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What is Denim and Where Did It Come From?

What is Denim and Where Did It Come From?
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Now that fall in New York is finally here, it’s time to switch out your summer dresses and stock up on your denim stash. As we wrap up fashion month which featured endless denim separates and embellished jeans, we can safely say that denim (and jeans) is a huge part of fashion. And given that Levi’s was featured in Star Trek, it seems that the blue woven fabric will continue to be trending in the future.

Despite all the rage about denim, we can’t help but question if anyone actually knows where and how denim was invented. It’s a huge staple in all our closets; but did you know that denim jeans only became fashionable about a 100 years after it was invented?

Let’s all start off with an easy quiz.

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Denim Through the Years

For those of you who didn’t attempt the poll (we're looking at you), the modern denim is usually made of cotton twill. The fabric was produced in Nimes, France, when the French wanted to replicate a cotton corduroy from Genoa, Italy. The “Serge de Nimes” (and hence today’s name of ‘denim’) was known for its durability and used widely in the United States in 1850s.

However, denim wasn’t popular until 1873, when Jacob Davis, under the request of a female customer, used denim to make the first copper-riveted pants for her husband to chop wood in. The copper rivets were there to prevent the pockets and flies from ripping first. These copper-riveted pants, known today as jeans, quickly gained widespread popularity amongst workers who needed heavy duty clothing.

Unfortunately, Davis, being a small-time tailor, couldn’t keep up with the demand, and decided to collaborate with Levi Strauss, who then owned a dry goods store selling these bolts of durable denim fabric. Strauss saw the potential in the American classic; he listed Davis as the inventor, and started manufacturing the Levi’s famous 501 jeans in San Francisco.

Interestingly, it was only in the 1950s that jeans became popular amongst young people. Some subtle changes have been made to form the modern denim jeans we know today – rivets on the back pockets were removed and steel zippers replaced button flies. But what’s truly impressive is that the original pant design has remain largely the same throughout this century.

The Modern Denim

Designers began to experiment with denim jeans in the 1970s. And we all know that when the designers step in, quirky designs and variations of cuts can be expected. The runway now has more variations of jeans than one can count – the skinny jeans, mom jeans, boyfriend jeans (I still don’t get the difference between a boyfriend and mom jean), girlfriend jeans too… the list goes on and you get my drift.

Today, while majority of jeans are made of 100% cotton dyed in synthetic indigo to give its rigidity, a large percentage of jeans in the market (usually your skinnies) is mixed with 1-3% elastane to increase stretch and comfort. Note that such jeans cannot last as long as those 100% cotton ones.

Japanese Denim

Since we’ve talked a lot about denim, it’s time to guess which country manufactures the best denim in the world. (Did you guess Japan?) As with all things Japanese, it’s no wonder that Japanese denim is a work of art. What’s less known is that the Japanese only started weaving the blue fabric a mere 50 years ago! Japanese selvedge denim, the most expensive in the family, is denim woven on shuttle looms with finished edges. Because of how the edges are finished, selvedge denim jeans usually use two to three times the amount of denim it takes to make a normal jean. Japanese manufacturers like Japan Blue focus almost exclusively on vintage selvedge denim – fabric that can only be produced on old looms not made today anymore. This causes the denim to be incredibly rare and difficult to replicate. And this is the reason why brands like 7 For All Mankind, Rag & Bone, Uniqlo and even Gap feature Japanese denim for customers who are willing to pay for top-notch quality.

While not all of us can afford the hefty price tag that comes with Japanese selvedge jeans, we can at least now determine which jeans are a worthy purchase!

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