The fabric used to make jeans originates from Genoa in Italy, a town which is called ‘Gênes’ in French, and this is therefore believed to be the origin of the name. Jean was a sturdy cotton cloth, first produced in the sixteenth century, which became an important textile for working-class people in Northern Italy.
But why the French version of the name? It may be because in Nîmes, in France, weavers tried to mimic jean but instead came up with a rival fabric called denim – ‘De Nîmes’ – another supposed etymology. It was different from jean in being coarser, but at the same time it was considered better quality. Both textiles received their iconic blue colour from real indigo dye, from indigo bushes in India, although a synthetic indigo has since been developed.
There was a third kind of coarse cotton cloth called dungaree, which is an anglicised version of the Indian word ‘dungri’ taken from the name of an Indian village. It, too, was robust and also cheap, often dyed blue though not always. The garment obviously takes its name from the fabric.
Jeans as the name of a garment, or specifically ‘blue jeans’, was the invention of Jacob Davis and his partner Levi Strauss in 1871. They were issued a patent, although this was actually for the use of copper rivets to reinforce points of stress, like at the corners of pockets. The term ‘blue jeans’ had been around for a while, referring to various garments (coats and overalls as well as trousers) made of blue-coloured denim.
In the 1850’s, jeans were worn particularly by miners. Levi Strauss, who was operating in San Francisco at the time, ran out of canvas to supply a gold camp tailor and instead used denim imported from France. Farmers happily adopted blue denim jeans although they tended to have an upward extension panel making them overalls. Cowboys, however, didn’t generally wear blue jeans yet, contrary to popular belief. Many of them wore only trousers made of wool and weren’t introduced to Levis until the 1920’s. Even now working cowboys wear heavy canvas trousers and overalls as much as blue jeans, although it is generally accepted that Wrangler Cowboy jeans are the gold standard for cowboys in terms of blue jeans wear. Wranglers cornered the cowboy market because, unlike Levis who tried to have universal fashion appeal, they invested heavily in rodeo sponsorships and advertising and associated their brand with the cowboy image.
From a highly practical origin, jeans, denim and indeed dungarees have made their own, sometimes bizarre, fashion statements. Nowadays there are the ‘distressed’ and even ripped jeans, which instead of being allowed to look new, are deliberately made to look heavily worn as this is considered ‘cool’. Some of the techniques used to achieve the look, such as sandblasting, are either environmentally damaging, or hazardous to the health of workers, or both.