Stylist's fashion director Alexandra Fullerton explores our (and her own personal) denim love affair.
Andy Warhol said he wanted to die in blue jeans. I’d happily do the same. My first fashion obsession, aged seven, was a reversible polka-dot denim skirt. My first designer purchase? A pair of Earl Jeans’ signature indigo bootcuts. At my first sample sale, I came away triumphant with a pair of denim flats from Gina. When they wore out I took to eBay and found another pair. Never mind they were two sizes too small and crippled me when I wore them – I have long accepted that I am addicted to denim. Thankfully there are enough fellow denim fanatics worldwide to make me not seem like a total freak. From those who never wash their indigo jeans to preserve the colour, to fanatical collectors of rare Japanese selvedge and people like me – who can’t plan an outfit without a denim element. Wearing denim is a religion. You may not be as devoted as me but you’re guaranteed to have experienced the power of denim to transform any outfit and your mood.
On the surface denim flatters and instantly makes us look cool, but the relationship runs far deeper. This humble cotton cloth has revolutionised our wardrobes, lifestyle and politics. From the radical women who adopted the traditionally male garment in the early Sixties, sparking a feminist revolution, to its power to create iconic TV ads that can create number one records, blue jeans are both social document and style staple.
As with all good legends, denim’s origins are contentious. Often credited as originating in France as the fabric serge de nimes, there are records of a fabric called denim in the 1600s (and Christopher Columbus was said to have used it for his ships’ sails 200 years before). Conversely ‘jeans’ stem from the garments worn by sailors from Genoa, Italy in 1505 – known as “genes” – although some sources say the Can’t Bust ‘Em workwear brand now owned by Lee coined the term in 1924.
Wherever they come from, denim has undoubtedly changed our wardrobes. Yves Saint Laurent summed up their effect best when he said, “I have often said that I wish I had invented blue jeans. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal and simplicity.” And it’s this contradiction where blue jeans’ desirability lies.
Jeans can be whatever we want. The versatile fabric works if you’re feeling tough (wear ripped), dreamy (pick a pale, chambray wash) or sexy (spray on a pair of drainpipes). And there are as many washes and cuts as there are denim tribes. Currently the most influential are west London’s stylish mothers led by Claudia Schiffer, who is regularly spotted in MiH’s Marrakech, spurring this year’s Seventies denim revival.
This humble cotton cloth revolutionised our wardrobes, lifestyle and politics
But my favourite part? Denim has an uncanny knack of always looking current. American Fabrics magazine reported in the Seventies that, “denim is one of the world’s oldest fabrics, yet remains eternally young.” The same is true today. Like Madonna (a constant champion of blue jeans), denim is fashion’s chameleon. With the ability to transform itself to fit the season’s trends (see summer’s minimal denim at Céline), it also makes the perfect canvas for a designer’s wildest dreams and our own DIY experimentation. Jeans are often the first item we can add our personality to, with homemade rips, studding and bleaching. My first customised item was a charity shop denim jacket, studded with the slogan: “Yes I do, but not with you”.
Granted, jeans aren’t the easiest item to buy and finding that perfect pair inevitably involves hours spent in a fitting room, but once you’ve found them – the pair that can magically remold your body and inject you with a spurt of confidence – denim’s magic improves your mood quicker than a million good hair days ever could. When they finally fall apart (or you can no longer fit into them), there will be tears. I ignore my favourite Current/Elliott cargo jeans to ‘save’ them and know I’m not the only woman to play favourites with her jeans.
How did denim become the world’s most-worn fabric? Blame Levi’s. Founded by Loeb Strauss during the 19th century California Gold Rush, the trousers were worn by miners.
Tailor Jacob Davis suggested metal rivets would prevent ripping and a patent was awarded to Strauss and Davis on 20 May 1873. It was only when Hollywood started producing Westerns during the Thirties that denim switched from workwear to screen icon. Men began to emulate their cowboy heroes by wearing jeans but denim only made the leap from workwear to casual clothing after World War II. Again prompted by Hollywood and coinciding with the invention of the term “teenager”, denim’s rebellious reputation was sealed when James Dean starred in Rebel Without A Cause in 1955. Denim was sexy and cool and some schools banned jeans, making them all the more desirable…
During the Sixties women started to wear jeans specifically cut for their bodies. In conservative areas, trouser-clad women were shocking but women in jeans were at the vanguard of the sexual revolution. Jeans changed track again with the birth of designer denim in the Seventies. Heiress Gloria Vanderbilt created the first designer stretch denim in 1976 while Calvin Klein acknowledged, “jeans are about sexy”.
The early Nineties saw denim dip in popularity, confirming Germaine Greer’s 1970 rant, “You can now see the female eunuch the world over… spreading herself wherever blue jeans… may go.” Denim’s ubiquity diminished its cool factor but jeans were born again thanks to Helmut Lang, whose innovative paintsplattered jeans, along with Diesel’s dirty denim campaign, ensured jeans fitted into the grunge aesthetic. This reinvention was the start of today’s constant quest for ‘It’ jeans.
In the last 15 years, denim has incorporated bling brands, four-figure denim and boutique labels. Earl Jean, Seven and Paper Denim & Cloth sprung from LA in the late Nineties (as with denim’s earliest days, the West Coast is in the lead) and now hundreds of niche denim brands make finding the perfect pair easy. J Brand, C.R.A.F.T. and Hudson are currently the names to know while dedicated denim boutiques help simplify the choices available. But where next? Lesley Torson, co-founder of denim boutique Trilogy reveals that, “This season there is no one ‘It’ jean – there are 10!” Currently buying coloured denim and shorter styles that end at the ankle, Torson predicts that “greyed-off colours and super-soft Japanese denim” will be big this winter.
Denim has attitude woven into its DNA. Jeans are everywhere yet their instant credibility combines with subtle signals that can reveal the wearer’s taste in music, style and self. No other item of clothing inspires such loyalty or passion in its wearer or is as versatile. As the song says, “we’ll be forever in blue jeans.” I know I definitely will.
Words: Alexandra Fullerton, Image: Paul Smith