Sure, you love Levi’s as much as we do. But have you ever bothered to read up on this most iconic of denim brands? Or any of the other favourites in the perpetual running for Best Vintage Blue Jeans Ever?
Allow us to walk you through the history of what Yves Saint Laurent once called “the most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed and nonchalant” item of clothing ever invented, the brands that have so shaped its enduring legacy, and the key vintage denim pieces we can never get enough of.
Early Origins of Denim Jeans
Yep, it’s true: all the best things come from France. Sort of. Though the term “denim” is often referred to as a conflation of the French term “serge de Nîmes” in reference to a textile produced in southern France, there is conflicting thought on the geographic origins of Denim. However, the term “jean” is rightly attributed to Genoa, Italy, a town known in French as “Gêne” and the original source of a cotton, linen and wool blend known as jean that would be imported and later produced in England, before making its way to American shores and mills by the late 18th century.
Still with us? Good. For two centuries, the terms denim and jean referred to two different fabrics, but the two have become one today and the popularity of vintage denim jeans continues to soar. So without further ado.
Levi’s, The Denim King
The story of Levi’s may very well be the first (well-documented) American dream. Bavarian immigrant lands in New York City in 1848; learns retail at the sides of his dry-goods selling half-brothers; sets off for Gold Rush-era San Francisco. By 1873, Loeb Strauss had changed his name to Levi, grown a bustling business selling common dry goods and workwear, and developed a process for riveted clothing that he patented in partnership with a Nevada-based tailor named Jacob Davis.
Originally referred to as “waist overalls,” this early denim jean design was later assigned the lot number “501” around 1890, and remains arguably the most highly sought-after, imitated and iconic garment in the denim genre and even the greater fashion lexicon today.
Shop vintage Levis of all cuts, washes and colours here for a timeless look that represents the roots of denim culture.
Like Levi Strauss & Co., Lee also started out as a more general business, first wholesaling groceries at its inception in 1889 before adding flour mills and eventually dry goods such as workwear. Frustrated with the quality of such clothing from suppliers, the company began producing its own workwear, achieving notoriety for the “Union-All” work jumpsuit which launched in 1913.
By the 1920s, Lee was producing sturdy denim pants for cowboys in addition to its workwear and notably introduced the zippered fly. (Early Levi’s like the 501 did and still do feature a button fly). Come the 1940s, Lee was America’s #1 manufacturer of work clothes, moving on to develop casualwear from the 1950s onwards. Vintage Lee jeans remain a strong emblem of U.S. manufacturing and an essential item for denim aficionados today.
Did you know that Wrangler jeans weren’t always called by that name? Everyone’s favourite rodeo brand started as Hudson Overalls in 1904 before becoming the Blue Bell Overall Company in 1919. In turn, Blue Bell acquired the rights to the Wrangler name in 1943 and the brand relaunched in 1947 with a pair of rodeo-ready jeans designed by “celebrity tailor Rodeo Ben.”
The brand would go on to be endorsed by rodeo stars and cowboys and symbolises durability and quality to this day. Vintage Wrangler Jeans are an iconic expression of this rough and rugged legacy, a whimsical mix of authenticity and sex appeal for the denim fans of today.
Calvin Klein Denim
Nothing gets between us and a good pair of vintage Calvin Klein jeans. If Levi’s paved the way for denim’s place in fashion history, it’s Calvin Klein who fortified this legacy with the launch of his eponymous denim line in 1978. His infamous - and incendiary - 1980 ad campaign featured a then-15-year-old Brooke Shields teasingly asking, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing,” coining perhaps the most iconic turn of phrase in 20th-century advertising.
Klein himself proclaimed that “Jeans are sex” and it’s this unbridled appeal that keeps vintage Calvin Klein jeans, jackets, shorts and more at the top of denim wishlists today.
The Denim Jacket
Yep, you could have guessed it: like jeans, the denim jacket started with Levi’s. Launched in 1880 and originally referred to as a three-pleat “working blouse”, the history of the denim trucker jacket’s trajectory from workwear essential to cool-kid uniform basically goes something like this: first worn by cowboys in the wild wild American west, then by actors imitating cowboys onscreen in the 1950s, by the latter half of the 20th century the vintage denim jacket became a general symbol of good ol’ fashioned, against-the-grain rebellion for misfits of all stripes: rock stars, writers, and angsty, cool creatives. From the streets to the runways and back, vintage denim jackets are a crucial closet essential today.
The Denim Skirt
Thank the hippies. Denim skirts arguably started out as converted jeans, the inseams split open and inserted with triangular godets as the Summer of Love encouraged a grassroots, DIY approach to fashion amongst the wild-child kids of 60s counterculture. Then it became a 70s staple, and iterations of the denim skirt have resurfaced ever since in all lengths, silhouettes, and washes. Vintage denim skirts remain an essential item today in every style to suit your taste.
The Denim Shorts
It started with Daisy Duke. The sexpot character played by Catherine Bach wore ultra-short denim cutoffs in every episode of 70s-era American television show Dukes of Hazzard, and the rest is literally history. Denim shorts - whether cutoffs or cuffed - have become a summer staple for both men and women since. It’s that simple.
Festival Style Denim
Didja read the bit about denim skirts above? The notion of festival denim began with 60s counterculture, as the youthquake and hippy movements led to an embrace of casual clothing as a means of rebellion and crafting an identity separate to one’s suit-wearing parents.
Denim flares, denim skirts, denim shorts and denim jackets all featured prominently on the youth at Woodstock, all surefire staples by the time Glastonbury launched in 1970.
Want to find out more about the history of denim? Check out our blog on the History of Levi's jeans and discover much more on our blog!