Tales of Denim 27.04.2014

Origin of Denim: From India to Nowadays, Part III

Long before “the birth of blue jeans” in America, denim was tailored in a French town called Nîmes (‘de-nim’), the port of Genova (‘jeans’) and also – India.

In the 16th century, European sailors stopped at Indian ports where they bought tough, wide-legged pants for their hard-working use. Dyed with indigo, the cheap pants were made of coarse, thick cotton cloth and they became instantly popular among the sailors – above all, they were practical as the dirt did not glitter far as it does on white sailcloth + the legs were wide (straight or bell-bottom) so they could be easily rolled up for deck wash, or taken off when a man was washed overboard. The sailors soon started calling them ‘dungarees’ after the local name ‘dungri’ as the pants were mainly worn by people of a dockside village called Dongri.

Starting as common Indian cloth, the dungarees became sailor’s everyday blue uniform even throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. In the United States and Australia, they became more and more popular as durable workwear also among farmers and herders, cowboys and miners. Because of its fading qualities, denim was sold raw – unwashed and untreated – and each pair of jeans began to tell the story of the worker and his work.

“Jeans are the most personal thing you can wear.”

Examples of intentional denim distressing strictly to make them more fashionable can be seen as early as 1935 in Vogue’s June issue. Michael Belluomo, the editor of Sportswear International Magazine, Oct/Nov 1987, wrote that in 1965, Limbo, a boutique in the New York East Village, was “the first retailer to wash a new pair of jeans to get a used, worn effect, and the idea became a hit.”

Before World War II jeans were only worn in America’s Western states. In the east, they were synonymous with romantic notions of the cowboy – rugged and independent but at the same time rural and working class. When start to be worn as casual wear, it was a startling symbol of rebellion – the spirit captured by Marlon Brando in his 1953 film The Wild One and by James Dean two years later in Rebel Without a Cause. Hollywood’s costume design put all the bad boys in denim.

Dean and Brando wore denim off-screen too. Both represented a subversive counter-culture – free and wild, riding around the US on motorcycles instead of moving to the suburbs and having children. Jeans were soon banned in schools from coast to coast which only added to the fervour with which teenagers embraced them – after that, every youth subculture from rockabillies with their wide turn-ups to hippies with bell-bottoms and punks with rips and tears have put their stamp on the love of denim.