From Workwear to Fashion Staple: A Brief History of Denim

Table of Content

  • The Early Days of Denim
  • Denim Goes Mainstream
  • Denim's Popularity and Its Impact on the Planet
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Man doing farm work dressed in jeans

Savvy fashion connoisseurs know every capsule wardrobe needs a good ol' pair of denim trousers. Your favorite green jeans are the sartorial union of inherently cool style and immense versatility. However, most are unaware of the long and eventful history of denim. While every other piece of clothing eventually declines into obsolescence until it, one day, makes its way back into the spotlight, this beloved utilitarian fabric has remained a wardrobe staple almost since its inception.

So we took a walk down memory lane to equip you with some additional facts about the fashion sphere's most precious textile: denim.

The Early Days of Denim

Denim fabric has existed for centuries, but its origins can be traced back to the 17th century in Nimes, France. The fabric was initially known as "serge de Nimes," which was shortened to "denim." The fabric was made from a blend of cotton and wool and was durable and ideal for workwear.

Denim became especially popular with workers in the United States in the 19th century. The fabric was used to make sturdy work pants, known as "jeans," worn by miners, cowboys, and other laborers. Levi Strauss is credited with bringing denim to America and popularizing the fabric. May 20, 1873, marked a historic day: the birth of the all-too-familiar blue jeans. Strauss and Jacob Davis obtained a U.S. patent to create work pants reinforced with metal rivets. The two began manufacturing "waist overalls," as the original jeans were known. The new design was stronger and more durable than other work pants, making jeans especially sought after.

Denim Goes Mainstream

By the 1930s, denim had become a symbol of youth rebellion and counterculture. Hollywood films featuring actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean popularized denim as a symbol of cool and rebellion. Young people started wearing denim jeans to express their independence and rejection of societal norms.

During World War II, denim became even more popular as it was used to make uniforms for soldiers. After the war, denim jeans became a symbol of Americana and were exported to countries worldwide. By the 1950s and 1960s, denim had become a casual wear staple worn by people of all ages and backgrounds.

Denim's Popularity and Its Impact on the Planet

Today, denim continues to remain a staple garment for many people around the globe. The industry has grown into a billion-dollar enterprise that includes everything from high-end designer jeans to affordable, fast fashion. Denim has evolved into many styles, from skinny jeans to boyfriend and flare jeans. It's also used to make jackets, skirts, shorts, and other clothing items.

Its versatility makes it perfect for all occasions; you can dress it up with a blazer or down with a T-shirt. But why is it so popular? Its durability and affordability are key factors, but perhaps its biggest draw is the timelessness of denim – it will never go out of style.

With its hugely successful history, many brands have jumped on the bandwagon and started producing their own jeans with little consideration for sustainability. Six billion jeans are produced annually, with the vast majority being made overseas in several developing countries. In fact, over 50% of denim is produced in Asia, most of it in China, India, Turkey, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The mass production of denim has considerably negatively affected our planet's well-being.

It takes a great deal of water and energy to produce and results in high carbon emissions and toxic chemicals being released into groundwater systems. In addition, synthetic components such as polyester used in 'stretch' versions create microplastics that pollute our oceans. Denim also produces abundant textile waste throughout its life cycle, from leftover fabric scraps and trimmings to worn-out pairs that often end up in landfills. To tackle these environmental issues, some denim brands are beginning to prioritize sustainable practices such as using recycled materials, switching to low-impact dyes, and investing in sustainable water practices.

Choose Sustainable Denim

Fortunately, methods are now available to help reduce the impact of denim production, such as using organic cotton or recycled materials and employing innovative dyeing techniques. Changes must be made if we wish to continue enjoying this fashion staple while avoiding any further detrimental effects on our planet.

At Proper, we are working to keep denim out of landfills by creating a circular economy. We are collecting preloved denim to enable the re-wearing, remaking, and recycling of denim that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

Order a Take Back Bag today to be a part of the solution.

All photos by Documerica on Unsplash

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