*** material fabric denim

Materials for Boys' Clothing: Denim

deim ovralls
Figure 1.--Denim ovearalls were commonly worn on the farm and by workingmen by the late 19th century. Boys did not begin waring them until the turn of the 20th century. They became very common in rural orimary schools. YThis is class st a small town schools, pribanly in the south. It looks to have been taken in the late-1930s. .

The most widely held view is that denim is an English corruption of the French term "serge de Nimes;" meaning a serge fabric from the town of Nimes in France. The term serge means a twill-weave fabric with a characteristic diagonal wale. Denim is a cotton fabric, but not just any cotton fabric. More than just any cotton fabric, denim has engendered strong opinions within the hearts of children and teenagers. No clothing item as assumed more importance in a boy's wardrobe during the second half of the 20th century than denim jeans. An denim was a major factor in the success and appeal of jeans. Denim was not created for boys, but the first children's clothes made of denim appeared in the 1910s. By the 1940s it was the preffered material for boys and by the 1970s had not only become fashionable, but has spread far beyond America to countries around the world. Denim, originally created for laborers, now has a sweeping attraction accross all age groups, cultures, and social classes. The appeal of demim and jeans was basically utilitarian and durability. The fact that both denim and jeans became a huge phemenon is one of the amazing development of 20th century fashion. And it was not limited tom jeasn, but with poular spinoffs for caps, skirts, dresses, and jackets.


Few items are more associate with America than denim clothing, especially denim blue jeans. Ironically, denim was not invented in America, but rather, according to some historians, in France (others locate the origin in England or even Italy). Even more surprisinly, it was a German Jewish imigrant that took the French cloth a made the pants that would eventually become a cultural icon.


Denim is a cotton fabric, but not just any cotton fabric. More than just any cotton fabric, denim has engendered strong opinions within the hearts of children and teenagers. As a result, denim has become a subject of debate among historians, designers, movie stars, reporters and writers of all persuasions. Interest bordering on passion can be found among textile and costume historians today, especially in the debate over the true origins of denim. Experts have researched the subject for decades, but their work is far from conslusive.


The most widely held view is that denim is an English corruption of the French term "serge de Nimes;" meaning a serge fabric from the town of Nimes in France. The term serge means a twill-weave fabric with a characteristic diagonal wale. Some clothing historians, however, have questioned the tradition view on the origin of the word 'denim'. Pascale Gorguet-Ballesteros, of the Musee de la Mode et du Costume in Paris, has done some interesting research on both of these issues. A fabric called "serge de Nimes," was known in France prior to the 17th century. At the same time, there was also a fabric known in France as "nim." Both fabrics were composed partly of wool.


Serge de Nimes was also known in England before the end of the 17th century. The question then arises: is this fabric imported from France or is it an English fabric bearing the same name? According to Ms. Gorguet-Ballesteros, fabrics which were named for a certain geographic location were often also made elsewhere; the name was used to lend a certain cachet to the fabric when it was offered for sale. Therefore a "serge de Nimes" purchased in England was very likely also made in England, and not in Nimes, France.

The question remains of how the word "denim" is popularly thought to be descended from the word serge de Nimes. Serge de Nimes was very different than denim. It was made of silk and wool, but denim has always been made exclusively of cotton. The relation between these two fabrics appears to be in name only, though both fabrics are a twill weave. Is the real origin of the word denim serge de nimnim? Was serge de Nimes more well-known and this useful as a marketing tool. Was this word mis-translated when it crossed the English Channel? Historians will most likely have to unravel this mystery.


The uncertaintly over the origins of denim do not end with the French/English debate. To confuse the issue even more, at this same time, another fabric known as "jean" is known to exist. Research on this textile indicates that it was a fustian (a cotton, linen and/or wool blend) and that the fustian of Genoa, Italy was called jean. Again this is an example of a fabric being named for its place of origin.

England again

Jean fabric was apparently quite popular, and the English imported it in large quantities as early as the 16th century. By the 18th century, jean cloth was being made completely of cotton, and used to make men's clothing, valued especially for its durability even after repeated washings. Denim's popularity was also on the rise. It was stronger and more expensive than jean, and though the two fabrics were very similar in other ways, they did have one major difference: denim was made of one colored thread and one white thread; jean was woven of two threads of the same color. While denim and jean apparently originated in France and Italy, it is likely that they were transmitted to America via England. England had a huge fabric and garment industry. Trade relations with American companies were well established. English mills may have used the continental names and substantially changed the fabric and manufacturing process.

Amrican overalls
Figure 2.--A barefoot boy in denim overalls with a fishing pole is a virtual symbol of American boyhood in the early 20th century.


Finally the story of denim reaches America. American textile mills starting on a small scale in the late 18th Century. Although initially small in comparison to the English industry, fabric mills were some of the earliest industries in New England and in many ways the foundation of the American industrial economy of the late 19th Century. Americans were seeking to produce products formerly important. This was particularly important during the Revolutionay war era, but continued after the war. Trade frictions were indeed to lead to a another war with England. The War of 1812 was in many ways a second revoluntionary war. American merchants were thus anxious to become independent from foreign producers (mainly the English).

America in the early 19th Century after the invention of the cotton gin emerged as the world's most important supplier of cotton. Much was exported, and these exports from the South helped financed imported capital goods needed to build America's developing industrial economy, mostly in the north. American mills, mostly located in the northeast, also had access to the phenomenal and expanding output of cotton from southern plantations. The economivs were extremely attractive: low cost cotton produced by slave labor, a market protected by high tariffs, and low production costs steming in part from a growing stream of poorly paid immigrant workers.

Cotton fabrics from the very beginning of the New England fabric mills were an important component of the product line. A factory in the state of Massachusetts wove both denim and jean. American President George Washington toured this mill in 1789 and was shown the machinery which wove denim, which had both warp and fill of cotton. Cotton became even more important as cotton production in the south steadily expanded with the perfection of the cotton gin and the spread weastward of American settlement and slavery. The economies of the new states of Alabama, Mississipi, Louisana, Arkansas, and eventually Texas was largely based on cotton.

Researchers shows that jean and denim were two very different fabrics in 19th Century America. They also differed in how they were used. Jean in particular was not initially materials exclusively for work clothes. A New York clothing manufacturer in 1849 advertised topcoats, vests or short jackets in chestnut, olive, black, white and blue jean. Fine trousers were offered in blue jean; overalls and trousers made for work were offered in blue and fancy denim. Other American advertisements show working men wearing clothing that illustrates this difference in usage between jean and denim. Mechanics and painters wore overalls made of blue denim; working men in general (including those not engaged in manual labor) wore more tailored trousers made of jean. Denim seems to have been reserved for work clothes, when both durability and comfort were needed. Jean was also used as a fabric for working men, but did not have many of the advantages of denim.


While the history of jean and denim is largely European, however muddled. it was in American that modern blue jeans emerged. However the word jrans was not used until the 1960s and for a century the lowly jeans or overalls as they were tnen called were anything but stylish or fashionable. The story of how did this utilitarian and unpretentious fabric became a modern and worldwide cultural icon is a fascinating case study of its own. The story began, where else in California. The Gold Rush of 1848 attacted men from all over America as well as Europe. One of those individuals was Levi Straus--a German Jewish merchant who made his way to San Francisco.

American denim jeans
Figure 3.--American boys during the 1950s would not wear short pants denim jeans, but would instead roll their pants legs up when needed. Denim shorts in Europe, however, became very popular.


Levi's jeans, of course, are named for the founder of the company that was once synoamous with blue jeans. Levi Strauss & Co. was founded by "Loeb" Strauss who was born in Germany (Bavaria) during 1829. Loeb, his mother, and two sisters left Germany in 1847 and sailed to New York, where Loeb's half-brothers had set up a business selling wholesale dry goods (bolts of cloth, linens, clothing, etc.) 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.

children's denim overalls
Figure 4.--Bibfront overalls in the 1990s are popular with boys of all ages in both the long and short pants style. This style was once considered appropriate for farmers and would not have been worn by city boys.

Bibfront overalls

The original jeans were in fact bibfront overalls for laborers and farmers--they were anything but children's wear. They became widely worn by farmers, including their sons. Many rural boys would wear them to school--in some cases with considerable embarassment. Many city boys were dressed up to go to school. Bibfront overalls began to be worn by teenagers as a fashion statement in the 1980s. They began to replace shortalls for younger boys in the 1970s. By the 1990s they had become an increasuingly popular style for both boys and girls. The original bibfronmt overalls had exclusively long pants. Now short pants versions appeared. Some versions appeared with skirts for girls. While denim was the principal material, garments were also made in canvas, corderoy, and other materials. Bibfront overalls became very fashionable for even teenagers in the 1990s, often worn in rather large sizes.


The first overalls designed for children appeared in 1912, and were marketed as Koveralls. The company opened a 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 virtually unknown in the eastern cities.


Jeans were always worn by American boys in the 1950s as long pants. A popular style of cut-off jeans appeared during the late 1960s. Apparently American boys were willing to wear cut-off jeans ("cut-offs") emphazing that they were casual wear, but not regular shorts. I believe this style first became popular in California. Of course most of the "cut-offs" were made that way and not jeans cut off like mom.

Jean shorts

American boys wanted long pants jeans, except cut-offs". European boys, however, were quite willing to wear jean shorts. These shorts appeared in the 1960s and were quite popular by the 1970s. They were worn as casual clothes, mostly by boys up to 12 or 13 years of age. As the style for short pants in Europe was at the time for rather short shorts, these jean shorts were usually cut well above the knee. They began to decline in popularity in the late 1980s, but are still available in the 1990s in generally longer cut styles.

Baggy jeans

The grunge look and hip-hop styles appear in the 1990s. Many boys want large baggy jeans and, as far as the boys are concerned, the baggier the better. They are worn in both the long and short pants style. Some girls also wear the baggier style, but no where as baggy as the boys. There is some disagreement over the origin of baggy jeans. Some observers seem to think people in the Hip Hop community began to copy the pants that prisoners were issued while they were incarcerated and thus lend their attire to prison chic? Others are convinced that the baggy jean actually has some roots in the skate/snowboard industry. It just happens that when the urban hip hop and hardcore skate crowds get together it can be explosive.


Denim jeans had become so popular with teenagers, that they did not want to throw out even well worn jeans, in part because they were so comfortable. One company, Denim Doctors, was set up to repair torn jeans.

How much does it cost to have my denim items repaired?
A: Denim repairs normally run about $10-15 for the first hole and $5-10 each additional hole per denim item plus shipping.

How long does it take to have my repairs done?
A: It normally takes about a week to ten days plus shipping time (we use Air-EX) to fix most denim items.

How does Denim Doctors repair denim?
A: The process is top secret, however, it involves the use of thread, needles, a space age mesh-fabric and highly skilled technicians.

Can you repair holes in the seat of jeans?
A: Yes, we can fix holes in the seat area.

I don't live in the Los Angeles area, can I send my denim items (jeans, skirts, jackets, etc.) to you?
A: Yes, we are happy to repair denim items for people from all over the world. Send your items to: The Denim Doctors, The Hollywood Trading Co., 7383 Beverly Blvd. (@ Martel), Los Angeles, CA 90036. Telephone: (323) 964-0080.


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Cloth and textiles] [Clothing styles] [Countries] [Topics]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web jean pages:
[Return to the Main fabic weave page]
[Return to the Main jeans page]
[Bibfront overalls] [Cutoffs] [Jean shorts] [Koveralls] [Denim] [Baggy jeans]

Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web chronological pages:
[The 1840s] [The 1900s] [The 1930s] [The 1940s] [The 1950s]
[The 1960s] [The 1970s] [The 1980s] [The 1990s]

Created: April 5, 1999
November: 3:19 PM 5/22/2022