The San Francisco Chronicle’s pop culture critic engagingly charts the rise of blue jeans from humble laborers’ togs to haute couture.
The familiar tale that Levi Strauss created these sturdy pants for miners during the California Gold Rush turns out to be an oversimplification. Sullivan explains that Nevada tailor Jacob Davis actually came up with blue jeans after a woodcutter’s wife came to him complaining that she couldn’t find trousers that stayed together at the seams. But Davis didn’t have the money to apply for a patent, so he partnered with Strauss, and before long his creations were the pants of choice for miners, loggers and cowboys. WWII helped create a market among the fairer sex. Women who went to work in factories took to wearing denim overalls, and even women who stayed home began to appreciate the material: For the upper-crust housewives who lost their domestic help to the war effort, Claire McCardell designed a denim housecoat with an attached oven mitt. In the 1950s, Hollywood bad boys embraced jeans (James Dean wore them in Rebel Without a Cause), and when teenagers adopted the pants, parents worried about a link between denim and delinquency. But by the beginning of the 21st century, jeans signified consumerism, not rebellion; shoppers at expensive New York boutiques could easily pay $200 for a pair of not-so-plain dungarees. The history-of-everyday-things genre sometimes strains credulity—does the story of salt really explain the rise and fall of the Roman Empire?—but Sullivan has pulled it off, showing that in blue jeans, we can see the history of work, leisure and gender roles in 20th-century America. Wonderfully chosen photos, such as a Life magazine shot of 1950s college girls slumming in baggy blue jeans, nicely complement the text.
An entertaining and informative history of an unlikely subject.