From High Seas to High Fashion
Once thought a certainty, it is not doubtful that Christopher Columbus, the explorer credited with discovering the Americas in 1492, Genoa was a bustling Italian port known for its sailors. Life on the high seas took a toll on clothing and Genovese sailors were known for their cotton and wool or linen blend pants. In time the fabric became not only well-known but well sought after and, keeping with the tradition of naming fabrics after their place of origin, became known as “jean” fabric. Within two centuries, the jean fabric was being manufactured in Lancashire, England and in the next one hundred years jeans began being made from one hundred percent cotton, thanks to American weavers.
At the same time Lancashire, England was producing jeans, a town in France was also becoming famous for its fabric. Nimes, France fabricated a twill cloth known as “serge de Nimes” which meant “twill from Nimes”. Some think denim might have been used to refer to another type of material known as “nim” used in France but the general consensus is that the silk and wool blend of the Nimes serge is what was known as denim.
The blue (and other color) jeans of today are all made from denim so… How did the two meet? That would be the bright idea of a Bulgarian immigrant named Levi Strauss. Levi arrived in the United States of America mid nineteenth century and started working for his half brother who owned a wholesale business. The gold rush in California was nig news at the time so Levi left New York City and headed west to establish a branch of his brother’s business. For twenty years he sold to small stores throughout the west and built up a solid business reputation for himself and the family business.
In 1872 a tailor from Reno, Nevada, offered Levi Strauss another partnership. Jacob Davis had been fortifying the work pants he sold with metal rivets at the seams and he wanted to patent his idea. He lacked the money to do so and offered Levi a partnership if he would provide the working capital. Their patent issued in 1873 was the birth of the modern blue jean. Their “waist overall” was made from a cotton and denim blend and by 1920 was the most popular work pant in the country. Although commonly known by the name “jeans”, the Levi Strauss Company did not officially use the name until the 1960’s.
As more and more celebrities began wearing jeans, their popularity grew. Today jeans are seen on Paris fashion runways and several companies produce them. Today jeans can be seen with lavish embellishments and come in various price points. Once the hallmark of a working man, jeans are now found in every country on earth and in every color and their history continues to be made.
The blue jean is not just the story of a working pant that was accepted by high fashion. It is the story of diversity, of compromise, of partnership, of the universality of man. Made from combining two seemingly opposite materials such as wool and linen, Genovese sailors came up with a stronger material for their rough and grueling work. French tailors did the same combining the luxurious satiny silk with wool, a thick, often scratchy yarn made from sheep and goat hair. American weavers used the plentiful cotton in constructing their version, utilizing the material at hand. The durability of cotton became the hallmark of the jeans pant.
Thus, the world of fashion has given us an epiphany to explore. Seeing a need, fashion developed pairings that were not based on similarity but rather used the strengths of all to produce an effective answer and workable tool. Celebrating regional culture, the work pant evolved and adapted, still combining two ends of the material spectrum – hard and soft, expensive and inexpensive. The strength of the work pant which would become known as denims, jeans, and later the blue jean, was not its individuality but rather its unique formula for strength. Neither wool nor linen nor silk alone would have worked but together, they made a great bolt of possibilities for the working man.
The lesson we should learn from the sailors of fifteenth century Genoa, Italy is not just to look outside of our own corner of the world but to think outside of our own little box. While the wool fibers were well-known in Italy, it was the travels of the sailors that brought back the luxurious fabrics of the Orient that were used to make their jeans. The French also used such fabrics to combine with the fibers from plentiful cattle to make their denim. Weavers made the fabrics stronger with variations in their weaving. Today the fiber content of jeans can vary but the pleasure in their ease of wearing and style remains the same for people all over the world.
The universality of the jean mirrors the universality of so many things about mankind. Often we only see our differences but they are far outnumbered by our similarities. BY working together and using our strengths for a particular need, we can develop answers. The needs of the world are many. Just like working men and women needed a viable piece of clothing that would stand the test of effort and time, we all have the same basic needs. By encouraging growth and development, we can answer those needs and improve the lives of people all over the world. Jeans helped break down barriers between the haves and the have-nots. Identification of the need, working solutions with continued improvement, and human ingenuity can be the solution to our greatest issues. All that is required is a willing spirit and working together.
The clothing you wear today is the result of a partnership, cultural diversity, and effort. Hopefully, today we can begin to develop effective partnerships so that one day, we not only all wear similar jeans, we also all posses a working world that bears healthy children, peace, and kindness. After all, charity to all and goodwill are the best fashion accessories a person can wear. “You’re never fully dressed without a smile”.