Denim jeans … from then to now to what and when?

When you say ‘denim jeans’ everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about: A pair of dark-to-light blue trousers made of a heavy cotton fabric with pockets in the front and at the back; a front zip fly with one button, a yoke and waistband, some belt loops, reinforcing rivets and stitching in a contrast colour like white, red or brown.

Jean Genie: Blue denim jeans are the most popular item of clothing in the world. This pair is from Melbourne denim brand Denimsmith. Image: Niki Bruce

What makes a pair of denim jeans, denim jeans?
Denim jeans as we know them now are a combination of history, comfort, durability and pop culture. The name of the fabric jeans are made of, ‘denim’, comes from ‘serge de Nîmes’ – fabric from Nîmes, a French town that was known for a particularly hard wearing twill fabric with an indigo dyed cotton warp thread and a white or undyed cotton weft thread (Harris 201).

But jeans are more than just denim trousers …
The information above is just a definition of the fabric that’s become synonymous with jeans; a pair of denim jeans is much more iconic than what they are made of, or look like.

From the creation of sturdy American farmers’ work clothes by the Levi’s company with its patented metal rivets (Finn 2018) used to reinforce the garments, to the latest Calvin Klein ‘Nothing Between Me and My Calvin’s’ advertising campaign (Fashion Journal 2016), jeans have come a long way.

According to Salazar, wearing denim jeans in the 19th and 20th centuries became a shorthand for personal and political identification by locating the ‘body within a nationalist historiography plotted in terms of the interlocking figures of the laborer, the cowboy, and the countercultural rebel’ (Salazar 2010, p. 293).

You could use the way a person wore their jeans as an insight into their class, type of work, cultural background, political beliefs and even sexual orientation (Salazar 2010).

Making denim jeans personal to you …
Denim Jeans are now an integral part of every person’s wardrobe. They are so ubiquitous that they have, in fact, lost some of their iconic nature – they’re no longer a political or cultural or class statement; now denim jeans are all about personalisation.

People now want their jeans to say something about their own personality. Whether they’re into classic Levi’s, or more fashion forward directional styles like those from brands like Vetements, the type of jeans you choose to wear will give people a shorthand for understanding who you think you are.

Despite, or perhaps because, of the changes in the style of jeans, there are stil a few common components they need for them to retain their core identity; comfort, cut, and colour among them. 

6Cs to consider when buying or creating a pair of denim jeans …

  • Comfort – Can you wear these jeans on a long-haul flight?
  • Cut – Do these jeans make you look the way you want?
  • Colour – Denim doesn’t only come in blue anymore …
  • Cloth – Do you want a bit of stretch, or are you after a stiffer look and feel?
  • Culture – Do these jeans fit into your personal preferences? Are they too tight or too short?
  • Concerns – Do these jeans fit into your ideas about ethical shopping or sustainability?

So what is the future of the denim jean?
People still get excited over new versions of denim jeans, just look at the furore over the Vetements x Levi’s collaboration that recently launched, and you know that the public’s love for denim is still strong.

Mixed Up: Vetements x Levi’s blue denim jeans. Image: Hypogea

But how much longer will this love be sustainable?
According to Weinstein (2014) it takes about 6,813.741 litres to ‘grow enough cotton to produce just one pair of regular ol’ blue jeans’. And that’s just the cotton for the fabric. That number does not include the water needed for dyeing the cotton, or customising the finish on the pair of jeans.

More new jeans: Denim jeans being cut at Denimsmith’s Brunswick factory. Image: Niki Bruce

Weinstein’s suggestion on how to solve the problem? ‘Just stop buying more jeans’ (2014). What about you? Will you just stop buying denim jeans?

If you want to know the most up-to-date attitudes towards denim in the fashion world, check out this Vogue story on the latest Spring 18 trends; doesn’t seem like there’s any concern over the environmental impact of buying more jeans, does there?

Harris, MA 2010, Jeans of the old west: a history, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, PA. p18

Fashion Journal 2016, ‘On why Calvin Klein’s campaigns changed fashion marketing forever’, Fashion Journal, viewed 19 May 2018, <>

Salazar JB 2010, ‘Fashioning the historical body: the political economy of denim’, Social Semiotics, Vol 20 Issue 3, pp. 293-308, viewed 16 May 2018, <>.

Weinstein K 2014, ‘How Much Water Does it Take to Make a Pair of Jeans?’, Mathematics for Sustainability: Spring 2015, viewed 20 May 2018, <>

Finn, A 2018, ‘Unravelling denim: Week 2’, Lecture 2, MANU2227, RMIT School of Fashion and Textiles, RMIT University, Melbourne.

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