More than any other textile, denim feels like the fabric that conquered fashion. Linen might be older, cotton may be more widespread, nylon might be more futuristic, but denim is the material that we as a society deliberately seek out more than any other. It isn’t just what a garment happens to be made of; we prize it for its own sake. While plenty of people happen to not have something in gingham or Gore-Tex, not owning denim is a deliberate choice that all but marks one as an outcast.
Given its central place in our lives, the history of the textile is well-trod territory: Its name derives from serge de Nîmes, the twilled fabric exported from the French town of de Nîmes in the nineteenth century. It first caught on during the 1849 Gold Rush in California for use in hard-wearing workmen’s coveralls peddled by an enterprising Bavarian immigrant named Levi Strauss who first used it to make tents. From there it took hold in America’s western reaches only to be discovered by the rest of the country when Teddy Roosevelt’s promotion of the country’s national parks opened up the West for all to see. It was spurred further by the nation’s growing obsession with cowboys, country music, and the Western genre. Then, as post-war America’s influence spread steadily around the globe, denim became the obsession of everyone else.
This remarkable proliferation meant that over the course of about a century denim made the paradoxical jump from work to leisure, and from plebian to designer. In the process, it found a place in just about every continent and culture, worn by everyone from the very poor to the super-rich. It’s been central to the lives of old-timey prospectors, turn-of-the-century construction workers, cowboys, beatniks, hippies, hypebeasts, and an endless profusion of denim-based Instagram accounts, not to mention just about every music-based subculture you could name. This blue-hued cloth has proven pliable enough to be turned to many more meanings and identities than it ever could simply to garments.
Part of the secret to this global appeal lies in what might at first glance seem like a shortcoming. The indigo dye that colours the warp fibres of denim isn’t very good at sticking to them. This makes denim fade visibly with time and wear. Add to this the inevitable fraying and tearing that comes with age and you have a textile that (like canvas, its similarly sturdy cotton cousin) offers us a blank slate on which to impress our lives and experiences. It offers us the ability to count time in the folds and creases of our garments; to wear our hearts on our sleeves, in a manner of speaking.
We can all count ourselves lucky that Levi didn’t stick to just making tents.