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Paul Newman
1967: Paul Newman: denim-on-denim. Enough said. Photo: Getty Images

A brief history of blue jeans

Sep 18, 2014

From workaday outerwear to the laps of multi-billionaires, blue jeans have withstood the wear and tear of time as an American icon.

Originally called overalls (even without the straps), the pants evolved from a practical solution to protect the laboring limbs of workers to a style suiting just about every demographic. The garment has fit the thighs of miners, farmhands, cowboys, rebels, hippies, rockers, hip-hop artists, fashionistas and businesspeople alike. Even Apple founder Steve Jobs adopted them, along with a black mock turtleneck, as his signature look.

Heck, you’ve probably worn a pair, too.

So how did a humble Gold Rush-era innovation in trousers come to define a nation? Fortune spoke with Levi Strauss historian and archivist Tracey Panek about the evolution of the attire. With her help and some research of our own, here’s a selection of the most important moments in denim history.

Levi Strauss
1853: Bavarian immigrant and entrepreneur Levi Strauss cashes in on the Gold Rush by moving from New York to San Francisco to found a wholesale dry goods business, Levi Strauss & Co..Photo: Fotosearch/Getty Images

1853

Bavarian immigrant and entrepreneur Levi Strauss cashes in on the Gold Rush by moving from San Francisco to found a wholesale dry goods business, Levi Strauss & Co. He didn’t mine for gold—directly.

Levi's 501
Latvian émigré and tailor Jacob Davis and his fabric supplier, Strauss, patent and manufacture the “XX” pants, later dubbed the 501. The U.S. government grants the pair U.S. Patent No. 139,121 for rivet-reinforced pants under the heading, “IMPROVEMENT IN FASTENING POCKET-OPENINGS.”Photo: Courtesy Levi Strauss & Co. Archives

1873

Latvian émigré and tailor Jacob Davis and his fabric supplier, Strauss, patent and manufacture the “XX” pants, later dubbed the 501. The U.S. government grants the pair U.S. Patent No. 139,121 for rivet-reinforced pants under the heading, “IMPROVEMENT IN FASTENING POCKET-OPENINGS.”

William S. Hart
1914: Silent film actor William Hart stars in massively popular westerns wearing jeans, pioneering the image of the blue-jean-clad Western hero. After WWI, his celebrity gets a boost as the U.S. film industry—unlike that in war-torn Europe—flourishes.Photo: Everett Collection

1914

Silent film actor William Hart stars in massively popular westerns wearing jeans, pioneering the image of the blue-jean-clad Western hero. After WWI, his celebrity gets a boost as the U.S. film industry—unlike that in war-torn Europe—flourishes

John Wayne in Costume for Stagecoach
1939: John Wayne stars in the western film Stagecoach wearing a pair of Levi’s 501s.Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

1939

John Wayne stars in the western film Stagecoach wearing a par of Levi’s 501s. There are some things a man just can’t run away from…

US sailor
1940s: U.S. soldiers and sailors serving overseas act as inadvertent ambassadors for jeans, introducing them as casual wear around the globe.Photo: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

1940s

U.S. soldiers and sailors serving overseas act as inadvertent ambassadors for jeans, introducing them as casual wear around the globe.

Bing Crosby
1951: Singer-actor extraordinaire Bing Crosby gets turned away from a fancy Canadian hotel for wearing all denim. Levi & Strauss sends him a custom denim tuxedo with a “Notice to All Hotel Men” declaring the outfit acceptable formal attire, thus allegedly originating the term “Canadian tuxedo.” (Richard Branson ordered and wore a replica recently.)Photo Courtesy of Bing Crosby Enterprises

1951

Singer-actor extraordinaire Bing Crosby gets turned away from a fancy Canadian hotel for wearing all denim. Levi & Strauss sends him a custom denim tuxedo with a “Notice to All Hotel Men” declaring the outfit acceptable formal attire, thus allegedly originating the term “Canadian tuxedo.” (Richard Branson ordered and wore a replica recently.)

Marlon Brando
1953 : Marlon Brando makes the 501 even edgier in the classic motorcycle gang film The Wild One.Photo: Getty Images

1953

Marlon Brando makes the 501 even edgier in the classic motorcycle gang film The Wild One. Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Marilyn Monroe
1954: Norma jeans? Marilyn Monroe pumps up the sex appeal of blue jeans in River of No Return. Guess jeans later evokes the famous pose in its ads.Photo: John Swope —Time LIfe Pictures/Getty

1954

Norma jeans? Marilyn Monroe pumps up the sex appeal of blue jeans in River of No Return. A New York Times critic observes, “It is a toss-up whether the scenery or the adornment of Marilyn Monroe is the feature of greater attraction.” Guess jeans later recreates the pose in ads featuring Anna Nicole Smith, among other models.

marlboro
1954: Don’t forget jean jackets. The marketing campaign “Marlboro Man” debuts as the tobacco industry seeks to make filtered cigarettes more masculine through association with cowboy attire. Giddyup.Photo: Advertising Archive/Courtesy Everett Collection

1954

Got a light? The marketing campaign “Marlboro Man” debuts as the tobacco industry seeks to make filtered cigarettes more masculine through association with cowboy attire, including denim of course. Giddyup.

Jefferson Airplane
1967: Psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane records trippy radio advertisements for white Levi’s.Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

1967

Psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane records trippy radio advertisements for white Levi’s.

Paul Newman
1967: Paul Newman: denim-on-denim. Enough said.Photo: Getty Images

1967

Paul Newman: denim-on-denim. Enough said.

Ramones
1970: Hey ho, let’s go. Punk rockers The Ramones liked their jeans cut snug and skinny. They showed off their signature look on the cover of their 1977 record, “Rocket to Russia.” Not even ripped knees could stop those cretins from hoppin’.Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

1970

Hey ho, let’s go. Punk rockers The Ramones liked their jeans cut snug and skinny. They showed off their signature look on the cover of their 1977 record, “Rocket to Russia.” Not even ripped knees could stop those cretins from hoppin’.

Gloria Vanderbilt
1976 : Heiress Gloria Vanderbilt launches her designer denim jeans.Photo: Evelyn Floret— The Life Images Collection/Getty

1976

Heiress Gloria Vanderbilt launches her designer denim jeans. Never one to miss a beat, Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner later jokes, “She’s taken her good family name and put it on the asses of America.”

Daisy Duke
1979: Scantily clad Catherine Bach wears ultra-short “Daisy Dukes” in The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. Celeb Jessica Simpson later reprises the role on film in 2005.Photo: Warner Bros/Everett Collection

1979

Scantily clad Catherine Bach wears ultra-short “Daisy Dukes” in The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. Celeb Jessica Simpson later reprises the role on film in 2005.

Hip-hop fashion
1980s: Hip-hop popularizes baggy jeans.Photo: Ron Galella—WireImage

1980s

Hip-hop popularizes baggy jeans. On the opposite end of the spectrum, punk rockers and metalheads stick to skinny jeans.

Brooke Shields
1981: Fifteen-year-old supermodel Brooke Shields shocks audiences with in a Calvin Klein designer jeans ad. “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?” she asks. “Nothing.”.Photo: Gaslight Advertising Archives

 1981

Fifteen-year-old supermodel Brooke Shields shocks audiences with in a Calvin Klein designer jeans ad. “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?” she asks. “Nothing.”.

Springsteen
Tom Gralish—Zumapress.com

1984

Born in the USA? Heck, yeah. Bruce Springsteen’s 501-swadled buttocks stand guard in front of an American flag. You can bet he danced in the dark in those, too.

Brittney Spears and Justin Timberlake
2001: Brittney Spears and Justin Timberlake cross the red carpet as a couple at the American Music Awards in full denim garb.Photo: Mark J. Terrill—AP

2000

"Time magazine names Levi’s 501s the “Fashion Item of the 20th Century.” A year later, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears take that counsel to the extreme on the red carpet at the 2001 American Music Awards.

Barack Obama
2009: President Barack Obama throws the opening pitch at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in what commentators describe as “mom” jeans.Photo: Haraz N. Ghanbari—AP

2009

President Barack Obama throws the opening pitch at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in what commentators described as “mom” jeans. He later tells comedian Zach Galifianakis, “The truth is, generally I look very sharp in jeans.”

Levi's Stadium
2014: The Field of Jeans. Levi’s Stadium opens as the new home of the San Francisco 49ers.Photo: Kevin Terrell—AP

2014

The Field of Jeans. Levi’s Stadium opens as the new home of the San Francisco 49ers. And so blue jeans come full circle, from gold rush to pass rush.

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