Trousers with Metalwork – The History of Modern Denim Jeans


Jeans. Blue jeans. Demin jeans. Love them or loathe them, these sturdy blue trousers are here to stay. In the 21st century, almost everyone wears jeans, even your humble blogger here, grudgingly though he might, yes, he does wear jeans.

I’ll admit it. Jeans are not my first preference for legwear. But they do have their time and they do have their place. And even more interestingly, they also have their history. Where did jeans come from? How long have they been around? Why are they called ‘Jeans’? And what is denim, anyway? Why are they riveted together like the Golden Gate Bridge and what is the purpose of that tiny pocket in the corner?

Deminmental Developments

Almost all jeans on earth are made from a material called denim. What is it and where did it come from? Denim is actually a cotton fabric, although it probably feels very different than the singlet or the T-shirt that you’re wearing right now. The reason for this is because denim is woven differently, to give it strength and the ability to put up with all kinds of rugged use, misuse and tortoruous abuse. Although this isn’t set in stone, the majority of denim comes in a stereotypical blue colour. This is achieved by dying the denim in an indigo-blue dye which, when dry, turns the denim a dark blue, which eventually fades lighter and lighter as the years and wash-cycles in your washing-machine, gradually wear down the colour of the dye over the years.

But probably most importantly…where does the name ‘denim’ come from?

The original super-strong denim fabric was actually a type of serge manufactured in France. Named after the town where this particular type of cloth was produced, the material became known as Serge de Nimes, (‘Nimes’ being a town in France). Eventually, the word was shortened, broken down, rebuilt and Serge de Nimes…became…Serge de Nimes…Denim.

The History of Modern Jeans

Inventing the material and the distinctive blue hue was one thing. Finding out what the hell to DO with this fascinating fabric was another.

Jeans were invented in the mid-19th century. The robust, easily-washed denim fabric was just what tailors needed to manufacture trousers for the working man that were strong, hard-wearing and which could put up with such rigorous occupations such as farming, ranching, mining, construction-work and general hard labour. It was into this world of hard-wearing clothing that a man named Levi Strauss entered in the 1850s.

Strauss was born in Bavaria, Germany, in 1829. The home of beer, sausages and in a hundred years from then, BMW. Soon, Bavaria would be able to lay claim as being the birthplace of the guy who brought us modern jeans.

In 1847, Strauss, his mother and sisters sailed to the New World and settled in the United States of America. In 1853, Strauss found himself in the rapidly-expanding city of San Francisco, where he founded his famous Levi Strauss company, manufacturing blue-jeans. In the 1850s, California was undergoing a massive gold-rush, and miners and prospectors would have needed sturdy clothing which could put up with rock-scrapes, water, mud, snags from pickaxes and shovels and a whole lot more. Strauss was in the right place at the right time.

Fantastic as denim was for making jeans, Strauss soon discovered that the jeans were only as strong as the seams which held them together. One of Strauss’s customers was a man named Jacob Davis, who moved to San Francisco in the 1860s, shortly after the end of the American Civil War. Davis was a tailor by profession, and he had experimented with copper rivets, which he used when he made things like harnesses, hammocks and tents, to give them extra strength. Excellent as Herr Strauss’s trousers were, Davis found that, in spite of denim’s strength, the trousers kept ripping from all the hard work they had to do. In an experiment, Davis applied rivets to all the stress-areas on the jeans, in an effort to strengthen them – On the pocket-edges, around the fly, at the hips and so-forth.

When this experiment proved to be successful, Davis decided to take out a patent on his new invention. When he discovered he didn’t have the money to apply for a patent, he approached Strauss with his discovery instead. Strauss agreed to help Davis fund his patent and in the 1870s, the two men formed a partnership, creating their new and improved blue-jeans!

“Jeans” actually comes from the French words “Bleu de Genes” (literally “Blue of Genoa”).

Blue Jeans Today

The history of jeans is long and interesting. Originally, they weren’t even called jeans! Up until 1960, Levi Strauss called his creation “waist overalls”. Unlike conventional overalls, that went right up from your ankles to your chest with straps to go over your shoulders, “waist overalls” merely went up to your waist, where they were held up by either a belt or suspenders. Jeans have remained popular as a working-man’s set of trousers because of their toughness. During wartime, factory-workers often wore denim jeans because they guarded against dangerous liquids, sparks and other hazards that were to be found inside places like production-lines and munitions factories.

Because of their status as working-trouserse, jeans were often looked down on in polite society. It wasn’t until after the middle of the 20th century that dress-codes were relaxed enough to allow the wearing of jeans as regular trousers. Restaurants, cinemas and nightclubs would sometimes ban patrons from entering if they were attired in jeans because they weren’t seen as respectable. It’s believed that jeans started being worn as regular trousers in the 1960s and 70s, when teenagers, rebellious as always, looked for something more interesting to wear, apart from suits and slacks. Some boys probably found their fathers’ old 1940s jeans in his closet, which he wore as a factory-worker during the War and put them on, and the trend began.

The Enigmatic Fifth Pocket

Nearly all modern jeans have five pockets. Two at the back, one on the front left, and two on the front right, with the fifth pocket nestled neatly inside the front right pocket. What is it there for?

Popular belief will tell you it’s for keys, condoms, loose-change, cellphones, cigarette-lighters, boxes of matches or chewing-gum, but it’s actually not for any of those at all.

The fifth pocket was introduced to blue jeans around the turn of the century and their original purpose was to hold a pocket-watch. Although this may seem hard to believe (what with the shape of fifth-pockets on jeans in the 21st century), it is, nonetheless…true. A classic pair of jeans, such as Levi 501s, will typically have a fifth pocket which is comparatively large, compared with some others that can be found today, and the reason for that is because it was designed to hold pocket-watches. Even today, most good-sized jeans which are manufactured to traditional measurements will still be able to house quite comfortably, a 16-size pocket-watch, with the watch’s ring-clip chain clipping to the nearest belt-loop around the front of your jeans. If anyone reading this owns a pocket-watch and wants to try this out…go ahead. It does work. Here’s the proof:

That’s actually a closeup of me wearing my own jeans! The chain is a gold-plated, ring-clip watch-chain, clipped to the belt-loop, with my railroad pocket-watch tucked into the fifth pocket. So the next time someone asks you what that pocket is for…you can tell them!

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11 Comments

  1. bertie said,

    December 2, 2010 at 5:56 AM

    Interesting topic and thanks for sharing. You make an excellent history teacher S.
    ;-)

  2. David said,

    February 21, 2011 at 9:39 AM

    Great post. One small addition… Reno Nevada was the starting point, not San Francisco.

    • scheong said,

      February 22, 2011 at 8:57 PM

      Thanks David. My research only dug up references to San Francisco, sorry for the confusion.

  3. Shanon Bull said,

    February 4, 2012 at 6:39 AM

    I’m glad someone, other than me, still remembers what the small pocket is! Ol’ Levi originally put a river at the bottom of the fly for reinforcement but decided to remove it one night after he stood up after squatting for a while in front of a camp fire, or so I’ve been told!

    • scheong said,

      February 4, 2012 at 2:33 PM

      Hi Shanon.

      Yes, the fifth pocket is a watch-pocket. I believe it’s even mentioned on the Levi Strauss website somewhere.

  4. Shanon Bull said,

    February 4, 2012 at 6:40 AM

    Sorry, I meant rivet!

  5. June 3, 2012 at 12:39 PM

    [...] the pocket was actually designed to hold a pocket watch. You can see a demonstration of it on this blog post written by blogger Shahan [...]

  6. BATIK On Denim Jeans said,

    January 25, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    Cool Site! Nice information of Denim Jeans history, keep sharing. From http://denimjeansbrands.wordpress.com, PIN BBM 29DAB01E

  7. noble George said,

    January 18, 2014 at 9:14 PM

    Thanks a lot for the informations . Only now I came to know about the real purpose of the fifth pocket !


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