The History of Jeans

Vintage archives photo of couple in jeans washing a car
The history of jeans spans the decades. FPG/Getty Images
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Take a Look at Denim Styles Over the Decades

History of jeans - Lionel Richie 1980s
History of jeans - Lionel Richie 1980s. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jeans are undeniably a fashion staple, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, jeans are one fashion item that has definitely had its ups and downs and evolved significantly throughout time. Take a look at the history of jeans throughout the years, from the origins of jeans as work wear for laborers, to their status today as the number one fashion essential in the closets of women and men in America and worldwide.

Updated by Cathy Jacobs on January 2, 2019

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May 20, 1873 - The Birth of Jeans

Gold miners wearing Levi's jeans circa 1882
Gold miners wearing Levi's jeans circa 1882. Fotosearch/Getty Images

In the late 1800s, denim trousers, typically worn by male workers and originally referred to as “waist overalls,” were fairly commonplace as rough and tumble work wear. But it was a humble tailor named Jacob Davis who approached businessman Levi Strauss about seeking financial support to patent his idea. What was this brainstorm? Adding metal rivets to the pockets and button fly of denim trousers, to make them more durable. And so, on May 20, 1873, the first pair of blue jeans as we now know them were born.

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1920s-1930s - Western Jeans for Men

History of jeans - farmers wearing jeans in the 1930s
Farmers wearing blue jeans as work wear in the 1930s. Dorothea Lange/Library Of Congress/Getty Images

In the 1920s and 1930s, jeans became popular Western wear in the United States, worn by miners, cowboys and other male workers who needed sturdy clothing that could withstand heavy wear and tear. In 1936, Levi Strauss added his signature red flag to the back pocket of jeans, making it the first item of clothing to have a designer label on the outside. It was also in the 1930s that Vogue magazine featured its first fashion model in denim on the cover, hinting that jeans could perhaps be a fashion statement for women, and not just reserved as practical clothing for working dudes.

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1950s - The Birth of Cool Jeans

James Dean
James Dean looked good in jeans. John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Teenagers embraced blue jeans in the 1950s, when Hollywood movies used jeans as a fashionable symbol of rebellion against the status quo. Pop culture "bad boys" such as James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized jeans in their films, wearing denim as they shook up the squares. This led to blue jeans being banned in some public schools in America, for being too provocative.

Light washes, cuffed denim styles, and black jeans were the reigning jeans trends among men, and popular brands included Levi’s, Lee Cooper, and Wrangler jeans. Contrary to what you might think, women rarely wore denim during the 1950s — that change in women's fashion history was still to come, in the turbulent 1960s.

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1960s - Jeans As Counter Culture Fashion

Hippie jeans in the 1960s at a music festival
Hippie jeans were bedazzled, flared and patched. Evening Standard/Getty Images

The 1960s launched the beginning of the hippie age. The youthful, free love movement that rocked American culture embraced the casual blue jean, which was seen to represent freedom from more structured clothing. In this decade of creative expression, personalizing your jeans was considered very groovy. Embroidery, bright colors, stone washing, rhinestones , and patches were just some of the hip jean trends of the time. Popular cuts included bell bottom flares and low-rise hip huggers. Double denim also made its first real appearance as a fashion trend during the 1960s, and jean jackets became standard hippie wear, and were often decorated with sew-on decals.

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1970s - Jeans as Americana

Farrah Fawcett in blue jeans 1970s
Farrah Fawcett in blue jeans - 1970s. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While the counter-culture denim trend that started in the 1960s continued through the 1970s, in this decade denim also came to symbolize a fresh, wholesome, all-American sexuality. This was embodied by the decade's healthy-looking sex symbols, such as Charlie's Angels actress Farrah Fawcett (pictured here), and model Lauren Hutton. Meanwhile, denim skirts and denim vests also became popular '70s fashion items.

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1980s -The Birth of Designer Jeans

Brooke Shields 1980s Calvin Klein ad
Brooke Shields 1980s Calvin Klein ad. Calvin Klein

The 1980s is the decade when designer denim was truly born. A 15-year-old Brooke Shields starred in a Calvin Klein commercial saying, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins,” bringing denim to the forefront of every fashion designer’s mind. Designer jeans became a true status symbol in popular culture, and brands including Calvin Klein, Jordache, and Gloria Vanderbilt were among the most coveted by fashion girls and guys.

Stone wash, acid wash, and ripped jeans were some of the most desired looks of this decade, along with the new, skinnier leg cuts that were tapered at the ankle. Even men got in on the designer denim trend in this decade, and started to show up more in jeans advertising.

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1990s - Baggy Jeans

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Denim fashion changed again in the 1990s, as the grunge era in fashion began. In this decade, jeans became more about slouchy, casual style, than something you would wear to dress up in. Carpenter jeans, with multiple pockets and tabs, and head-to-toe denim ensembles, were among the trendier looks, as well as denim overalls and shortalls, which were popular among younger women. For men, the rise of hip hop brought along a rise in popularity of baggy jeans.

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2000s - Skinny Jeans Take Over

Britney Spears in 2004 in low rise jeans
How low can you go, Britney Spears?. Gregg DeGuire / Getty Images

In the early 2000s, pop stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera popularized the ultra low-rise jean. Denim also became a fashion staple once again, becoming an appropriate item of clothing to wear for going out on a Saturday night, or even to the office. Flare and boot cut denim were among the most popular cuts of the early 2000s and came in a variety of washes. 

But the biggest denim style story of the decade began in the mid-to-late 2000s, with the resurgence of the skinny jean, as a result of innovations in denim stretch technology. Suddenly, everyone was wearing skinny, legging-style jeans to work, on the weekend and for date nights out. An interest in premium brands soared in the 2000s, with brands like 7 for all Mankind, Citizens of Humanity and Hudson Jeans suddenly becoming mainstream household names.

Boyfriend jeans for women also became a hot fashion trend in the 2000s. 

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2010s to Now - Higher Waists, Cropped Legs, and Indie Brands

Gigi Hadid wearing high waisted jeans
Say Cheese/Getty Images

Today, the trend in denim fashion is toward variety, although skinnier styles for women remain the most popular by a margin, and are a fashion mainstay for most women, because of their versatility as a casual or dressier pant.

Straight leg jeans are another popular denim trend for women that has risen in the past few years, thanks to the influence of style bloggers and fashion bloggers. Today's straight leg jeans tend to be slimmer in their proportions than the roomy flares and boot cut jean styles of previous decades, and are designed to hug the wearer's bottom, hips, and thighs, for figure flattery.

High waisted jeans are another popular, throwback denim trend of recent years that women are loving. This style is especially flattering to curvy figures, and has been adopted by street style bloggers and celebrities alike — check out supermodel Gigi Hadid, seen here sporting the trend. 

Other vintage-inspired jean trends — including denim overalls, jumpsuits and rompers — became must-have fashion items in the past decade, and a popular choice for wearing to concerts and music festivals.

Distressed denim is still showing up as a jeans trend among women of all ages too, from lightly abraded knees on sophisticated dark wash jeans, to ultra-shredded denim styles for younger denim lovers.

The modern movement toward shopping locally and sustainably is also impacting the world of fashion retailing, and jeans are no exception. Some smaller, independent denim brands — including eco-friendly denim lines — are posing a challenge the market domination of premium, designer denim companies.

Finding deals on jeans is also a click or two away for many shoppers, who rely on discount fashion websites and smartphone fashion apps to source bargains on their favorite brands and styles.

Updated by Cathy Jacobs on January 2, 2019