri near Mombai, India, produced a denim like fabric used to make sails and tents. The fabric became a popular material for cheap, durable pants worn by slaves, laborers, agricultural workers, and miners. The word "dungarees" came to refer to these pants and to the utility uniform of the US Navy during World War I. The word "dungarees" was popularly used in the US until the middle of the 20th century, when it was replaced by the word "jeans."

In the UK, the word "dungaree" often refers to what Americans call bib overalls.

1890 Play "Blue Jeans"

Ad for a play by Joseph Arthur
Ad for a play by Joseph Arthur | Source
Jeans with riveted pocket
Jeans with riveted pocket | Source

Levi Strauss

In 1873, Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor teamed up with San Fransico merchant Levi Strauss to gain a patent for their work pants. The unique adaptation of copper rivets at the pocket joining increased the strength of the garment and paved the way for the most popular garment of the 20th century.

Levi Strauss and Company's first jeans came in brown cotton duck or blue denim and were called "waist overalls," as opposed to bib overalls which cover the chest.

By the late 19th century, Strauss's work pants with rear double stitched patch pockets, and a signature leather patch became known as Levi's. Levi 501's origins in 1890 became the archetypal jeans and cornered the market on pants for miners, farmers, ranchers, and other hard working people. 501's famous label featured two horses pulling a pair of Levi's to attest to the strength of the garment.

Levi's tough durability, convenient pockets, and distinctive style created a fashion icon that lasted over 100 years.

By the end of the 19th century, Levi Strauss and Co. drew competition from Osh Kosh B'Gosh, and Blue Bell, which would later become Wrangler. Lee Mercantile produced a successful waist overall in 1911 and in 1913, Lee's Union Alls became the standard issue trouser for war workers.

Levis Famous Horse Brand Label

Levi's famous horse brand label  shows the strength of the pants
Levi's famous horse brand label shows the strength of the pants | Source

Jeans Go Hollywood

In the 1920s and 30's, Hollywood films depicted cowboys, ranchers, and rugged Western men wearing jeans. Lee Mercantile produced 101's for cowboys, and rodeo performers.

Popular Hollywood stars like Tom Mix, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper helped romanticize the western image as well as create the image of the rugged American male wearing blue jeans. And when glamorous stars like Carol Lombard and Ginger Rodgers posed for publicity photos wearing blue jeans, the tough working man's pants took on a whole new allure. Jeans were suddenly not just for work, but for leisure and appearance as well.

Jeans circa 1942 - Publicity shot of female worker taking a break from factory work.
Jeans circa 1942 - Publicity shot of female worker taking a break from factory work. | Source

Jeans in World War II

Fabric restrictions during World War II caused jeans, as well as other garments, to adapt a new look, using less material in production. And as men went off to war, women took on jobs formerly filled by men, including factory work. Publicity shots (like the one on the right) of jean clad working women encouraged the can-do patriotic attitude of the day.

Mid century clothing designers like Clair McCardell, who promoted American mass production and affordable fashion, included denim in her day wear dresses.

During the war, American GI's wore jeans while off duty overseas, giving the humble style a new reputation. Jeans, to others, came to represent American leisure and abundance, and became symbolic of American freedom.

Jeans circa 1952
Jeans circa 1952 | Source

Post War Jeans

In 1947, Wrangler introduced a slimmer pair of jeans for women. For the first time, the denim work pants were marketed for appearance rather than function. Lee Riders slimmed down as well, and manufacturers targeted the youth market.

Children wore jeans for play, just like the cowboys they so admired. Teens watched Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) where the wearing of jeans appeared to be associated with youthful rebellion. Often, jeans came to become associated with unsavory characters like Stanly Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire (1951), certain Rock 'n' Roll musicians, and juvenile delinquents causing the popular pants to be banned from some high schools.

But the establishment dismissal of jeans only made them more popular with young people The 1960s saw a jeans explosion with the anti-establishment crowd. Jeans now came in vivid colors, and new shapes, including the iconic bell bottoms (a style worn by sailors). Jeans now came embellished with embroidery and appliques, or were home decorated with creative patching and fabric paint.

Toward the end of the 1960s, and into the early 1970s, jeans took on political overtones. The ecological back to nature crowd popularized bib overall types jeans, while leftists associated jeans with the working class and anti fashion sentiments.

Bell bottom jeans
Bell bottom jeans | Source

A New Kind of Sophistication

During the 1970s jeans took on a whole new sophistication as top notch designers adapted to the popularity of denim. Fiorucci's Buffalo 70 jeans were expensive and hard to find, earning them the reputation as status symbols. Gloria Vanderbilt offered dark colored, slim fit jeans with a bold designer logo on the back pocket.

Soon, other design houses joined in as jeans took on a new celebrity identified with high fashion and glamor. In 1976, Calvin Klein was the first to send models down the runway wearing jeans. His 1980 ad campaign featured a sexy 15 year old Brooke Shield and upset America by sexualizing such a young girl.

Jeans became a wardrobe staple and came in a wide variety of styles, including acid washed, stone washed, stretch denim, cropped skinnies, and preripped.

Boosted by the hip-hop movement of the early 1990s, manufacturers began to produce basic, no-frills jeans. Large, low hanging, baggy jeans paid homage to convicts who were forced to remove their belts. Manufacturers like Carhartt appealed to the harsh, hip-hop life style.

Skinny jeans in hot pink
Skinny jeans in hot pink | Source

Jeans Today

Still the staple, basic element of the American wardrobe, jeans have returned to classic styles including the reappearance of vintage styles like the flannel lined jeans of the 1950s. Rolled up legs and cropped lengths repeated styles of the 50's as well.

Dark skinny jeans have become the uniform of the skateboard crown for both appearance and practicality.

Jeans have become a symbol of the US in all its forms and conceits, from high fashion status symbol to a uniform of the agricultural worker. Jeans have suggested left wing political activism as well as the conservative values of honest, hard work. They conjure up images of the American West and adventurous heroes, trouble makers, sex symbols, and are totems of the American spirit and ideals.

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