There's no doubt about it: Jeans are the most versatile item hanging in our closet. No matter when you wear them, where you wear them, or how you wear them, there are a pair of jeans to fit nearly every mood and occasion. It's no wonder, then, that denim is considered a wardrobe essential.
Since the late-19th century, jeans have gone from rugged workwear to fashion apparel that we couldn't live without (or at least wouldn't want to, anyway). Social, political, and pop culture have all played a role in denim's evolution, and the trends that have come and gone—and come back again—throughout its nearly 150-year history.
From groovy bellbottoms to low-rise hip-huggers, keep reading to learn about the history of jeans and the most popular denim styles over the decades.
May 20, 1873: The Birth of Jeans
Back in the day—the mid-1800s to be exact—dungarees a.k.a. "waist overalls" were all the rage. And not because they were stylish, but rather, practical. The brainchild of businessman Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis, blue jeans combined metal rivets to denim trousers to create a durable uniform that stood up to the rough-and-tumble work of the 49ers (the Gold Rush miners, not the football team). Workwear as we knew it had been revolutionized and would never be the same.
1920s to 1930s: Wild, Wild, Western
Jeans as workwear continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the American West among miners, cowboys, and laborers. But it wasn't until Hollywood took this trend to the silver screen with its Western films that jeans entered mainstream culture. On the fashion front, Levi's® became the first item of clothing to have a designer label (its signature red tab) on the outside. And Vogue featured its first model in denim on the cover in the '30s, hinting that jeans could perhaps be a fashion statement and not just sensible clothes for working folk.
1950s: Cool Blue
Jeans became a symbol of "cool" in the 1950s. Pop culture bad boys like James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized cuffed, boxy styles of denim as they shook up the squares in their films. Unsurprisingly, rebellious teens took hold of this fashionable symbol against the status quo. What followed was a backlash from some school boards that banned students from wearing jeans—they were too "anti-establishment"—to which we say (er, sing): "Down with the moral majority!"
1960s: Flower Power
Peace, love, and bellbottoms became the counterculture anthem of the 1960s. The youthful, free-love movement embraced the casual blue jean (bellbottoms and low-rise hip-huggers, especially), which represented freedom from more structured clothing while also serving as a form of creative self-expression. Double denim and jean jackets also made their first real appearance as a fashion trend during this time. You got extra groovy points if you decorated your denim. Embroidery and patches were popular choices.
The break-with-tradition spirit of the '60s carried into the '70s, a decade which came to symbolize a fresh, wholesome, all-American sexuality. This was embodied by cool-girls of the times, such as Charlie's Angels actress Farrah Fawcett and model Lauren Hutton. Silhouettes started to look smaller, with slim-fitting, straighter leg jeans and denim skirts and vests becoming in-vogue fashion items. And who can forget the iconic Daisy Dukes? Inspired by Catherine Bach's character in the popular TV series The Dukes of Hazzard, barely-there cut-off shorts became a major fashion trend at the end of the decade and into the next.
1980s: Designer Denim
The 1980s is when designer denim was truly born. A 15-year-old Brooke Shields starred in a Calvin Klein commercial saying, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins,” bringing denim to the forefront of every fashion designer’s mind. Designer jeans became a true status symbol in pop culture, and brands including Calvin Klein, Jordache, and Gloria Vanderbilt were among the most coveted by the cool kids. Stonewash, acid wash, ripped jeans, and skinnier leg cuts that were tapered at the ankle were super in.
1990s: Big and Baggy
Denim fashion changed again in the '90s, thanks to the rise of grunge and hip-hop. Straight-legged jeans, sometimes ripped, other times not, kept things casual and Cobainesque. "Mom jeans" a.k.a. high-waisted jeans with a more relaxed fit were also very fashionable—and have recently made a comeback. Another style that caught on was all about drowning in denim (JNCO jeans, anyone?). The bigger and baggier, the better. Carpenter jeans, with multiple pockets and tabs, and head-to-toe denim ensembles, were super trendy, as well as denim overalls and shortalls.
2000s: Get Low
In the early aughts, Destiny's Child, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera popularized the ultra low-rise jean. Sure, bending and sitting without flashing your backside became slightly more complicated, but hey, who ever said emulating your favorite popstar would be easy? Flare and bootcut styles were on-trend, too, while retro Capri jeans found a resurgence in the mid-to-late 2000s. Interest in premium denim soared at the start of the 21st century, with brands like 7 for all Mankind, Citizens of Humanity, and Hudson Jeans suddenly becoming mainstream household names.
2010s: Skinny Jeans
Around 2010, music festivals began growing in popularity. What was once a sought-after destination for music enthusiasts became the place to be seen for fashion it-folk. This shift in pop culture gave way to the birth of festival wear. Vintage-inspired jean trends (think: denim overalls, jumpsuits, and rompers) became must-have fashion items and concert attire. But perhaps the most outstanding trend to arise in the last decade is the skinny jean. As a result of innovations in denim stretch technology, skinny jeans became the go-to style to wear during the workweek, on the weekend, and out for date night.
Present Day: Cropped, Culotte, Comfort
While denim fashion is heading toward variety, skinnier styles reign supreme because of their versatility to dress up or down. Still, there is a gravitation toward a looser fit, where comfort doesn't come at the cost of fashion (and vice versa). Medium to high-waisted jeans with either a straight or boot cut are on-trend, a well as wider-legged styles—sometimes cropped, other times not. And let's not forget the modern movement toward shopping locally and sustainably, opting for smaller, independent denim brands—including eco-friendly denim lines. We are deeming it the feel-good, look-good era of fashion.