5 Things You Didn't Know About Blue Jeans

By: Kathryn Whitbourne  | 
Actor James Dean poses for a photo on the set of the Warner Bros film 'Giant' in 1955 in Marfa, Texas. Dean helped to popularize jeans with teens in the 1950s. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Actor James Dean poses for a photo on the set of the Warner Bros film 'Giant' in 1955 in Marfa, Texas. Dean helped to popularize jeans with teens in the 1950s. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Ever since Levi Strauss, a German immigrant with a dry goods store in San Francisco, teamed up with Jacob Davis, a tailor from Reno, Nevada, to make sturdy pants for miners in the 1870s, America has had a love affair with blue jeans. Here are five things you may not know about this most democratic of pants.

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1. Those Rivets Had a Purpose

miners, 1880
Woodcutters in Oregon, wearing Levi Strauss jeans, sit on a giant tree trunk in 1880.
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

It wasn't just for style that Levi's jeans have had copper rivets on the pockets since the beginning. They were originally designed to make the seams of these miners' pants more durable. An 1873 article in the Pacific Rural Press opined that this feature will become "quite popular amongst our working men," noting, "nothing looks more slouchy in a workman than to see his pockets ripped open and hanging down, and no other part of the clothing is so apt to be torn and ripped as the pockets." The small fifth pocket on a pair of Levi's, by the way, is called a watch pocket since it was originally meant for placing a pocket watch inside. In the 1930s, the pockets were sewn to the pants so that the rivets were covered because of complaints that they scratched furniture. But they were returned to view in 1947.

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2. Blue Was Best

The words "jeans" and "denim" come from two European ports that had been making similar fabrics since the Middle Ages. In Nimes, France, weavers had been trying to reproduce a cotton corduroy made famous in Genoa, Italy. They instead came up with their own sturdy fabric, called "serge de Nimes," later shortened to "denim." This was the material Strauss and Taylor used for their jeans. The threads of this fabric were dyed indigo because, unlike most natural dyes, indigo binds to cloth's threads externally. So, every time the fabric is washed, some of the dye molecules — and the thread — are stripped away. This process softens the rough fabric and makes the jeans more comfortable over time, not to mention more form-fitting. Nowadays, synthetic indigo is used.

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3. Dude Ranches Made Jeans Popular With Everyday Americans

woman in cowboy hat, jeans
Woman in a cowboy hat and blue jeans rides a horse, 1944.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Although people often associate jeans with cowboys, records show relatively few of them wore the fabric (farmers and miners were more likely). But by the 1930s, jeans had become popular with everyday Americans, thanks to the dude ranch craze. During the Depression era, ranchers made extra money by allowing paying customers to visit and play at being cowboys. Many an American purchased their first pair of jeans in anticipation of their dude ranch visit. But these pants were seen strictly as weekend wear.

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4. Movie Stars Made Them Popular with Teens

In 1955, James Dean made the classic teen-angst film "Rebel Without a Cause," telegraphing his rebellious ways with his uniform of blue jeans, white T-shirt and leather jacket. Marlon Brando wore the same look in the 1953 film "The Wild One" and Marilyn Monroe popularized the outfit for women (minus the leather jacket) in "The Misfits." The "cowboy" look symbolized that these young people didn't want to conform to society and longed for the open range, so to speak. In fact, jeans were banned from schools in the 1950s, seen as a symbol against authority. Nevertheless — or because of this — jeans became firmly associated with youth culture as the 1950s morphed into the '60s and beyond. And as these teens became adults, they continued wearing jeans everywhere.

clubbing girls, 1970s
Teenage girls dance in their jeans and socks under a nightclub disco ball, 1970s.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

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5. They May Be on Their Way Out

Jeans have always been closely associated with America and American values. But could that love affair be cooling down? After a few years of poor company earnings in the 2010s, media reports speculated whether Americans were ditching jeans permanently for "athleisure" wear like yoga pants and leggings. But maybe not. Levi Strauss reported earnings soared during first quarter 2022, while Kontoor Brands, which owns Lee and Wrangler jeans reported huge revenue for the two brands for fiscal year 2021. It's hard to think that there wouldn't be room for both jeans and athleisure in the U.S. fashion landscape.

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Originally Published: May 19, 2017

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