From before John Wayne buttoned up his Levi's, to long after The Fresh Prince sent overalls all over, denim's centuries-long ascent to stardom is surprisingly fascinating, and often completely confusing. (Ahem: JNCO. What was that?) It all started back in the 19th-century when a German tailor misspelled the name of a French city. The rest was history... that you don't want to sift through, so we highlighted only its greatest denim-trend moments for your reading pleasure.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
Believe it or not, denim originated not in America, but in a French city called Nimes. Back then, this proprietary twill was known only as serge de Nimes, but this all changed when Bavarian Levi Strauss started making sturdy pants for California Gold Rushers. He sold the stuff as "denim" — "de Nimes", more or less — and turned a French innovation into an American pants revolution. Bummer, France!
THE ORIGINAL "WORKWEAR"
Strauss was hard at work pantsing miners (which sounds weird, but go with it!) when a tailor named Jacob Davis came up with the idea to add metal rivets for reinforcement. Once those were added, basic jeans would remain unchanged well into the '30s, with Levi's & Lee dominating menswear's first "workwear" market.
DENIM ON FILM
By the late '30s, cowboys had adopted jeans for their un-herd
-of durability in tough conditions (sorry), but once John Wayne wore classic Levis 501s in Stagecoach
, the pants' popularity expanded into other hardworking industries.
LABORING INTO THE '40s
Despite that pop-culture push from The Duke, jean overalls were still considered a garment of the working man for most of the next decade.
During this factory phase, companies like Lee marketed
inadvertently damaging gender politics jeans to worker's wives.
DENIM GOES MAINSTREAM
Personified by movie stars like Marlon Brando in The Wild One
, denim "dungarees" became the go-to option for guys seeking a new kind of below-the-belt freedom, particularly WWII vets. Still inappropriate even in semi-formal settings, jeans were straight-up banned in public schools (which only made teens want them more, because, duh.)
A REBEL WITH A CAUSE
Beyond Brando, James Dean's devastating Lee's in Rebel Without A Cause
cemented jeans' place as a mainstay in every dude's closet. Fun fact: Some claim the term "jean" comes from a mash-up of his name.
CUFF ME TENDER
The '50s kicked off cuffing, with thick single-rolls and pinrolls
leading the craze. And while the Canadians may have invented denim on denim
, The King certainly helped the look's popularity flourish.
STAY GOLD, PONY BOY
It wasn't long before denim became counter-cultural clothing. Published in 1967, The Outsiders articulated the the decade's preferred look: straight jeans with white socks & loafers, Converse high-tops, or black boots. Movies like Cool Hand Luke and Easy Rider gave jeans a leg up (!) as anytime/anywhere pants by the end of the decade.
PEACE, LOVE, AND WIDE JEANS
The '70s brought hippies, who softened denim's hardcore image with free-and-easy cuts. It was around this time that someone figured out "jeans and a t-shirt" was a match made in comfort heaven.
Disco & glam rock heavily influenced day-to-day styles, making bell bottoms huge throughout the decade. Literally, and figuratively.
WORKWEAR, PART 2!
Thick work denim experienced a revival in the '80s, when salt-of-the-earth acts like Bruce Springsteen glamorized the blue-collar lifestyle.
BUT THEN, DENIM GOT WEIRD
By the end of the decade, the more pleated, high-waisted, acid-washed, ripped, torn, holed, or embellished your jeans were, the better. Yes: pleated. The situation was bleak.
DAD JEANS: THE BEGINNING
Jeans were all over TV by the '90s, with Friends & Seinfeld spearheading the assault. Men's brands were finally starting to innovate the material, introducing stretchy Lycra for the first time.The light-washed, high-waisted baggy cut later known as "dad jeans" makes its first appearance. It's spectacular.
OVERALLS ARE BACK!
Throughout his six-year tenure on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Will Smith made people laugh, cry, and even think it was OK to wear stonewashed overalls with one side undone.
JNCO'S BIG BREAK
Founded in 1985, JNCO's huge jeans were huge in '90s hip-hop, hardcore, and raver scenes. Some say the name is short for "Jean Company"'; others claim it's an acronym for "Judge None, Choose One". Either way, the most surprising truth is that this really wide style was actually invented by a couple of French people inspired by the American rave scene. Robbed again? Le bummer, part deux!
THE AUGHTS: DENIM'S BRAVE NEW WORLD
Enter the Abercrombie-brand-cologne-clouded void, full of exorbitantly priced distressed denim, flared legs, fancy butt pocket designs, bootcuts, and... the birth of the skinny jean.
"Beauty is pain", said anyone who tried to sit while wearing True Religion's ornate back pockets.
The latter half of the 2000s was hipster primetime. The skinniest of skinny jeans inexplicably became a thing for both men and women, and often came in bright colors with a deeply affected unaffected attitude.
WORKWEAR, PART 3!
In the late Aughts, amidst a global recession, the promise of durability brought "heritage" denim storming back. Artisanal urban labor became "a thing", and with it, rugged "non-designer" designer jeans (looking at you, selvedge
DAD JEANS: THE RENAISSANCE!
The stonewashed, high-waist '90s vibe is on its way back (though it never left the 45-65 demo). Everyone from Kanye to the President got on the bandwagon.
Rearing its head in early 2014, the latest denim "trend" basically consists of hypebeasts who got lazy and started wearing off-brand jeans and nondescript North Face jackets. Or just actual normal people. Think of this as a self-aware, urbane addendum to the dad jeans revival.
THE FUTURE OF DENIM
Who knows? Until the next trend turns up, play it safe. Say yes to slim fit, say no '90s fades. Simple dark denim will forever be a good look, but for now make sure they're only slightly broken in with no visible whiskers. Good luck out there.