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The American Way: Denim Through the Decades

A look at the evolution from workwear to everywhere.

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John Wayne

1930s: John Wayne

Photo By Courtesy of Everett Collection

Destinys Child Tommy Hilfiger

1990s: Tommy Hilfiger with members of Destiny's Child

Photo By Marion Curtis/DMI/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

1873 — San Francisco merchant Loeb Strauss (who will later change his first name to Levi) and Nevada-based tailor Jacob Davis patent the modern-day jean.

Thirties — Hollywood westerns usher in the cowboy look, bolstered by stars such as John Wayne and Gary Cooper.

Forties — Women working in factories embrace denim, à la Rosie the Riveter, while Wrangler and Lee compete for the burgeoning leisurewear market.

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Fifties — Movies — particularly 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” starring James Dean — position jeans as the wardrobe of restless youth, leading them to be banned from schools and shunned by the Establishment.

Sixties — Jeans become the uniform of choice for hippies, radicals and wannabe hippies and radicals. Bell-bottoms are groovy.

Seventies — From Jackie O. to Charlie’s Angels, denim goes mainstream and then upstream. In 1976, Gloria Vanderbilt introduces jeans with her name on the back pocket, as did Sasson’s Paul Guez and Maurice Sasson, whose catchy “Ooh la la Sasson” jingle ushers in a new category: designer denim.

Eighties — “You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” So says 15-year-old Brooke Shields, adding Calvin Klein to the status denim craze that now also includes Jordache, Sergio Valente and Guess Jeans. Treatments including bleaching, acid or stone wash, and distressing gain popularity.

Nineties — Secondhand jeans, à la Seattle grunge bands, gain popularity. On the East Coast, Ralph Lauren launches Polo Jeans, and Tommy Hilfiger becomes the go-to brand for the burgeoning urban market. Calvin Klein does it again with his provocative ads featuring hip-hop artist Marky Mark and model Kate Moss.

2000s — It’s the era of premium denim as jeans complete the transition from work and/or weekend wear to every-wear. Madonna and Missy Elliott fall into the Gap, wearing denim and diamonds. Los Angeles becomes the epicenter of the U.S. market.

2010s — Only the strong survive as smaller labels putter out and everyone else fights for market share. In 2012, denim hits the ultimate fashion stage when J. Crew’s president Jenna Lyons sports a denim jacket and evening skirt to the Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.