Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Growing up in Jeans and the Man Who Put America in Denim

In high cowboy blue jean splendor for Cheyenne Frontier Days circa 1958 or '59--Tim Murfin, next door neighbor Sharon Niddlekoff, Patrick, and cousin Linda Strom..

Like most American guys, I grew up in my blue jeans, at least after my twin brother and me prevailed upon our mother not to make us go back to school in corduroy slacks and suspenders for-christ-sakes.  We had to have them.  All of our favorite cowboys in the old two reel westerns that played on TV every afternoon wore them and so must we.  We rolled the bottoms up, which was good for mom, because they gave us growing room.  A sturdy pair could last a couple of years.  When they inevitably wore out at the knees, Mom would repair them with iron-on patches.
Mom was too cheap to pay for Levis or Lee Riders.  She generally stocked up on ours with store brands from J.C. Penney’s or Montgomery Ward’s.  Like real Levis, they were stiff and scratchy when new—chapped the hell out of my inner thighs when I walked.  Mom liked that look and at first starched our jeans to preserve it.  Stopping that was an epic battle all its own.  The dye in these off brands ran even more than Levis.  Our jockey shorts were the same color of blue as an old church lady’s hair for the first few wearings.  Eventually, however the jeans settled down to soft comfort and a far lighter hue. Neither of the high schools I attended allowed jeans at school.  But I was out of slacks as soon as possible after school and on weekends.  They were all I took to college, except for one pair of slacks for chapel services and faculty dinners.
From then on, it was all about the jeans.  I will even admit to a pair or two of elephant bells, then flairs and boot cuts before going back to old straight leg jeans like I wore in school.  But now I could buy them by length as well as waist so no more roll-ups.  I settled into a daily uniform of jeans and a chambray work shirt, denim pearl snap, or plaid flannel depending on the season.  So did a lot of other guys. By the time I was in my mid-40’s I had teen-age daughters who were all about designer jeans.  I remember the near heart-attack the first time Carolynne demanded a pair Jordache jeans that cost more than I made in a day.  I grew even more perplexed and outraged when first stone wash, then acid wash, and finally pre-worn complete with rips and tears became teen must-haves. 
At an IWW CTA fair hike picket in Chicago in 1970--boot cut jeans and a fringed leather hippie sash for flare.
It was all about denim in the ’80’s.  But fashion was also pressing prices of my work-a-day attire of choice up.  Wranglers, the least expensive of the big three brands got to $40 a pair and house brands only $5 or so less.  To keep my daughters fashionable, I sank to the cheapest jeans of all—no-names from discount houses.  The dye wasn’t really denim blue, it was a sort of purple and the stitching was in white thread instead of gold or blue.  They tended to fall apart after two or three washings, so the $5 investment in a pair was not worth it.
I swallowed hard and began paying the damn $40.  But not for long, my body was changing—and not for the better.  Jeans made for 20 year olds didn’t fit right anymore and even relaxed fits or embarrassing pairs with elastic waist bands did not entirely solve the problem which was caused by the combination of my expanding waistline, lack of ass, and short, stubby legs.  My funny looking body made up its 6’2” height in a freakishly long torso.  I started wearing pants out not in the knees, but along the seams of the crotch where the material began to pull apart after just a few washings.  After my last pair of $40 jeans bit the dust in this way after only a dozen or so launderings, I had enough.
I gave up my beloved jeans, which were as much a part of my identity and image as my cowboy hats.  But khaki slacks were $15 a pair if you took a pass on Dockers and bought the house brands at Wards or K-Mart.  And they were versatile.  They were fine for everyday wear with just a buttoned sport shirt.  Throw on a dress shirt, tie, and sport coat and they were fine for almost all business and dress up occasions short of a wedding or a funeral.

The khaki years--walking with the Democrats in the 2015 Crystal Lake Independence Day parade.
For my work as a school custodian I got blue work pants to go with my uniform shirts.  The same worked when I began working second jobs as a as a gas station/convenience store clerk. When I had the part-time job as maintenance at a local mall, I had similar brown twill pants for my tan shirts.
But most of the time it has been khakis for many years, a choice made by a lot of other duffers and men who just don’t give a damn anymore.  I never had to match my pants with my shirt or jacket.  Didn’t have to even think about them.  Just pulled ‘em from the closet and put ‘em on until the cuffs frayed or I stained them with some kind of food or drink catastrophe.  Even then they were good a while longer to mow the lawn in or do other dirty work that I couldn’t shirk or avoid.
I got older yet and began to see men my age still in their jeans.  A lot of them looked good.  They looked comfortable.  Some, the guys with big bellies like mine hanging over the belt and pushing the jeans down past the ass crack, looked ridiculous.  But not as ridiculous as the guys in sweats, cargo pants, and most shorts.  I may have been square, but at least I had my dignity.  Or so I told myself.
Then about three years ago I found some house brand jeans that looked durable for about what I was paying for my khakis.  I bought a pair on a whim.  They were roomier than what I wore in my younger days but skinny jeans are just for young dudes and hipsters.  The pants were comfortable.  I bought another pair and then another.
The Old Man back in jeans in the fall of 2018.
After I retired from my day job they were about all I wore except to church on Sundays then after a while decided that a sport coat and jeans were as acceptable as a jacket, tie, and khakis.  Since the Coronavirus lock down, I haven’t worn anything else.  But that still makes me more formal than the many guys my age I know who haven’t been out of sweats or shorts.
All of this is a useless, rambling introduction to the true topic—the official birthday of blue jeans as we know them.  On May 20, 1873 Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis obtained a patent on a new style of rugged and durable work pants.

Levi Strauss about the time he was establishing himself in San Francisco. 
Strauss was born to an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Buttenheim, Germany on February 26, 1829.  When he was 16 he accompanied his mother and two sisters to the United States to join two brothers who had an established J. Strauss Brother & Co a successful wholesale dry goods business in New York City.  Young Levi moved quickly to Louisville, Kentucky where he dealt in his brother’s dry goods.
After the Gold Rush of 1849 Levi was selected by the family to open up operations in bustling San Francisco where one sister was already in residence.  He arrived by ship from New York in 1853 with a load of goods from his brothers and set up an emporium he called Levi Strauss & Company.  He resisted the impulse of other would-be merchants to go to the gold fields to find riches in the mines, a decision that ruined most of them.  Instead he was content to collect the gold from the miners by supplying them with hard-to-get-dry goods at steep prices.  With the added cost of transportation by ship and merchandise of all types scarce, Strauss was able to charge all that the market would bear and still thrive.

Employees of Levi Strauss & Company circa 1880--mostly office workers and clerks but three men sitting on or standing by a crate are wearing the company's signature jeans both over and tucked into boots.
His well-established business outlasted the Gold Rush and was soon supplying goods to far flung corners of the rapidly developing West.  A big demand was always for durable trousers that could hold up under the rugged conditions of placer and hard rock mining.  In 1872 a major customer for Straus’s fabric, a tailor named Jacob Davis approached Levi with an idea to reinforce pockets and other points of stress like the bottom of the fly with copper rivets.  The pair entered business together and obtained their patent for “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Opening.  They called their product waist overalls, because they eliminated the bib common on a lot of work pants.
Hard working miners seldom looked this neat in Levi's product as in this advertisement .  Note denim blouse--the ancestor of today's popular jean jackets.
Legend has it that the first pants were made from coarse brown duck fabric.  And some early pairs were made this way.  But the company soon found denim, by tradition dyed blue, was far more durable and was marketing most pairs in that fabric within the first year.  In an early example of trademark branding, the company began to affix a leather tag to the back of the waist band with an illustration of two mules trying to pull a pair of trousers apart.  The illustration of strength helped sell the product, which was ubiquitous among miners and other hard working outdoor laborers in the West by the turn of the 20th Century.
Levi Strauss' trademark and label advertised the rugged strength of the pants.
Some folk believe that Strauss introduced denim to the States, importing his fabric from Nimes, France where it had been produced for centuries.  But Strauss bought his denim from well-established American weavers and dyers who had been producing the cloth for decades for use in overalls and dungarees. 
Many fabrics were commonly used for work pants—home spun, coarse woolens, and Irish laborers introduced mole skin.  Dungarees were among the most common.  They were originally made from Dungi, a durable and heavy cotton fabric originally used as sail cloth and imported by the English from India.  Like European denim or jeans, the cloth was commonly dyed with indigo.
As early as the Revolutionary War George Washington specified blue died dungarees as the field uniform of artillerymen who often had to do hard labor moving heavy cannon over muddy ground.

The Master of the Blue Jeans portrayed this beggar boy in a tattered jean jacket circa 1600.
Dungi was similar to, but not identical with denim and jeans, two fabrics which originated in Renaissance Europe.  Jeans were originated in Genoa, Italy in the 17th Century.  The material was a kind of fine wale cotton corduroy which was died blue and became in inexpensive fabric widely used in work garments of the poor.  An unknown artist now known simply as the Master of the Blue Jeans left 14 exquisite painting of poor people in the easily recognized fabric.
Soon another fabric center, Nimes, was trying to duplicate the cloth that they named after the French pronunciation of Genoa—GĂȘnes.  The fabric of Nimes was not identical to the original.  It was coarser and heavier, although nearly identical in color.  Because it was heavier it was popular in work smocks and jackets, and was also used as a cover for merchandise lashed to the decks of sailing ships.  Their fabric became known as d’Nimes—literally of Nimes—or denim.
By the early 19 both fabrics were circulating in world trade and manufactures in Britain and the United States began to copy them.  The names jeans and denim became interchangeable.
Early American work pants were very loose fitting often held up by one incorporated diagonal strap running from the waist on one side to the opposite shoulder or were bib style.  When no strap or bib was present they were held up by suspenders.  Sailors often wore light cotton pants held up by rope belts.  But belts were uncommon in most men’s pants.
When Levi introduced belt loops to some models of their jeans around the turn of the 20th Century, the pants quickly gained wide acceptance with another group of rugged outdoor workers—cowboys—who found that suspenders often snagged on brush or gear.  Range photos show that the adoption spread quickly.
Real cowboys were used in many of the early two reel western movies and so were blue jeans, rolled up at the bottom to display highly tooled Texas styled boots.  Little boys and little girls across the country saw and wanted the same look.  Soon Levis and other jean companies had a whole new market.  But school officials, Churches, and places like theaters often found jeans unacceptably informal and they were banned from those places routinely.  Which helped give the pants the extra allure of forbidden fruit.
Jeans also spread slowly east as they were adopted by more and more factory and construction workers.  Hundreds of thousands of men first encountered them in Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps during the Great Depression.  During World War II the Army issued loose fitting dungarees as fatigues for stateside duty.  Navy enlisted men eschewed traditional white bell bottoms for a tighter fitting style of jeans for everyday work and battle wear aboard ship.  And women flocking to the Defense Plants got their own jeans—usually buttoning up the side instead of the front

It turned out that James Dean's jeans made a more enduring fashion statement than his red jacket in Rebel Without a Cause.
After the war both sexes took to wearing jeans as weekend wear or for chores like gardening.  When James Dean wore a pair in Rebel Without a Cause, they became the instant uniform of rebellious youth.  Marilyn Monroe did the same thing for tight fitting, shape enhancing jeans for women in The River of No Return.
In 1973 Levis revolutionized the jeans business by introducing their 501 jeans which were preshrunk.  It was now possible to buy jeans close to the size you could actually wear—being made of cotton there was still some, although much less, shrinkage.  That also meant you could by jeans the right length.  Good bye rolled up pant legs.  Other manufactures followed.  Jeans also generally replaced the traditional fly buttons with heavy duty copper Zippers.

The continuing fashion for tattered and pre-ripped jeans remains a profound mystery to the Old Man.
The first pre-washed jeans and decorated jeans were introduced by retailers in New York City in the mid ‘60’s inevitably leading to the era of designer jeans.
Today even though their peak popularity in the 1980’s has passed, jeans are still probably the most common leisure and work wear in the United States.  Most people own three or more pair at any time.  And the look has been just as popular in France where the fabric originated and where nearly as many jeans are now sold annually as in the United States.

No comments:

Post a Comment