The History of Jeans

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Take a Look at Denim Styles through the Decades

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

Jeans are undeniably a fashion mainstay, 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 denim 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 August 10, 2017

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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 tailor named Jacob Davis who approached businessman Levi Strauss about seeking financial support to patent his idea. The idea? Adding metal rivets to the pockets and button fly of denim trousers, to make them more durable. And so, on May 20, 1873, 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 were popular Western wear in the United States, worn by miners, cowboys and other male workers who needed durable 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 men.

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1950s - The Birth of Cool Jeans

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

Teens really embraced blue jeans in the 1950s as they were seen as the rebellious fashion item of choice. Pop culture icons like James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized jeans in movies and this "bad boy" clothing item was even banned in some public schools. Light washes, cuffed jeans and black denim 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 this decade -- that change in women's fashion history was still to come, in the 1960s.

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1960s - Hippie Jeans

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 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 and jean jackets became standard -- especially those 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, denim also came to symbolize a fresh, wholesome, all-American sexuality. This was embodied by the decade's healthy-looking sex symbols, such as Farrah Fawcett (pictured here) and Lauren Hutton. Meanwhile, denim skirts and denim vests also became popular fashion items in the 70s. 

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1980s -The Birth of Designer Denim

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 cooing, “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 and brands including Calvin Klein, Jordache and Gloria Vanderbilt were among the most popular in stores. Stone wash, acid wash and ripped jeans were some of the most desired looks, 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 - Jeans Get Seriously Sexy

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Denim fashion changed in the 1990s, as the grunge era in fashion began, becoming more casual wear than stylish must-have. Carpenter jeans and head-to-toe denim were among the trendier looks, as well as 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 and saggy denim.

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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 out on a Friday 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 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 jeansfor women also became a hot fashion trend in the 2000s. 

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

Celebrities wearing jeans and denim - Gigi Hadid
Check out our favorite candid photos of celebrities wearing jeans. Ray Tamarra/Getty Images

Today, the trend in denim fashion is toward variety, though skinnier styles for women remain the most popular. Today's flare jeans, bootcuts and boyfriend styles for women tend to hug the bottom and be cut more slim through the hips and thighs, in contrast to baggier versions that were popular in previous decades. And there's no denying that the skinny jean is still the most popular denim style for women overall, because of its versatility as a casual or dressier pant.

Distressed denim continues to be a major trend in this decade, from lightly abraded knees to ultra-shredded denim styles. Higher waisted jeans -- and even "Mom Jeans" -- also saw an uptick in popularity among younger women in this decade (see Gigi Hadid, pictured here in a vintage-inspired, high waisted pair). Other vintage-inspired jean trends -- such as denim overalls, jumpsuits and rompers -- became must-have fashion items for real women and celebrities alike.

Today, with the local movement in retailing in full swing, smaller, independent  denim brands are also challenging 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 smartphone fashion apps to source bargains on their favorite brands and styles.

Updated by Cathy Jacobs on August 10, 2017