Is there anything more American than blue jeans?
Over the last 160 years blue jeans have woven their way into American and even world culture. Classless, utilitarian, and yet classically stylish, jeans have been worn by prisoners, plumbers, and presidents alike.
Iconic American Figures Associated with Blue Jeans
Although many frontiersmen never wore a pair of jeans and instead opted for buckskins, in the last century denim has become the trouser of choice for the American West’s most visible ambassadors. Both Will Rogers and John Wayne wore them and countless rodeo legends as well. Today if you make your way to a rodeo in Pecos or Cheyenne, you’ll probably see dudes sporting a pair of Wrangler blue jeans.
I’m not talking about the Harley Davidson clad bunch we see nowadays; I’m referring to the 1950s vets who returned from WWII and hit the road on bikes because they needed excitement and freedom in their lives. Think Marlon Brando in The Wild One with his leather jacket and rolled cuff blue jeans.
The Young Rebel
Today, nothing could be more mainstream than denim, but jeans used to be the badge of the rebel, the man who broke from the traditional dress of society and rejected the old way of doing things. Rebels of all types have flocked to denim, starting in the 1940s with rule-breaking college youth who wore them against the wishes of their parents to James Dean in the classic film Rebel Without a Cause to the Greasers in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Rebellious youth have for the last 60 years found a kindred spirit in denim, and will for at least another 60.
The Blue Collar Worker
Blue is the color of the working class because it takes to staining and cleaning better than white; the classless blue jean, prized for its inexpensive durability and ability to suck up grease, was and is the pants of the working man. Personified in the 1980s by Bruce Springsteen, the blue collar worker loves his blue jeans because they, like him, are made to be worn but never beaten.
An Overview of the Major Jean Brands
Levi Strauss and Co
Founded in 1853 by Levi Strauss in San Francisco, the company started as a dry goods wholesaler but quickly found its place in history when a tailor named Jacob Davis partnered with the company to create a superior pair of pants that utilized copper rivets to reinforce areas of the jeans that commonly tore under heavy stress. Patent number 139,121 was awarded in 1873 and the rest is history. Utilizing the best denim in the world at the time, Levi Strauss and Co established itself as a beacon of quality for next 150+ years.
In 1890, lot number 501 was assigned to the waist overalls with the copper rivets and button fly. Today you can buy the same jeans, minus a few details introduced over the years because of changes in menswear style (suspender buttons are gone) and the requirements of wartime rationing boards (the back buckleback).
H.D. Lee was a man who headed west after starting a bright business career on the East Coast only to have it derailed by bad health. Against the advice of his doctor, Lee headed to the opportunity he saw in Kansas, where he founded Lee Mercantile in 1890. Seizing on the lack of local quality goods and the natural central location of Salina, KS, Lee pushed his work wear division and the Union-All jumpsuit became his flag product. It sold like hotcakes, in part because the designers catered to the men wearing them and made them easy to slip on and off and innovated with the now classic zipper.
Lee has continued to grow over the last century, in large part to smart marketing and sponsorships including the founding of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. By closely associating itself with the American Southwest, the jeans built a strong and loyal base among the western crowd.
Finally, I need to mention Buddy Lee. First making waves in a Minnesota shop store window back in 1920, Buddy has since been spotted promoting Lee Dungarees in a variety of strangely funny commercials. Over 90 years old, Buddy Lee is a legend; don’t let his 14-inch height fool you.
Founded in 1904 as the Hudson Overall Company, the company changed its name to Blue Bell 15 years later and remained primarily regional to North Carolina with its core product being overalls. After WWII, Blue Bell bought a work wear company and revived Wrangler with the specific target customer being the Western crowd. With an innovative cut utilizing higher pockets and wider belt loops, and the sponsorship of rodeo legend Jim Shoulders, Wrangler was able to wrangle itself to the top of the Western market within two decades.
Lee Cooper Jeans are less well known in the USA but have a loyal following in England and Europe, and for good reason. The brand made a name for itself during WWII when rationing made anything but denim a luxury. With only 30 ration coupons for clothing, working men had the option of a business suit for 26 coupons or a pair of Lee Cooper overalls for 2 (or better yet – jeans for 1). The Lee Cooper Brand grew quickly in the 50s and 60s under Harold Cooper, and now sells clothing in over 70 markets around the world.
Other options outside the Big 4 brands:
High fashion brands began to push out jean lines in the 1970s, but saw the market fade within a decade. The most recent surge began again in the early 1990s and continues today; brands such as Lucky were the first to start charging $100 for jeans that were built on nothing more than slick marketing (my old college roommate would disagree – he felt the unique inner lining and fit was worth the price he paid). In the last 20 years, designer jeans have leveraged celebrity endorsements and notoriety to sell jeans at prices that can now soar into the $500 range.