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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

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The Complete History of Blue Jeans, From Miners to Marilyn Monroe

If you ask someone why they wear blue jeans and they reply "because they’re comfortable," they are lying.

If you ask someone why they wear blue jeans and they reply "because they’re comfortable," they are lying to you in a way that is so total and complete I suspect they are also lying to themselves. Denim is a tough, rugged material meant to withstand time and the elements. Literally any other fabric would feel better against your skin.

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Generally, when people say that something they wear is "comfortable," they mean it is psychologically comfortable, not physically comfortable. We wear blue jeans because everyone else wears blue jeans, and it’s our nature to want to be part of a group.

Blue jeans were actually an accidental discovery in the 18th century, when people in Nimes, France attempted to replicate a sturdy Italian fabric called serge. What they created was "serge de Nimes" or, as it’s been shortened to, "denim."

Miners blue jeans

Gold miners wearing Levi's jeans, 1882. Photo: Getty Images

However, as far as modern-day people are concerned, the history of blue jeans really began when a Bavarian immigrant named Levi Strauss brought denim to America in 1853. He was based in San Francisco at the time, when the Gold Rush was at its peak. Men were going west in search of fortune and would spend months camping out in often inhospitable climates; pants made out of traditional fabric would be destroyed within a matter of weeks.

Jeans actually have a very egalitarian legacy!

Blue jeans, though, were perfect for cowboys and miners alike. Funnily enough, blue jeans also became popular with polo players. Their pants could easily be ruined if they rode through brambles on a horse, and I suppose it's not very aristocratic to ride around in front of a group of spectators with a great gaping hole in your pants.

Even today, polo players typically wear regular blue jeans to practice, and white jeans for matches. Jeans actually have a very egalitarian legacy! (And to be fair, in much of the world, polo is a sport played not just by wealthy elites but by ranchers.)

Cowboys, cowgirls, and the actors playing them (Betty Grable included) had a need for denim. Photo: Getty Images

You may have ascertained by now that a totally valid response to "Why do you wear blue jeans?" is "They are sturdy and durable and therefore last a long time." That’s a good answer. Or it should be! But it’s not necessarily as true as it was in the past. Blue jeans are demanded by so many people now that most manufacturers have ditched traditional looms for modern equipment that produces thinner, poorer quality denim just to meet the demand.

How did we get a world where you can't go outside without seeing someone wearing jeans?

The best denim today is believed to be made in Japan, where there is slightly less demand for them, due in part to a much smaller population (globally, 39% of blue jeans are bought by North Americans, while people in Japan and Korea buy around 10%). So how did we get a world where you can't go outside without seeing someone wearing jeans? As is the case with so many trends, you can blame movie stars.

James Dean popularized blue jeans in the movie Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. He wore a T-shirt, a leather jacket, and jeans, a uniform men began copying immediately. Since people didn’t have access to the internet or even television in many cases, movies and the actors in them held sway over the public imagination even more than they do now. Moreover, Rebel Without a Cause was a film where the clothing stood out. While it was originally supposed to be a black and white picture, the studio decided to make the film in color; Dean’s Lee 101 Riders were dip-dyed to make the blue especially eye-catching.

James Dean on the set of Rebel Without a Cause. Photo: Getty Images

Dean also represented a newer, younger, edgier breed of star. The leather jacket and the blue jeans that Dean wore in the film symbolized that he wanted nothing to do with suburbia. He had no desire for a 9 to 5 job like the one his father held. Instead, he craved adventure and meaning in the manner of, say, a cowboy. And how could you convey that he didn’t want to be penned in by society? By having him wear cowboy pants, of course.

It’s not surprising that a whole class of young men immediately began replicating the look.

That’s a sentiment that more than a few teenagers can relate to. Indeed, the film is often connected to the rise of the very notion of teenage culture in America. Pair that with the fact that Marlon Brando also wore jeans in The Wild One (1953) and that Elvis (who grew up on a farm) wore them all the time, and it’s not surprising that a whole class of young men immediately began replicating the look.

This explains why misunderstood young men who did not want to become their fathers started wearing blue jeans, but what about misunderstood young women? You can credit Marilyn Monroe for that. She wore them in arguably her best movie, The Misfits, where she played a woman who went off with a group of...cowboys. Her outfit was essentially the female version of James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause outfit.

Marilyn Monroe blue jeans
Marlon Brando blue jeans
Elvis Presley blue jeans

Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Marlon Brando all helped to popularize blue jeans. Photo: Getty Images

And, cool fact: Most people gravitate, throughout their lives, to the styles that were popular when they were teenagers. That doesn’t mean that if you dressed as a goth as a teenager you’ll keep doing that forever, but it does mean that a wide group of baby boomers see blue jeans and instinctively think, "That is what cool people wear." Accordingly, they have kept wearing them pretty much forever, so much so that they have very much become the norm.

Which brings us to the point that you wear blue jeans because your dad thinks they're cool, an obviously hilarious counterpoint to their misunderstood-youth origins. When Bradley Cooper makes a movie implying that tough, outsider-y men all wear tinfoil pants, or pants made out of the tender fleece of a lamb, then maybe things will change again.

Jennifer Wright is the author of It Ended Badly: The 13 Worst Break-Ups in History, due out fall 2015. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.


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