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The rugged Marlboro Man. Brooding James Dean. Dusty gold miners and slicked-hair greasers with cigarette boxes rolled up in their T-shirt sleeves. The history of blue jeans is about as American as apple pie, coming from working-class origins with a pioneering spirit.
But do you know what else is all-American? Having the weekday lunch special hurled at you during a counter sit-in, facing a raised baton during a protest march, and walking a mile to work because your civil rights boycott has reached the bus, all while wearing those same cuffed jeans. The only difference is that while history likes to recount the Americana-heavy scenes of gold rush camps and Route 64 drives when discussing denim’s past, it’s not often that you hear about the freedom fighters who, in large part, helped bring the look to the mainstream.
While Elvis Presley and the cast of Rebel Without a Cause helped spark a new appreciation for bootcuts among the Youthquake culture, most people considered them too closely linked with the working man to wear them. For example, in 1969 nearly 200 students got suspended from their high school for wearing dark blue pants because they too closely resembled blue jeans. They were mostly something you wore while cleaning out the garage, not something you put on for cocktails.
But the revolutionaries on the front pages of newspapers helped denim become a staple in everyday people’s wardrobes. “It took Martin Luther King’s march on Washington to make them popular,” wrote Caroline A. Jones, author of Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist. “It was here that civil rights activists were photographed wearing the poor sharecropper's blue denim overalls to dramatize how little had been accomplished since Reconstruction.”
While at first activists snapped on their overalls out of practicality — they were tired of mending tears from attack dogs and high-pressure hoses, and jeans could withstand the abuse — they also put them on to bring back a not-too-distant past. They used to be referred to as ‘Negro clothes’ — slave owners bought denim for their enslaved workers, partly because the material was sturdy, and partly because it helped contrast them against the linen suits and lace parasols of plantation families — and their inclusion in the civil rights movement suggested that pointed societal divide. For much of the black community, the activists’ symbolism was obvious. Separate then; separate now.
“There were some African Americans who felt that to wear jeans was disrespectful to yourself,” says James Sullivan, author of Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon. “For many African Americans, denim workwear represented a painful reminder of the old sharecropper system. James Brown, for one, refused to wear jeans, and for years forbade his band members from wearing them.” Sullivan points out that if you look at pictures of the sons and daughters of the sharecropper generations of the early 20th century who moved north to get away from the fields, you’ll notice that they wore suits, ties, and hats to their factory jobs, partly to create that distance.
Although some protestors knew their white neighbors would chafe against seeing them walk the streets in sharecropper clothes — and used that to their advantage — the strategy wasn't promoted by all Freedom Fighters. Respectability politics was still a popular tactic for gaining support. In 1965, before gearing up to drive down to three hard-core segregationist states in the Deep South to register people to vote, a NAACP representative went to the front of the room during a secret civil rights meeting in New York City, and flatly declared, “We don't want any girls in blue jeans. We don't want any boys in beards.” They wanted people’s hair pressed and collars crisp, knowing how quickly the evening news would misrepresent them if they came in anything less than their Sunday best.
But the responsibility to always look respectable wasn’t just a strategy move, but a burden forced on activists in order to keep white supremacists away from their front doorsteps. As Dr. Tanisha C. Ford explains in her essay “SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress,” white supremacists would specifically attack the moral character of black women as a reason to keep their neighborhoods separate and their voting boxes white. Black women had to go above and beyond to prove their respectability in order to protect their characters, and the men and children in their communities. By looking like the type of woman who could bake a bundt cake in a French twist, black women were able to show their Christian propriety and manners, contrasting themselves against the racist stereotypes their white neighbors tried to pin on them. Jeans were not an option.
But as more and more groups headed south for registration projects, more volunteers started to trade in their bobby socks for bootcuts.
It wasn’t just for comfort and durability. To register to vote as a black person was to risk losing your job, or worse, your life by inviting the Klu Klux Klan to your backyard. The fear was evident in the statistics — in Mississippi, fewer than 7 percent of the eligible black population was on the voters list, and in many rural Southern counties there were none at all. And here were these student groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee trying to convince black farmers to risk everything, handing them a clipboard while wearing penny loafers. It created a class divide, and blue jeans were not only the language that would bridge the gap between them, but their show of solidarity.
Even more than that, by putting on the working man’s uniform, revolutionaries showed they didn’t have to dress in a way their white peers deemed “acceptable” in order to gain the rights that were theirs to begin with. Even if activists showed up in banker’s pinstripes, that wouldn’t convert segregationists into allies. “No matter what the whites’ sense of justice tells them needs to be done for Negroes, are they going to let themselves to be bulldozed into doing it?” asked the Missouri Springfield Leader and Press in 1967. Whites refused to be “pushed” toward equality. The movement’s clothes weren’t the issue, and having their appearance policed was just another way of being controlled.
Denim was very much the look of the black freedom struggle, but like most nonconformist messages — from the anti-establishment punks with their queen’s tartan to the anti-capitalist beatniks with their berets — it was co-opted by the mainstream; taken out of its original context in order to fit into people’s wardrobes. But unlike those well-known and heavily referenced underground movements, most people aren’t aware which of their denim styles were copied from civil rights protestors. Instead, those same styles were lauded as “new.”
“The Trucker code that Levis introduced in the ’60s at the height of the hippie heyday was basically a throwback to the denim bond jacket style that the working and sharecropper class has been wearing for decades,” Sullivan explains. What we think of as the classic Levis jacket today was introduced as a new style in 1962, but poor sharecroppers in the Deep South have been wearing it for decades. “If it was cold enough to wear jackets, they would wear overalls or jeans, and then a barn jacket on top. The connection to the rural, back-to-the-land working class of the sharecroppers inspired, in some part, the all-denim, top-to-bottom look that hippies ended up wearing.” Hippies aimed to be “salt of the earth” with their communes and community farms, but for black sharecroppers, the style was a function of poverty, not fashion — it could not be so easily removed. But the look hit the mainstream, and soon every high school kid and suburban dad was wearing the style.
While the history of blue jeans has roots in dude ranches and rockabilly dance halls, it also winds through the struggle for equality and racial justice. It’s an era as important and American as the Wild West. Not only ranchers wore denim jackets, but also black tenant farmers; not only cowboys lived in their jeans, but bondmen in fields; and it wasn’t only truckers in overalls driving through the night down to Dixie, but Civil Rights icons with registration lists. They should be remembered as clearly and loudly as the rest.