Denim Jeans Become Accepted as Fashion

By 1975, blue denim jeans became accepted as fashionable clothing. Well-known fashion designers took part in creating the huge market that developed for blue jeans.

Summary of Event

By the mid-1970’s, American fashion designers had latched on to blue denim. They fashioned this fabric into jeans and a variety of apparel and accessory items that were marketed successfully around the world. The trade publication American Fabrics and Fashions stated that one of the major worldwide trends of the 1970’s was the denim craze. Fashion;blue jeans
Denim jeans
Blue jeans
[kw]Denim Jeans Become Accepted as Fashion (Mid-1970’s)
[kw]Jeans Become Accepted as Fashion, Denim (Mid-1970’s)
[kw]Fashion, Denim Jeans Become Accepted as (Mid-1970’s)
Fashion;blue jeans
Denim jeans
Blue jeans
[g]North America;Mid-1970’s: Denim Jeans Become Accepted as Fashion[01780]
[g]United States;Mid-1970’s: Denim Jeans Become Accepted as Fashion[01780]
[c]Marketing and advertising;Mid-1970’s: Denim Jeans Become Accepted as Fashion[01780]
[c]Fashion and design;Mid-1970’s: Denim Jeans Become Accepted as Fashion[01780]
Klein, Calvin
Marciano, Georges
Strauss, Levi

To understand why designers of high fashion invested time, talent, and money into denim, a fabric that until the mid-1970’s was associated with the laboring class and then with the hippie movement, it is useful to examine the history of the fabric itself, the nonverbal communication symbols associated with denim (and with blue denim jeans in particular), and the dynamics of fashion and society.

The history of denim, a twill weave originally made of 100 percent cotton, goes back to Nimes, France, where the fabric was manufactured as early as 300 c.e. The fabric’s original name was serge de Nimes, later Americanized to “denim.” One of the first uses of denim in the United States was as a covering for the Conestoga wagons that carried pioneers west.

The origin of blue jeans is attributed to Levi Strauss, a Jewish immigrant from Germany. In 1850, Strauss arrived in San Francisco with a bolt of canvas that he intended to fashion into tents for gold miners. He was immediately informed by a miner of a more urgent need, for sturdy pants. Strauss measured the man on the spot, and for six dollars in gold dust, he sewed the canvas into jeans. News quickly spread of these sturdy jeans, and Strauss’s supply of canvas was soon depleted. He requested a new supply from a sister living in New York, and, instead of canvas, she sent him denim dyed a dark indigo blue. Blue denim and jeans thus became a pair, and the Levi Strauss Company Levi Strauss Company was born.

In 1873, Strauss patented the use of metal rivets at major stress points on his jeans. Such rivets, first added to placate miners whose pockets kept tearing, are still a distinctive feature of jeans. By the end of the nineteenth century, durable jeans known simply as Levi’s covered the legs of the working population of the American West.

During the first half of the twentieth century, blue denim jeans remained a form of dress for the laboring class. The fabric proved to be durable and comfortable, and the design of the garment allowed for freedom of movement, enabling the wearer to accomplish work without hindrance.

Jeans were introduced to the higher classes of the eastern United States during the dude ranch craze of the 1930’s. Pictures of cowboys clad in embroidered satin shirts, wide-brimmed hats, boots, and jeans filled travel brochures and advertisements. Even though vacationing on western dude ranches came into vogue, jeans did not become a fashion item during this period of history.

Blue denim jeans were declared an essential commodity during World War II and were sold only to people engaged in defense work. After the war, jeans were limited to the market for work clothes until they were adopted as an almost obligatory uniform by the youth of the 1960’s. Subsequently, the popularity of blue denim jeans grew dramatically, as did the symbolic meanings attached to this item of clothing.

Fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt is surrounded by models wearing her signature brand of jeans.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Social historians of fashion have attempted to explain the widespread acceptance of jeans. One explanation is the “trickle up” fashion theory. According to this theory, fashion may begin at a low level in society and proceed to higher levels as it is accepted by the masses of people. The widespread adoption of jeans by young people in the 1960’s supports this theory, in that many wearers were wealthy and yet preferred jeans over designer clothing.

Another explanation of the widespread acceptance of jeans pertains to jeans as a symbol of the counterculture youth revolution of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The leaders of the movement adopted denim jeans. The message of the distance between the young and their parents and others in authority was clearly communicated when the young followers of the counterculture donned their often faded, mutilated jeans, to the anguish of those in positions of authority.

Other historians of fashion have asserted that jeans, with their ties to the West, were a form of folk costume, a costume that citizens of the United States recognized as truly American. According to this theory, wearers believed that blue jeans displayed their attribute of being hard workers while showing a bit of sportiness.

Textile scientists have observed that the nature of denim fabric is a primary reason for its acceptance as fashion. The versatile fabric is capable of being produced in different weights easily adapted to seasonal garments, apparel accessories, and nonapparel items. Denim is comfortable because of the flexibility, absorbency, and pleasant feel of cotton, from which the majority of it is made. The range of color and finish possibilities of denim allowed the fabric to stay in fashion over a long period of time as it was constantly used to create new looks, satisfying consumers’ desire for change.

Demographers have pointed to the changing U.S. population as a basis of explanation for the denim craze. As the first baby boomers reached young adulthood in the 1970’s, the market for apparel increased dramatically. At the same time, women entered the U.S. job market in large numbers. With this event came changes in traditional dress for women: For the first time in history, American women began wearing pants as frequently as they wore skirted garments. In what can be seen as a statement of equality, many women wore pants that were similar to—in some cases identical to—those worn by men.

Mass acceptance of blue jeans and other denim items as fashionable came in the mid-1970’s. The fabric had moved beyond the counterculture and youth. Advertising Age called denim the hottest fabric in the world in 1974. During the period 1969-1974, a pair of denim jeans increased in price from $7 to $15 in the United States. In the Soviet Union, a pair of used American jeans commanded a black-market price of $75. In 1974, the six leading producers of denim fell one hundred million yards short of meeting the international demand for the fabric. The designers who elected to use denim in their lines were astute and reaped financial rewards for their fashion acumen.


The versatility of denim was exploited in the market. With each finish, color, or design change, the demand for denim increased. Fashion designers, whose logos were permanently affixed to the outside of their denim products, could not meet demand, especially in the jeans market. By the mid-1970’s, designer jeans had captured 10 percent of jeans sales, and at their peak in the 1980’s, they had 17 percent of sales. The four top-volume brand-name manufacturers were Levi Strauss, Lee, Wrangler, and Brittania. With sueded, sanded, striped, and colored fabric used for hot pants, pantsuits, and fully lined suits as well as jeans, versatile denim was a product with a long fashion cycle.

Geographic market expansion marked the blue denim explosion. American textile manufacturers cast their eyes toward Europe, where ownership of jeans was not as widespread as it was in the United States. Burlington opened a denim plant in Ireland to meet European needs. Cone Mills, a longtime exporter of denim, experienced a significant jump in exports from about 10 percent of its denim production in the early 1960’s to 30 percent in the late 1970’s. Denim fabric and products were exported to Japan, Australia, and South America. American apparel manufacturers were more successful at competing with foreign manufacturers in their jeans lines than in other apparel items. The volume of jeans produced made it cost-effective to automate jeans manufacturing; other fashion items did not have the volume or product longevity to warrant automation.

The advantages that U.S. jeans manufacturers had in the world market resulted in part from their location in the largest single-country market and their ready access to an efficient shipping industry that enabled them to respond to fashion changes and to distribute quickly. Most people in the world perceive blue jeans to be garments that originated in the United States, and manufacture in the United States adds status to a product.

The denim and advertising industries benefited each other. The top fifteen jeans manufacturers of 1980 spent $28.7 million on television advertising during the first half of the year. Levi Strauss’s 1980 worldwide advertising budget was $85 million. Some analysts believe that the billion-dollar annual market for designer jeans during the late 1970’s and the 1980’s was created and sustained by advertising. The success of designer jeans advertising convinced apparel manufacturers of the merits of advertising.

Calvin Klein set the pace and theme in designer jeans advertisements beginning with his 1980’s ads, in which actor Brooke Shields Shields, Brooke proclaimed, “You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing,” and “If my jeans could talk, I’d be ruined.” A forty-eight-page ad titled “Sex, Bikes, and Jeans” was packaged with the October, 1991, issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Klein adopted risqué themes from European advertisements but pioneered the “outsert” separate advertising package sold with a magazine. Others using “sexploitation” ads to market jeans included Georges Marciano of Guess, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Jordache. When offended groups made efforts to halt the ads, their actions only seemed to increase sales.

The textile wet-processing industry both benefited from and was burdened by the strong denim market. The industry responded quickly to demands for fashion change by developing new colors and finishes, using everything from stones to chemicals to gunshot blasts to give jeans new looks. The burdens placed on the industry concerned primarily environmental issues. By cleaning wastewater in indigo dyeing operations, recycling the chemicals used in acid wash plants, and discovering why some prefaded jeans turned yellow, the wet-processing segment of the textile industry led in finding solutions to problems. One answer to some environmental problems was the use of cellulase, an enzyme that eats away the surface of denim, resulting in a soft feel and distressed look much like that achieved by washing the fabric with stones. The stones used in creating the stonewashed look often clog filters in machinery and sewer lines, whereas the enzyme is biologically friendly and safe to use.

A cottage industry that began in the 1960’s with the purpose of individualizing denim garments with embroidery, sequins, and other surface decoration led to new ways to market some goods and services. This primarily women’s industry expanded product lines to include knitted garments and an assortment of folk art items. The ingenuity shown in marketing the products helped lead to the establishment of annual craft fairs and flea markets.

One of the longest-lasting effects of denim’s rise to fashion prominence in the 1970’s is the acceptance of casual dress in the United States. Casualness toward dress brought other fabrics formerly used only in work clothes, such as chambray, to the mainstream of fashion. Not only did changes occur in the uses of some fabrics, but new styles of garments also became part of the American wardrobe. For example, shorts became accepted as standard casual dress for both men and women. This acceptance is extraordinary, considering that shorts had never before been considered appropriate for women’s outer dress. Demand for more casual clothing made sportswear one of the largest segments of the apparel market. Fashion;blue jeans
Denim jeans
Blue jeans

Further Reading

  • Gurel, Lois M., and Marianne S. Beeson. Dimensions of Dress and Adornment: A Book of Readings. 3d ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1983. Collection of essays offers some insights into the evolution of fashion and the adoption of denim. Includes illustrations and bibliographic references.
  • Hamburger, Estelle. Fashion Business: It’s All Yours. San Francisco: Canfield Press, 1976. Lighthearted, illustrated overview of fashion includes an essay about the “denimania” movement.
  • Kadolph, Sara J., and Anna L. Langford. Textiles. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2001. Introductory textbook for students in textiles and fashion presents information about the fabrication of denim. Easy to read.
  • Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 4th ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002. Comprehensive guide to all of the major events in costume and fashion design practically since human beings began wearing clothes. Includes discussion of the motivations of fashion design as well as information on individual designers. Features more than three hundred illustrations.
  • Rubin, Leonard G. The World of Fashion. San Francisco: Canfield Press, 1976. Presents American fashion trends and ideas in an introductory manner. Explains in plain language how the fashion industry operates.
  • Tortora, Phyllis, and Keith Eubank. A Survey of Historic Costume. 4th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2005. Detailed account of all aspects of fashion, from ancient times to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Includes many illustrations.

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