Boys' Jeans

No clothing item as assumed more importance in a boy's wardrobe during the second half of the 20th century than blue jeans.


Blue jeans, a central symbol of modern American culture, were in fact the creation of a 19th century German immigrant, Levi Strauss. He was born during 1829 in Buttenheim, Bavaria. Teenage Levi Strauss, his two sisters and his mother sailed for America in 1847, where they join half-brothers Jonas and Louis in New York. Levi joined the dry goods business of his older brothers. Levi in 1853 becomes an American citizen. He sailed to San Francisco to take advantage of the gold rush boom. Strauss and his brother set up their small dry goods store near the waterfront, where they could easily get shipments from the Strauss brothers back from the east. The store grows into a prosperous business by the 1870s.

Levi Strauss discovered rugged pants for miners made out of sturdy brown canvas. Once this resource was exhausted, he turned to denim, which he dyed blue to become what is known now as blue jeans. Then, in 1872 Jacob Davis, a taylor, offered Levi's half of a patent on a technique for strengthening the seams and rivets of the pants. The company was granted the patent and Levi's was on its way to making the "improved" jeans. They begin making copper riveted "waist overalls" (the old name for jeans) from a sturdy material, denimin, in San Francisco. Far from today's fashionable image, the original overalls quickly became popular among laborers because of their almost indestruable nature. By 1873 the company had all of their stitchers under one roof and Davis managed the production of the jeans. The jeans were so successful that many competitors began to copy the invention. This lead to many different lawsuits concerning their patent, which Levi's successfully conquered. A pair of jeans was selling for only $1.46 in 1879 and became popular for the miners and ranchers in the West. Throughout the 1880's, Levi Strauss continued to prosper with $2.4 million in sales. During the following decade, Levi's was incorporated and issued stock to the family members and enpluees.

Only men purchased the overalls and it would have been virtually inceivable to find women or children from "resptable" families wearing them. The now famous denim material came from the Amoskeag Mill in New Hampshire. The first overalls designed for children appeared in 1912. (See "Koveralls" below.) During the early 20th century the reputation of the company slowly grew. The company in 1915 received the Highest Award for waist overalls at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The company began to purchase denim from Cone Mills in North Carolina. The company opened aA factory in Frankfort, Indiana to make Koveralls, the first product sold nationally. This was importantas until the 1920s, Strauss's products were sold in regional, mostly western markets, and were virtuallybunknown unknown in the eastern cities.

The Depression which began after the 1920 stock nmarket crash had a major impact on the company. The demand for Levi Strauss products declined. Workers at the Valencia Street facility were put on a short work week to avoid layoffs, and others are given non-manufacturing tasks such as constructing the hardwood floors that are still in use today. Although the comopany did not immediately benefit, the hard wearing overalls were often purchased by many distressed Americans and the buying patterns set in the 1930s carried over into more prosperous times.

The popularity of blue jeans was aided by the representation of blue jeans in westerm movies. These movies spread the word about Levi's, because the actors in them were wearing Levi's. Since people tend to follow what the stars are wearing, most people of this time went out and bought a pair of jeans. The year 1936 inscribed the entrance of the trademarked red "Levi's" tab sewn on the back pocket of the jeans. This was the first label placed on the outside of a piece of clothing. By 1939 the blue denim "waist overall" was not just worn by the blue- collar worker, but also by college students in California and Oregon, who started wearing blue jeans as a fad. Before long this fad gained status of its own.

The War years (1941-45) in America saw changes in the design of the waist overalls, due to government mandates regarding the conservation of raw materials. Finally, during World War II jeans were an established part of the war effort. Blue jeans were an essential commodity for the war effort. At this time blue jeans were only available to defense workers. It has been noted that this restriction later contributed to the success of Levi's. U.S. soldiers and defense workerrs wore their Levi'sŪ pants and jackets overseas, giving the products their first international exposure. The popularity of all things America in liberated countries help lay the ground work for the future spread of blue jeans, even penetrting the Iron Curtain after the War.

Fashions such a overalls and "T" shirts worn by American soldiers and sailors spread throughout the country after the war. Levi Strauss dropped the wholesaling end of the business in order to concentrate on manufacturing and meet the growing demand. Jeans appear ideal for children in only a few years after the war are worn by virtually all American boys.

The company in the 1950s attempts to expand their market beyound work clothes for men and play clothes for boys. more focus was placed on the post- war baby boomers and the growing popularity among jeans created a surge in denim sales. By 1950, Levi's was marketing jeans with double knees, zippers for people, who did not like the button fly and lighter blues, a line of causal slacks for men. The 1950's left a lasting impression for the world of blue jean manufacturers because there were many changes occurring in the industry. For example, blue jean sales in the 1950's were aided by the appearance of Marlon Brando and James Dean. When these two men stepped onto the movie screen wearing their blue jeans the whole world was watching. Their representation of rebellion caused the status of blue jeans to go from a symbol of the rugged frontier, to a symbol of defiance towards the adult world. The copmpany conceived of "Lighter Blues" casual slacks and the "Denim Family" line mark the company's entry into the sportswear business. Jeans as casual wear was not immediately accepted. Most American high schools banned them. A U.S. Army colonel on an American base in Frankfurt, Germany during 1954 banned military wives from wearing blue jeans, saying it reflected poorly on the United States. Neither the U.S. or Red Ary, howrver, could stop the spread of jeansd. Levi'sŪ jeans were exhibited at the "American Fashion Industries Presentation" in Moscow during 1959, just as the Cold War was reaching a critical stage.

Levi Strauss was a trend setter in more than a fashion sence. The company opened a plant in Blackstone, Virginia and demanded that it be fully integrated. This was contrary to local custom and before government mandated integration policies. Fashion was the company's focus in the 1960s and a steady stream of new products were introduced. Levi Strauss products in 1961 were exhibited in Paris, the center of world fashion, to help fuel the steadily expanding international demand. The company introduces pre-shrunk Levi'sŪ jeans in 1963 and STA-PRESTŪ slacks--a wrinkle free products--in 1964. The company forms Levi Strauss International in 1965, beginning the company's expansion into Europe and Asia. The company aired its first television commercial in 1966. Levi'sŪ jeans are exhibited in Moscow, Prague, and Warsaw.

The company continues its domestic and marketing program in the 1970s and 80s, helping to gain acceptance of jeans as fashionable clothes. The company goes public in 1971. The first Original Levi'sŪ Stores are opened in Europe during 1983. LS&CO. was awarded the official outfitter designation for the U.S. Olympic Team and the Los Angeles Games staff. The "Levi'sŪ 501Ū Blues" television campaign first airs at the Olympic Games. LS&CO. introduces the DockersŪ Brand in the United States during 1986. LS&CO received Harvard University's Dively Award for Corporate Public Initiative.

The company's marketing efforts hasve been enormously successful. However, in the 1970's denim jeans were not just a part of the United States but a worldwide and cultural phenomenon for everyone. The craze for blue jeans was growing and there was no end in sight. The year 1977 marked Levi Strauss & Co. success in becoming the largest clothing maker not just in the United States, but in the whole world. Then by the early 1980's, it saw some declines in sales. Then when 1984 was approaching, Levi's thought it would bounce back into the top spot. Levi's teamed up with the 1984 Olympics to promote its outerwear division. Unfortunately, sales remained on the down end. This caused the Levi's to do some major restructuring and cut backs within the company. Things were looking up in the late 1980's when Levi's introduced its line of upscale men's pants, Dockers. Finally in 1990 Levi's sales are steadily climbing because of an increase in innovative finishes, such as bleaching and stonewashing its blue jeans. Today the introduction of the wide leg jeans and other new designs are helping Levi's to remain at the top of the apparel industry

Boys and Jeans

Simon Davis, son of Jacob Davis and the superintendent of the Valencia Street factory, conceived of play clothes for children made out of denim, a novel idea at the time. He invents "Koveralls," a one-piece play suit for children.

The use of jeans, except as work clothes, limited until after the Second World War. Before the war jeans were worn as work clothes on farms and ranches. American city boys, however, rarely wore jeans. They generally wore more formal pants, until the 1940s usually knickers. They were virtually unknown in England and Europe.

American boys after the Second World War began wearing jeans. At first they were only worn for play. Elementary boys were allowed to wear them to school, but they were banned at most secondary schools. Interestingly, despite the fact that jeans wete widely worn by boys of all ages in the 1940s and 50s, they were entirely long pants. Jeans were no available as short pants. In many cases during the 1950s, boys might play in jean and then dress up in a short pants suit to go to church or other more formal occasion. many occasions such as birthday parties might involve suits and ties in the 1940s and even the 50s which now involve casual clothes in more relaxed modern era.

Slowly the lowly jeans became more acceptable. One major factor, of course, was that boys who had grown up in the 1940s and 50s wearing jeans, did not have the same attitudes toward them. By the 1970s designer jeans appeared and were especially popular among girls. Jeans were always worn by boys in the 1950s as long pants. A popular style of cut-off jeans appeared during the late 1960s. Apparently boys were willing to wear "cut-offs" emphazing that they were casual wear, but not regular shorts. Of course most of the "cut-offs" were made that way and not jeans cut off like mom.

Jeans in the 1990s have become an important fashion statement. Jeans are now often worn in dressy occasions and not just as casual clothes. Men and young adults now wear jeans instead of slacks with sports jackets.

Figure 1.--

Christopher Wagner

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Last updated: March 21, 1998