The History of Denim
What do California gold miners, John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe have in common? They’ve all helped popularize America’s favorite fabric: denim. From punk rockers to presidents, cowboys to convicts, hippies to haute couture models, denim is as classically American as baseball and apple pie. And much like another famous icon—the Statue of Liberty—it came to the U.S. via France. In an unsuccessful attempt to imitate a then-popular Italian type of corduroy, the André family in the French city of Nîmes developed a new, particularly durable twill fabric called serge. This serge de (from) Nîmes was shortened to “denim.” Fast-forward about a century to 1848, when James W. Marshall struck gold at Sutters Mill and the California Gold Rush began.
Miners needed clothing that could withstand water, wind, snow and gravel, and denim was the perfect fit. Before long it was the standard uniform for Americans working in mines, on railroad tracks, on farms and on horseback. The cowboys were the first to entrench denim in American pop culture (John Wayne without jeans is like Karl Lagerfeld in anything besides a black suit and sunglasses), but it wasn’t until the 1950s that denim became worn en masse by people other than workers.
James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” and Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” popularized denim as a symbol of youth rebellion (denim was traditionally banned in hotels, restaurants and schools) and once Marilyn rocked them in “The Misfits,” throngs of women and girls followed suit. But while most trends fade with time, denim’s spread exponentially, and, barring Le Bernardin or the Metropolitan Opera, it’s impossible to look around and not see jean-clad crowds.
The great irony, however, is this anti-establishment movement ended up creating a new industry and establishment. Until the 1950s, America produced the highest-quality denim in the world. Traditional looms, however, took longer and produced fewer batches than more modern equipment, and denim-makers soon ditched them, replaced real indigo with synthetic dye and began prewashing fabric. Was it cheaper? Yes. Did it mean that each pair of pants produced had less individual character and was of a poorer, thinner quality? Absolutely.
Yet high-quality denim exists; we’ve all worn (or coveted) what’s become known as premium denim. And if you were to trace where the premium jeans you’re wearing come from, you’d find yourself halfway around the world, in Japan. Beginning in the 1980s, Japanese companies saw a huge opportunity and, after buying up the seemingly jurassic traditional American looms and investing in real indigo dye, they created and cornered the premium denim market.
Within the premium denim family, selvage denim is the crème de la crème. Selvage denim is distinguishable by its deep blue color, clean edge (jeans made from old-style shuttle looms have a clean edge, which is why if you’re to pick up a pair of true vintage jeans, they’d have a selvage, not frayed, edge) and naturally irregular stitch. The end result of this time, cost and detail is a pair of jeans that is literally one-of-a-kind and that ages uniquely and beautifully.
Today, however, a handful of American companies—we’re particularly fond of imogene + willie—have retraced our industrial roots. Using traditional equipment and methods, they’ve spearheaded the resurrection of American-made selvage denim, bringing this iconic fabric back home in spirit and practice.