Nine decades of denim later…
According to not-so-scientific estimates from thefactshop.com, the average American owns seven pairs of jeans. Seven!!! With the style so firmly entrenched in our culture, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when women didn’t wear jeans. And yet, when we decided to do some digging on the history of denim for us gals in the U.S., we found that, for a while, that was the case. Research on the jean trade indicates that the material first emerged in the European cities of Genoa, Italy and Nîmes, France, with a man by the name of Jacob Davis credited for the invention of the modern blue jean; however, when it eventually made its way stateside, it was for men and men only.
Continue reading to discover how denim has evolved over the decades, from a novel clothing item for women on cattle farms and dude ranches in the West, to the advent of the flared look during the counterculture years of the 60s and 70s, all the way through the 80s “mom jean” craze, 90s low-cut obsession, and into the 2000s.
1930s - 1950s: Cue the Western style
Although the oldest women’s jean garment on record is a jacket dating back to the 1850s during the time of the California gold rush, it was only in 1934 — five years before World War II — that Lady Levi’s were released, marking the world’s first pair of jeans made exclusively for women. That’s not to say that women weren’t wearing denim jeans beforehand, but they were likely borrowing them from their husbands or brothers in order to take advantage of the practical functionality and durability of the material, which was enhanced with the help of copper rivets to hold the fabric together. Called “Lot 701,” the female Levi’s jeans evoked a Western style and were targeted towards working-class women on cattle farms and dude ranches. The product quickly gained popularity and, in 1935, was featured in Vogue as part of a spread on dude ranch attire. Fast forward to 1952 when Marilyn Monroe sported a pair of jeans in the film, ”River Of No Return” and it was official: jeans weren’t only for the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, both of whom were celebrated for embracing the Levi’s 501 look. No, this versatile clothing item deserved a spot in women’s wardrobes, and it was here to stay.
In response to feedback, Levi’s swapped out the button fly characteristic of men’s jeans to a zipper. And the rest, as they say, is history.
1960s - 1970s: Introducing the flare
First, a bit of context on these tumultuous two decades. There were a lot of events shaping what would come to be known as the baby boom generation. Not only did they grow up with routine bomb drills during the Cold War, but they also faced the violence of segregation, the March on Washington, the assassination of both their president and Martin Luther King, Jr, and the violent protests around the Vietnam War. Needless to say, it was a politically charged time, which gave rise to a counterculture embracing an alternative way of living. A way that represented personal liberation, peace, and love.
The individuality and creativity of the “hippie” era (that primarily took hold in San Francisco and New York) translated into a unique sense of style. Vintage flared jeans reigned supreme, and embellishments were common. Whereas boxy, cuffed jeans were the mainstay in the 50s, the 60s and 70s saw the introduction of fitted jeans that hugged the waist and thighs only to flare out around or just below the knee. For the first time, jeans became more than a product of workwear function. Now, it was both a fashion trend and a statement of freedom for American women.
Note that while most people think of flared bell-bottoms during this era (boosted, no doubt, by the commercialization of the “hippie” archetype on Halloween), bootcut were also popular, especially after French activist Brigitte Bardot was photographed wearing a pair in 1966.
Fun fact about these years: Wrangler jeans became so popular in the 1974 rodeo circuit that a custom pair was deemed the official jean of the Rodeo Cowboy’s Association of the USA.
1980s: Jeans become “sexy”
It was the early 1980s when Calvin Klein released an ad with Brooke Shields wearing slim-fitted jeans. In hindsight, it’s a bit odd that an ad with a then 14-year-old catapulted jeans into the realm of “sexy,” but that’s exactly what happened. The world of designer denim quickly responded with the likes of Gloria Vanderbilt, Guess, and Jordache releasing their own jean collections that would further upend women’s fashion.
Also popular during the 80s? High-waisted, cuffed, tapered, and slightly baggy jeans that soon came to be known as mom jeans — a style popularized by Princess Diana.
Lest we forget…there was also the acid-washed style that screamed edgy, rock, hard metal vibes. That was totally a thing during the 80s, too.
1990s: Jeans get LOW
It was during the last decade of the 20th century that icons like Madonna and Britney Spears began stepping out in low-rise jeans that sat frighteningly far down on the waistline.
Fortunately, there were other styles that popped up during the 90s, including overalls and jean on jean (aka the Canadian Tuxedo).
2000s: Things get...embellished
With the dawn of the 21st century came the dawn of ultra-wide belts and embellishment. Lots of it. Jeans had studs on the back pockets, stitched designs on the thighs, and…do we dare say it?…criss-cross lace-ups (it was a weird time).
It was also during these years that jeggings popped up, which were a comfy cross between structured denim and stretchy spandex material. Most were pull-on and perfect to tuck into the ever-popular Ugg boot.
2010s: Boyfriend and skinny jeans, FTW!
Aaaaand then the 2010s hit, and boyfriend jeans became all the rage, the irony being that they take a cue from the relaxed, masculine look (we’re comin’ full circle, people!). First spotted on actress Marilyn Monroe back in the 60s, they’ve been seen on everyone from Katie Holmes (who used to actually wear Tom Cruise’s jeans) to Margot Robbie, Diane Kruger, and Jessica Chastain. Although they’re by definition a bit slouchy, that doesn’t mean they weren’t chic during this decade.
Another increasingly popular style during the 2010s? Skinny jeans — except this time they weren’t low-rise but rather high-rise (and mostly dark-wash).