With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Jeans: The History of the People's Pants Coming to American Experience

American Experience: Riveted: The History of Jeans premieres Monday, February 7 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Ripped by design or threadbare from years of use, and with cuts, widths and stretches to fit any body, jeans today are ubiquitous and no longer linked to an identity, lifestyle or job. It’s something nearly everyone can agree on today – jeans are an essential wardrobe staple. Depending on age and background, people might call them dungarees, denim pants, or “blue jeans,” though the woven cotton fabric called denim has long expanded its colors from its original indigo dye. To give us an idea of the history in our own closets, the PBS documentary series American Experience will begin its new season with Riveted: The History of Jeans.

The jeans documentary will share the fascinating and surprising story of the iconic American garment, from its roots in slavery to the Wild West Gold Rush days. Whether linked to youth culture, the civil rights movement, rock and roll, hippies, high fashion or hip-hop, jeans carry the history of American culture and politics.

But for at least the past 40 years, jeans have become international. At any given moment, half the people on the planet are wearing them, according to James Sullivan, author of “Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon,” who is among the diverse cast of historians, authors, designers and so-called “denim heads” interviewed in Riveted.

The story of jeans usually begins with Levi Strauss (1829 – 1902), a Jewish Bavarian immigrant looking to make his fortune selling garments to the 49ers during the California Gold Rush. But half a century before Strauss, enslaved people in the American South were wearing a precursor of denim made from a coarse textile known as “slave cloth.” The blue hue of jeans came from an arduous dyeing process using the indigo plant. Eliza Lucas, the daughter of an 18th-century colonial governor in Antigua, has long been credited as the savvy entrepreneur who jump-started the Southern economy with indigo production. Left out of this narrative are the West African enslaved people, whose invaluable expertise for growing, processing and dyeing the plant had been brought with them to the U.S.

Though Levi Strauss is typically credited with the “invention” of blue jeans, Riveted reveals the story of Russian-American tailor Jacob Davis, who added reinforcing copper rivets to the pants. This innovation created a garment so strong that it came to clothe nearly all American laborers by the 1930s.