Ellen Duggan talks the true use of denim in fashion as she explores the history of this timeless fabric.
One of my earliest denim related memories came from the mouth of self-proclaimed ‘first supermodel’ Janice Dickinson. I remember finding myself young, dungaree-clad and glued to our Family's 16 inch TV, as she recounted the quest of her golden era: to find Jeans that felt as though they had been created with a woman’s body in mind. She spoke of how she stole a then boyfriend’s tightest jeans, placed them on herself, ran a bath and submerged her body, watching the clinging denim in the warm water.
In a world where jeans were not yet catering to women, Janice took matters into her own pruned hands. She expressed that her prerogative for doing this was to ensure that the jeans would adapt to her body, to project the then subversive idea that, from the waist down, her body had been intentionally catered for by the World of Fashion. Many could argue that this infamous bath scene is the Fashion world’s equivalent to the athlete’s ‘ice bath’, both definitely result in similarly earth-shattering progress.
Although denim may appear to us today as one of the clothing world’s more ‘obvious’ fabrics, what Janice’s fable explains is the complex history of denim, how it’s utilitarian purposes at a time when women were expected to be found ‘sitting pretty’ in the domestic sphere meant that ideas of durability and comfort in clothing were concepts that had to be brought by women TO Fashion, not given to us BY fashion.
In 1853, Loeb Strauss began a business in which denim jeans were supplied to mineworkers. The material was selected having proven itself to be durable, whilst the pockets served functionality for carrying tools in a pre-fanny-pack era. In 1873, Loeb changed his business name to ‘Levi’, sound familiar yet?
Initially, denim was worn solely by individuals in the mining or mechanics industries, but around the 1950s a statement was discovered in the simplest of textiles.Denim was adopted by musicians, artists and Actors. At times of political strife, an intention of support and camaraderie could be found in the sporting of this denim. The durability and functionality of it seemed to embody a message within itself that the world needed to hear.
That we are connected in the simplest of feats; existence.
Flash forward from the dark mines of West Virginia in 1835 to the illuminated streets of New York, November 1988. Anna Wintour’s first issue as the editor of American Vogue, model Michaela Bercu had returned from a holiday and could not fit into a sample size couture skirt. Instead, Wintour had the brainwave of having her photographed whilst sporting a Christian Lacroix beaded shirt and stonewashed Jeans. Taking the grand prestige of Couture and placing it gently in the context of the demands of day to day Manhattan life; bringing denim to the world of Vogue, allowed our universal drive for comfort to release fashion from its haughty ideals and reposition itself as something resilient, something moldable and something that could be easy; just like denim itself.