Sociologists often refer to cultural movements in terms of “waves”. A wave is when a new type of discourse on a given subject swells up and becomes a new interpretation of how we think about that subject.
Coffee is, for example, is considered to be in it’s third wave. Coffee as pure utilitarian function (i.e. Folger’s) was the first wave, Starbuck’s and the rise of cappuccinos and lattes would be the second wave, and fair trade Ethiopian pour-overs is the third. Coffee became more and more sophisticated in each iteration as it transformed from a staple commodity to a craft product whose story is just as important as its taste.
So what wave of denim are we currently experiencing? In the 150 years since Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss put rivets on pants, the cultural identity of jeans has evolved as well. From its workwear origins, to mass consumption, and current place as an artisanal good, I’d argue we are currently in the Fourth Wave of denim identity, where denim has grown beyond its humble workwear origins into an artisanal good.
Read on for a brief rundown of each period:
First Wave (1873-1920) – Miners and Workwear
On May 20, 1873, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis received a United States patent on riveted clothing, marking the beginning of jeans as we know them today. They were worn almost exclusively by miners and other manual laborers who needed hard wearing clothes to endure their physically demanding work.
Denim was not in fashion as denim was not fashion, it was pure utilitarian function. If anyone cared to look at the brand or the make of their denim, it was purely to see which one would hold up better under abuse. This interpretation and identity would stick with denim jeans and workwear for the first fifty years of their existence.
Second Wave (1920-1970) – Rebels and Cowboys
It was around the 1920s, when silent film was in its heyday, that many Americans began to see jeans associated with something else–cowboys. Western movies were playing all across the country and the men onscreen were clad in denim.
This was a slight historical anachronism as the many western films were set before jeans had ever been invented, but their popularity rose nonetheless. The heroes of these movies were tough, good, and honest and the jeans they wore took on the same values.
Kids everywhere wanted to dress up like the cowboys themselves and the denim companies played to them. Lee even explicitly advertised their jeans as “Cowboy Pants”.
At the same time, many veterans refused to re-enter polite society after returning from WWII and continued to wear their jeans and leather jackets. Many older Americans viewed this outsider identity as transgressive and dangerous, but it resonated with suburban teenagers who saw the glamorous side of rebellion in films like Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, and Jailhouse Rock.
The conservative establishment tried to stem the tide of denim’s growing popularity by banning it in public schools and producing their own movies and tv programs that showed jeans to be amoral and anti-social. But it wasn’t enough, and slowly but surely, denim became more and more common in casual wear, leading us into…
Third Wave (1970-Present) – High Fashion and the Everyman
Up until this point, the denim trade had been dominated by the big three: Levi’s, Lee, and Wrangler; and almost all the jeans were raw, crunchy, and uncomfortable. But as denim grew in popularity, many already established brands decided to try offering jeans to different segments of the market.
The guy who dressed business-casual during the week didn’t want to spend his Saturdays breaking in a pair of 501s. It wasn’t long after that more accessible brands like Calvin Klein, Guess, and Jordache introduced their own “premium” jeans, which had been pre-washed and distressed to cut out the break in process.
This wave took the work out of workwear, and jeans soon became the default casual pant option for most of the Western world. Jeans no longer held the scarlet letter of teenaged rebellion nor the blue collar roots of hard manual labor. Wearing jeans became not only innocuous but the expected pant for all casual wear.
Fourth Wave (1980-Present) – Japanese Revival
As North American denim grew more and more generic, a large subculture of Japanese enthusiasts had long idolized the “glory days” of American jeans (1940s-1960s) decided to make them for themselves. In 1979, Shigeharu Tagaki founded a new denim company that would become Studio D’Artisan. The brand was created to revitalize the construction techniques of old, sourcing buckle-backs from France and using processes like hank-dyeing.
SDA jeans were very popular, and soon several other companies (known collectively as the Osaka 5) began producing denim in a similar style. Jeans were more than just pants to them, they were a cultural icon and a piece of history, and they were willing to go to extreme lengths to create a artisanal version of a once mass produced good.
This way of viewing denim soon made its way back to the United States in the early 2000s, where a new generation of denim fans were ready to appreciate a craft approach to jeans. Smaller brands like Rising Sun & Co., Left Field NYC, and Raleigh Denim began to produce their own jeans with many of the early historical details but in an updated style. This was in stark contrast to the typical premium denim companies like True Religion or Seven For All Mankind, as the raw denim brands apotheosized the source of their goods.
A new crop of of highly passionate denim fans emerged to buy these products. But these denimheads cared about more than just the brand name, they also want to know the mill that produced the fabric and even the country of origin of the cotton itself. This passion has brought about new levels of transparency and appreciation of higher quality fabrics and construction techniques throughout the denim business as a whole (and allowed sites like ours to exist).
Where denim is headed next, who knows, but hopefully we’ll be around to see what happens!