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The History of Blue Jeans: A Bavarian Journey

Posted on September 28, 2016 in Denimhistory

They are already 142 years old and, more than ever, are an essential item in every wardrobe. Levi Strauss is considered to be the inventor of the classic blue jeans that metamorphosed from worker uniform, via a symbol of rebellion, to a highly presentable item of clothing for every situation.

Buttenheim is a small picturesque town with a population of 3’500 near Bamberg in Bavaria. That is the native village of the legendary inventor of the blue jeans. Levi Strauss, born Löb Strauß, was born into a Jewish family in 1829. The relatively liberal Bavaria of the time included Jews into society; however, the number of Jews per town was legally regulated. Löb Strauß was not allowed to start a family in Buttenheim and thus decided to emigrate to the United States.

A Worker’s Uniform

The gold rush of the west attracted Löb, who changed his name to Levi, to San Francisco. In 1850 he opened his first store, which provided flysheets and other products to gold hunters. According to the legend, one of the workers asked him to use the robust flysheet material to make trousers. Gold seekers were used to working on their knees, often leading to the ripping of their trousers. 139.121 is the birth name of the pioneer blue jeans. This number combination is the name of the patent owned by Levi Strauss and the sewer Jacob Davis. The latter convinced Strauss in 1873 to include his newest invention, copper rivets, into his creation, in order to make the trousers even stronger. That is how the story of blue jeans began.


From Workers to Rebels

This new combination of fabric and rivets was from then on considered indestructible. It didn’t take long until not only workers but also farmers, rail workers and cowboys started wearing the robust trousers. The blue fabric came from the quaint village of Nimes in France, where the fabric was invented as early as 1600. That is also where the name Denim came from – a token for Nimes (French: de Nimes). The deep blue indigo colour hails from Genoa. “Blue de Gênes”, Genoa blue, lent its name to jeans as we know them. There was only one person who was not pleased with their name: their inventor himself. Until his death in 1902, he insistently called his invention “waist overall”.

The following years saw other brands like Lee, Wrangler and Mustang jump on the Levi’s bandwagon. Blue jeans managed to revolutionize the US American fashion market and then made their way to Europe towards the end of World War II. The American GIs stationed in Europe wore jeans as a symbol of freedom. Jeans soon started to appear on the black market. It was the hippie movement that finally helped jeans to their European breakthrough. They became the symbol of the youth’s fight against old traditions and authority. Artists like James Dean and Marlon Brando embodied the myth of freedom, toughness, authenticity and rebellion conveyed by blue jeans. In the seventies, author Ulrich Plenzdorf brought this phenomenon to paper by saying “jeans are not trousers, they are an attitude.”

Blue Jeans for the Everyday Style

It was a long way from the worker’s uniform, via the symbol of a revolting generation to what jeans are today: a perfectly acceptable item for the everyday outfit. For work, an elegant dinner or for a leisurely look: blue jeans have become socially acceptable. They have become everyone’s darling and now come in uncountable styles and shades. Plus, they will always carry a piece of the American Dream: the history of dust, sweat, work and hope becoming a revolution.

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