The History of Jeans: From 1871 to Today

Jeans, denim, dungarees - whatever you want to call 'em, they're an all-American staple. Now considered a casualwear essential, blue jeans were originally invented for miners, ranchers and cowboys. Thanks to a pair of savvy immigrants and Hollywood's biggest stars, the blue jean remains an outfit essential nearly a decade and a half after its inception. Check out the history of blue jeans and find out how they've shaped modern-day fashions.


The iconic blue jean we know and love today has a deep and storied history dating all the way back to 1871, when Russian-American tailor Jacob W. Davis invented them at his tailor shop in Reno, Nevada. Davis specialized in creating heavy-duty textiles for workers, like tents, horse blankets and wagon covers made from a durable cotton denim supplied to him by Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco. One day Davis was asked to make a pair of rugged work pants for a customer's husband, who was a woodcutter, so he crafted the pants from a heavy-duty "duck" cotton he had on hand and reinforced the seams with copper rivets. And By 1871 he was using Levi's cotton denim to construct the pants.

U.S. PATENT No. 139,121

Meanwhile in San Francisco, Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss realized the demand for Davis' pants and opened up a shop to supply them to San Francisco's workers. The earliest jeans are said to have picked up steam thanks to the California Gold Rush, and were popular among miners in the region. Davis eventually moved to San Francisco to run the shop, and patented his blue jeans - which featured double-orange threaded stitches and copper rivets on the back pockets - with Levi Strauss on May 20, 1873.


By the late 1870s, the blue jeans were considered daily wear for California's miners, farmers and cattlemen.  While Davis went on to run the manufacturing end of Levi Strauss & Co., Strauss himself continued to experiment with fabric variations and branding. In 1880, Strauss implemented Levi's trademark "arcuate" bowed line across the jeans' back pockets and began branding each pair with the recognizable leather patch featuring two horses. Around this time, Strauss also began numbering styles; including the famous Levi 501s that went onto become to world's best-selling clothing item.


Henry David Lee, founder of Lee Mercantile Company (now Lee Jeans), is credited for contributing to many of the contemporary jean advancements we know and love today. In the 1920s, he introduced the first pair of jeans featuring a zipper fly and invented the denim Union-All work jumpsuit, which eventually transformed into denim overalls. In 1955, James Dean wore denim on the big screen in "Rebel without a Cause," and the style took off in the mainstream. Elvis wore them almost all the time and Marilyn Monroe popularized the style for women (thanks, Marilyn!).


If you look closely at some pairs of contemporary Levi's jeans, you'll be able to clearly identify elements from the early days of the brand, including the orange stitching, copper rivets, leather patch and stitched line across the back pocket. If this century's red carpet fashions are any indication (think: Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears at the 2001 VMAs), we can expect another 100 plus years of denim dreams.