August 26, 2020

Jeans and Dungarees – America’s Iconic Fashion

When I checked my clothes closet today, I discovered that my reliable and faded pair of blue jeans was made in China by Open Trails. I had found them up at Charity’s Closet in the Historic Savage Mill Mall located in Savage, Maryland – a unique building that has been around since 1816. A cotton mill, it provided tents to Union troops during the Civil War.

When I enlisted in the Navy just months after World War II ended, I was sent to boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland. From Bainbridge 244,247 recruits graduated and transferred to various ships and naval stations around the world. Upon arrival we were issued Navy blue and white uniforms, white hats, a peacoat, two pairs of blue dungarees and a light blue Chambray shirt. Such shirts then cost us $5.00. Today, Chambray shirts cost $79.95 at J. Crew. (But at Charity’s Closet at Savage Mill Mall they are still being sold for just five bucks!)

Dungarees were first made in the town of Dungri, near Mumbai, India. They were produced in a denim-like fabric used to make sails and tents. The fabric was commonly used to make cheap, durable pants for slaves, laborers, agricultural workers and miners. “Dungarees” became the utility uniform of the U.S. Navy during World War I. In the middle of the 20th century the word dungaree was replaced by the name “jeans.”

Jeans became the most popular fashion item for men and women during the Twentieth Century. Originally called dungarees, waist overalls and later known as blue jeans, they are tough, long-lasting and practical. Sailors still wear them. Worn worldwide, the famous denim pants have moved from standard work issue to status symbols worn by the elite in society. They have often become overpriced commodities sought after by the wealthy, while still appealing to cowboys and movie stars. Jeans reign supreme as the most well-liked anti-fashion garment of modern America.

The name “jeans” became popular in the mid-20th Century referring to blue denim pants with a form fitting cut and riveted pockets. The word “jeans” is believed to derive from the French name for sailors from Genoa, Italy who wore pants made of a sturdy cotton, linen or wool blend twill called fustian. In the 16th century, that material was known as “Jene fustian.” By the 18th century, jean fabric was all cotton, used to make work clothes in several colors, but mostly it came in indigo blue. The word “denim” may be an anglicized version of the French “Serge de Nîmes,” a mostly wool fabric of the 17th century.

In 1873, Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor teamed up with San Francisco merchant, Levi Strauss to receive a patent for their work pants, which featured copper rivets at the pocket joining. It increased the strength of the garment and was the inspiration for the most popular garment of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Jeans were featured in films in the 1920s and ‘30s depicting cowboys and ranchers. Lee Mercantile produced 101s for rodeo performers. Movie stars like Tom Mix, Gene Autry, John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Gary Cooper helped create the image of the rugged American male by wearing blue jeans.

During World War II jean-clad women performed the kind of work usually done by men. After the war Wrangler introduced a slimmer jean for women. Lee Riders targeted the teen market. Soon jeans were being made in colors other than blue. In the ‘70s, Gloria Vanderbilt offered dark-colored, slim fit jeans with a bold designer logo on the back pocket. Calvin Klein was the first designer to send his models down the runway wearing jeans. Soon jeans were marketed in a wide variety of styles including acid washed, stone washed, stretch denim, cropped ninnies and pre-ripped. Since blue jeans are now offered in infantwear lines, the fashion item has now been strongly established as one that is popular from cradle to grave.

Levi Strauss & Company is located in San Francisco. It grossed $5.75 billion in 2018; net income: $283 million. It employs 15,000 employees and its jeans are sold in 110 countries. It sells 450 million pairs of jeans in the United States annually. The average American man and woman owns 7 pairs of jeans, 25% of American women own 10 pairs!

Paul R. Dunn is an author who writes books about Abraham Lincoln. He is reached at:

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