This month we celebrate the 150th birthday of an iconic piece of clothing that has long been associated with the cowboy—blue jeans. Levi Strauss and his partner Jacob Davis patented the process of putting rivets at the stress points in men’s denim work pants on May 20, 1873.
The iconic blue jeans have a rich history that dates back to the 19th century. While the exact origin of denim is debated, it is believed to have started with fabrics like cotton duck and serge de Nimes, which were used in various applications such as sails, tents, and clothing. These sturdy fabrics were produced in places like Genoa, Italy, and Nimes, France.
In the 17th century, a Swiss banker named Jean-Gabriel Eynard played a role in the commercialization of a blue cloth called "bleu de Genes." This fabric was used to supply uniforms to troops under the command of André Masséna, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Marshals of the Empire. “Bleu de Genes” was soon anglicized as “blue jeans,” and the fabric was known for its durability and affordability.
The true birth of jeans as we know them today began in 1871 with a tailor named Jacob Davis. He was approached by a miner's wife who asked him to create pants that could withstand the harsh conditions of working in mines. Davis used durable "duck cloth" and reinforced the pants with copper rivets, creating the first pair of riveted trousers. Duck cloth, or duck canvas, was a heavier, plain woven cotton fabric canvas that was more tightly woven than plain canvas, originating from the Dutch word, doek, meaning "linen canvas."
Jacob Davis’ main cloth supplier was a San Francisco dry goods merchant named Levi Strauss. In 1872, Davis wrote to Strauss proposing a partnership to patent and sell their riveted clothing. The two men received a patent for their invention on May 20, 1873. They didn't call their pants "jeans," favoring "copper rivetted overall," but it wasn't long before the garment was known only as "jeans." The early jeans featured two front pockets, one back pocket, and copper rivets. They were initially made from brown cotton duck but later evolved to incorporate blue denim, a more flexible and widely available fabric.
When Texas Jack Omohundro established himself as America’s First Cowboy Star, blue jeans were not yet a standard part of the cowboy’s wardrobe. Jack preferred buckskin or leather trousers to stand up to the rigors of life on horseback. But soon, the affordability and durability of jeans made them popular among hard-working individuals in the American West, including factory workers, miners, farmers, and cattlemen. Cowboys, in particular, found jeans to be the perfect clothing for their demanding work. The ruggedness of jeans allowed cowboys to withstand long hours in the saddle and navigate tough terrain while protecting themselves from brambles and other hazards.
As jeans became mass-produced and more affordable, they gained popularity beyond the American West. They became a staple in the American wardrobe and were associated with cowboys through classical Western movies and TV shows. Because jeans came to be identified with the rugged individualism associated with the cowboy, they quickly caught on with anyone trying to depict a character as iconoclastic and bucking against authority. In the 1950s, movies like "Rebel Without a Cause" helped popularize jeans among the youth, and by the 1970s, wearing jeans as casual wear had become widely accepted throughout the United States. By the 1980s and 90s in Communist blok countries, blue jeans became a prized possession and a symbol of rejecting Communist party values in favor of the independence suggested by cowboy culture.
Today, blue jeans are not only known for their durability but also as a fashion statement. They are a versatile and timeless piece of clothing that can be found in everyday wardrobes, workwear, and even semi-formal attire. Blue jeans have remained an iconic symbol of American culture, representing ruggedness, comfort, and style. Just as there is no figure more iconically American than the cowboy, there is no pair of pants more iconically American than blue jeans.