This is the first installment of a series on textiles: how each one is made, why they’re important, and their important fashion moments.
Denim seems to return every season with a slight change. We’ve had skinny jeans, flared jeans, denim jackets, overalls, skirts, chambray and more. While it changes slightly every season, it’s always the same. Denim is as ubiquitous as cotton t-shirts in our closets. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone without a pair of jeans in their wardrobe. The fabric has been at every rung of the ladder from traditional workman’s wear to the Chanel 2.55 bag and Louis Vuitton patchwork boots.
How They're Made: Denim is a textile made of cotton and woven in a twill construction. Textiles have two sets of thread, one set (the warp) going vertically and the other weaving in and out of the first thread, going horizontally (the weft). In a twill construction, the weft passes under two or more warp threads (as opposed to alternating warp and weft). Denim is defined not only by the twill construction but also by only the warp being colored. The warp threads are dyed in the final color while the weft remains white, which is why denim appears so much lighter on the inside. And what is chambray anyway? For such a trendy textile, not that many people I know knew what it was or how it differed from denim. It’s basically the same except the warp and weft threads will alternate one over the other, while denim’s warp thread will go over two threads in the weft before going under one.
History: While denim pants have been around for a long time, the jeans we know today were invented in 1871 by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis. The word denim originates from the fabric originally being from the French city of Nîmes (de Nîmes → denim). It wasn’t until Bavarian-born Löb Strauss decided to clothe the gold miners in San Francisco that denim really took off. He and Davis patented the copper rivets on the pockets, Strauss changed his name to Levi, and Levi Strauss & Co. was born. The copper rivets made the pants much sturdier and quickly became the chosen workwear around the country.
(Levi Strauss & Co. is having a talk this Thursday about their history in San Francisco for anyone in the area!)
Popularization: It wasn’t until Hollywood took hold of jeans that they exploded. With the popularity of westerner TV shows, the appearance of Marlon Brando in the classic motorcycle gang film The Wild One, and the sexy Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return, America had no choice but to latch on to the rebellious, casual look of the jean. It’s association with the rebel look also kept jeans from being allowed in schools and workplaces for decades.
Distressed Denim: From light creasing around the front pockets to slashed and re-sewn jeans, distressed denim is the prominent state of jeans by most brands. The worn-in look was a large marketing risk that Renzo Rosso, the founder of Diesel, took in the 80's. He predicted this trend before anyone else and after convincing department stores to buy into the trend, it exploded. Everyone loved the idea of softer, worn in jeans without the awkward stage of brand new denim. Unfortunately, this style comes with significant environmental and health risks. Originally, wearing in your jeans required many washes and possibly years of wear. To simulate this in the factory, jeans are washed over and over again and often with stones in the machines. These jeans are also sometimes sandblasted to help wear down the fabric which is linked to silicosis, a deadly lung disease that has already caused the deaths of many garment workers. The toxic chemicals required to strip the dye oftentimes make their way into waterways and harm local wildlife.
Denim Purists: Traditional looms take a long time and produce fewer batches than more modern equipment, and denim-makers soon ditched them, replaced real indigo with synthetic dye, and began pre-washing fabric. Denim lost the character and sturdiness it once had. Denim purists are still around though. For a pretty penny, you can purchase “raw” denim. “Raw” denim (or “dry” denim) by definition is denim that hasn’t been washed after the dying process. This means that the pants have not been pre-shrunk and change significantly after purchase. As these jeans wear in, however, they become perfectly fit and customized.
Style: Denim has been the focal point of many famous style moments. Guess jeans even recreated Monroe’s River of No Return pose in ads featuring Anna Nicole Smith, among other models. Denim “Daisy Dukes” brought out the sex appeal in Catherine Bach and later Jessica Simpson in The Dukes of Hazzard. Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake took a memorable fashion risk with their matching full-denim looks at the 2001 American Music Awards which Katy Perry and Raff reprised at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. Apart from the celebrity, many tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs publicly wear their jeans to show their commitment to an alternative business with casual attire.