The fascinating history of jeans and their French origins…
Jeans were invented in America in the mid-19th Century by a young man called Levi Strauss. Legend has it that in 1853, Levi Strauss, a 24-year-old German immigrant, left New York for San Francisco where the California gold rush was in full swing. He took with him a small supply of dry goods with the intention of opening a branch of his brother’s New York dry goods business. A prospector who came to the shop for supplies asked what was for sale. Strauss told him he had rough canvas to use for tents and wagon covers and the prospector said, “You should have brought pants!” saying he couldn’t find a pair of pants strong enough to last.
Levi Strauss was clearly a man who could take a hint. After much deliberation and experimentation, the cloth he eventually chose to make trousers to sell to the prospectors was a tough cotton fabric called “serge de Nimes”. It was produced in Nimes in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France.
It was dyed indigo blue because this was the cheapest dye in the market and the cloth was used to make tarpaulin. However, Levi Strauss found it was just perfect for trousers that were to be worn by men working in extreme conditions – strong, thick cotton which was very durable.
He called the trousers “jeans” – named after the blue dye that was used called “Genoa” and the cloth was called “denim” from shortening the fabric name “serge de Nimes”. The blue jeans were a hit with the prospectors and eventually manual workers across America.
In the 1960s celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean made the utility wear jeans a fashionable item when they wore them in films and jeans became mainstream wear and of course are now a part of the uniform of life.
Although jeans became the normal attire of American workers – they didn’t catch on back home in France until much later.
The blue cloth from Nimes was adapted for work wear in France in the late 19th Century and became the uniform of the manual working classes. The French workers wore “bleu de travail” (blues for work) in the form of jackets, overalls, trousers but not jeans, which were distinguishable by their use of copper rivets, orange stitching and were closer fitting.
Bleu de travail garments are still popular in France, particularly in rural areas and continue to be favoured by manual workers whilst jeans have become popular for office workers.