By Lee Johnston ~
What do the city of Nimes, France; and Genoa, Italy, have to do with the denim jeans you might have in your wardrobe? Historically, both cities were involved in the weaving of cloth. The cotton denimin your pants gets its name from serge de Nimes. There are many versions of the story of how the French fabric, serge de Nimes, made of silk and wool as long ago as the sixteenth century, became the cotton fabric known today.
And why do we call them jeans? Jean, in the sense of clothing, is said to be, among other things, a corruption of the word Genoa. The French word for Genoais Gênes. The Genoese, masters of the sea, were also known for sturdy fabrics, many of them similar to today’s corduroy. Jean became a generic term for sturdy cloth and clothes, including the work clothes often worn by navy men.
And what is the significance of this month? It was 145 years ago this month, in 1873, that Levi Strauss, businessman, and Jacob Davis, tailor, were granted U.S. Patent 139,121, “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-openings,” for work pants strengthened with metal rivets. The applicant was Levi Strauss & Co., and the inventor was Jacob W. Davis. Strauss, a wholesale dry goods merchant born in Germany, brought in goods, jean fabric among them, from his family’s company in New York. Opening his San Francisco company in 1853, he made and sold necessities, including tents and trousers, for the miners during the Gold Rush.
Jacob Davis, a Russian immigrant based in Reno, Nevada, had been making work pants from the jean cloth supplied by Strauss. Becoming aware of the need to reinforce the stress points where the trousers often ripped, even after being reinforced with more cloth, Davis invented a method of inserting copper rivets at these points. Not having funds of his own, he went to Strauss for the money to patent them. The rest, as they say, is history.
The stress points in question were the corners of the pockets and the bottom of the button fly. “Waist overalls,” different from over-all overalls, were always popular with miners, cowboys, and other working men. The original riveted trousers were made from several sturdy fabrics with which Strauss and Davis, who managed the production of work pants and other clothing, experimented. Eventually, they settled on a blue denim made by an American manufacturer.
By the 1920’s, Levi’s waist overalls were the country’s best-selling blue jeans. Their popularity grew after World War II: American G.I.s popularized them, movie stars wore them, kids wore them, bikers wore them, hippies wore them, and ladies began to wear them with the zipper in the front instead of the side. Overseas in 70’s and 80’s, American blue jeans fetched exorbitant prices. Strauss blue jeans became so popular that the word Levi’s, like Kleenex and Vaseline, became a generic term.
Denim is no longer the blue-collar working man’s fabric, and blue jeans are no longer their basic blue. They come in a range from white to black, and the blues range from pale ice to dark indigo, their original color. No longer stiff as a board after washing, jeans are pre-softened for us and are often distressed, embroidered and bejeweled, and even artistically ripped in strategic places. We often question why people would happily pay up to hundreds of dollars for ripped and shredded jeans when it is obvious that they are the very last ones who should wear them. Such rips and shreds, available for mere money, should be the badge of honor earned by hard work. Hard work was what necessitated sturdy jeans in the first place.
Lee Johnston is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes as well as an editor of and feature writer for Living @ SCCL magazine. She has graciously allowed us to republish this wonderful article for our readers at CharlotteSeniors.com.