Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we must alter it every six months
– Oscar Wilde
Denim pants were originally worn by laborers. They were valued for their durability, comfort, and cost. Because of their popularity amongst laborers, denim pants became a clothing staple for the working class. However, as time progressed, denim pants grew increasingly popular and are now a part of mainstream culture. Jeans is what people now commonly refer to denim pants, and they are worn by people all around the world with no limit to age, class, or race. What once was known as clothing that was made specifically for the working class has also managed to capture the attention of high culture fashionistas. Many designers of high end clothing companies are now making jeans a fashion necessity with heavy price tags. What was it that lead to the expansion of jeans and its uncontrollable popularity? Let us take a look at how jeans have evolved through time and history.
It was during the gold the rush in the mid 1800’s that miners in California demanded for more durable work clothes; clothes that could take the abuse and stress that miners required. In 1853, Leob Strauss had the idea of making pants out of denim and started a wholesale business which supplied miners with works clothes. He later changed his name from Leob to Levi, and you can probably figure out the rest.
The popularity of Levi’s jeans didn’t just appealed miners. Railroad workers, farmers, ranchers, and many other blue collared workers wore jeans.
Jeans continued to flourish amongst the working class until the mid 1900’s. Many famous faces promoted jeans by showing the youth how cool, comfortable, and casual they are. People like Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Elvis Presley wore jeans, and the youth wanted to emulate the rebellious nature of those people. Journalists James Sullivan describes the history of jeans: “they have been worn by soldiers and protesters, headbangers and heartthrobs, vagrants and presidents. They have been worn on campus and in prison, on horses and Harleys, to the opera and the mosh pit. They are versatile and stylish.” As the popularity of jeans went on, they became the most commonly worn bottoms, making cloth pants the alternative.
How much would you pay for a pair of denim jeans? Ten dollars? One hundred dollars? How about one thousand dollars? When the Levi Strauss sold his denim jeans to the blue collar workers of California, he sold them for less than a dollar a piece (not taking into account for inflation). In modern America, you can easily find a pair of Levi’s 501 from an array of retailers with the average price being $30. Not so bad you would think, however, there are now many retailers that have built their company around selling jeans. Unlike Levi’s modestly priced jeans, these retailer prices their jeans anywhere from $50 to over $1000. The price difference is rather substantial. Brands like True Religion, Seven for Allmankind, Ernest Sewn, and others has emphasized the fit and wash of jeans over their original values. Chief designer of Earnest Sewn said, ““jeans, like anything else in a person’s wardrobe, have inevitably evolved to encompass any person’s desire, from the very basic to the completely elaborate.” Consumerism has turned the modest working class wear into a fashion conscious necessity. People no look at jeans at just denim pants. Jeans are now symbols of style and class, not practicality.
The shift from work wear to leisure wear has allowed jeans to be widely distributed and worn. This examination of how jeans have evolved within popular culture shows the extraordinary change for our value in clothing.
(Recently in 2009, a pair of original Levi501 auctioned on Ebay for $60,000)