Blue jeans are an iconic style staple worldwide, but do you know their history? Contrary to popular belief, the first jeans were not worn by cowboys but rather gold diggers in the 19th century. Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant and trader, sold fabrics and clothing in San Francisco during the gold rush, and one winter day, a Latvian tailor named Jacob Davis showed him a pair of trousers with metal rivets in the seams. The durable riveted pants became a hit with the gold diggers, and soon Strauss joined forces with Davis to invest in the idea.
The US patent for the riveted trousers bears the number 139121 and was granted on May 20, 1873 – this marks the birth of jeans. The trousers were originally called “waist overalls” and were simply pulled on for work. The name “jeans” came about in the 20th century and referred to the city of Genoa, where the fabrics for the rivet pants were traded.
Jeans’ triumph is not only due to the rivets but also to the blue-dyed cotton threads. The denim fabric is woven using a mix of blue and white threads that result in a mixed color that can forgive stains. The typical denim blue that wears out with use but not when washed is obtained from the leaves of the indigo plant. However, this dye was often produced under brutal conditions, with American producers abusing slaves and their knowledge of indigo cultivation and production.
Jeans production still has environmental issues today, with vast amounts of water, pesticides, and synthetic indigo used that can harm the environment. However, some companies are changing course and offering plant-dyed jeans made from organic or recycled cotton. Lease programs for jeans to optimize reuse and recycling have also emerged.
Despite their humble gold digging beginnings, jeans are now a popular fashion choice across all social classes. On average, Germans own seven pairs of jeans, with around 60 pairs of jeans produced worldwide every second. Jeans may have come a long way from their eco roots, but efforts to make the iconic style staple more sustainable are keeping the spirit of durability and longevity alive.