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Durable and enduring, blue jeans turn 150

Pedestrians pass the Levi's store in in New York's Times Square. An immigrant and tailor named Jacob Davis teamed up with dry goods merchant Levi Strauss to patent the first riveted blue jeans in 1873.
Richard Drew
/
AP
Pedestrians pass the Levi's store in in New York's Times Square. An immigrant and tailor named Jacob Davis teamed up with dry goods merchant Levi Strauss to patent the first riveted blue jeans in 1873.

Updated May 23, 2023 at 6:31 AM ET

There's bootcut, skinny, flare, ripped, low-rise, high-rise — even blue jean look-alikes called jeggings impersonating the classic denim piece.

They all lead back a century and a half ago, to a Latvian-Jewish immigrant working as a tailor in Reno, Nev., named Jacob Davis. He had a customer whose work pants kept tearing.

To solve the problem, he added metal rivets at the stress points of the pants, making them stronger. According to historian Lynn Downey, the rivets were only part of what made the pants durable enough to withstand a full day's work.

"Denim was a very old fabric that originated in Europe, first in France, called serge denim," Downey told NPR in 2013. "It was the toughest fabric around. And men had worn unriveted denim pants for decades as work wear."

The popularity of the clothing caught on fast, Davis feared someone might rip off his idea.

"He wanted to mass manufacture his product, but he needed a business partner," explained Downey.

So, he teamed up with a dry goods merchant in San Francisco, Levi Strauss. They obtained a U.S. patent on May 20, 1873.

Since then, blue jeans have become a staple in Western fashion and a common thread throughout history.

"When you think of jeans, you think of the sort of prototypical white male cowboy kind of riding off into the sunset that's so synonymous with denim advertising from the late 19th century to today," said fashion historian Emma McClendon.

McClendon explained in a conversation with NPR last February how jeans have evolved with our culture, and have a complex history of their own.

"The reality is that this was workwear that was worn for hard labor. Denim had been worn by enslaved African and African American descendants for generations," she said. "It was worn by Chinese immigrants who were building the Transcontinental Railroad. It was worn by women. It was worn by men. And it came in tandem with really grueling hard labor, which is often left out of a sort of romanticized view."

From coal mines and factories to high fashion runways and MOMA, it's clear jeans have withstood the test of time.

They were even in high demand in the Soviet Union.

Historian Kristin Roth-Ey of University College London told NPR last year the Soviet Union's love affair with denim likely began in 1957, when the World Festival of Youth and Students came to Moscow. The clothing drew thousands of visitors from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

"That was the first time that people started to talk about jeans, because some of the Americans were wearing jeans," said Roth-Ey. "And there was at that time a huge black market that went alongside this festival."

According to Roth-Ey, the demand for jeans only grew during the 1960s, but the government didn't play along.

"The official stance on this is that jeans, like rock music, are initially officially shunned. It's a sign of decadent Western consumerist culture."

Roth-Ey explained that eventually Soviet leaders tried to launch their own jeans in the early 1970s, but were unsuccessful.

The hunger for Western denim was memorialized in a 1980s Levi's ad in which a young man fidgets as Soviet customs officials examine his luggage, but he makes it home with a smuggled pair of Levi's in his suitcase.

The black market for American brands like Levi's, Lee and Wrangler jeans was fueled by high prices. A pair could sell for as much as an entire month's salary at the time.

Blue jeans even survived the work-from-home, loungewear fashion shift.

Sales dipped from $16.6 billion to $12.8 billion during the pandemic, according to Euromonitor International, but they project a comeback for the U.S. jeans market reaching $20.7 billion in sales by 2026.

The analysis firm Research and Markets projects the global jeans market will top $95 billion dollars by 2030.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Green