*** Overalls and jeans : American boys' wear

Overalls and Jeans: Boys' Wear

farm overalls
Figure 1.--We begin to see boys in rural areas wearing overalls at the end of the 1900s decade. The quickly became uniquitous boys' wear among farm families. We see that in school photograohy and also in the photography of the photo journalists documenting the Great Depression. Will Rodgers quipped that, America was the first country to go to the poor house in an autombile." Soviet propagandists showed the movie version of John Stinebeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' in movie theaters, but quickly stopped when they realized that the Soviet people were amazed that in America even poor people had cars. Some of the worst hit people in the depression were the Oakies, the farm families of the Southern Plains who were fevestated by the Dust Bowl. Most of the boys involved wore bib-front overalls..

Jeans today are a very important part of boys' (and girls') clothing. It is actually aelatively recent developments. Jeans developed from the overalls created by Levi Straus in the mid-19th century. They had nothing go do with boys' clothing. Overalls were working clothes for fasctory workers and miners. They eventually becamde adoopted by farmers, we are not ebtirekly sure when that transition tookn place. But by the 20th century they became the sigature garment for American farmers. In the 19th century, the signature the garment worn by farmers in Europe (especially Britain and France). Tis was not the casev fior American farmers. But ioveralls were widely adopted as the American farmer's wok clothing, but only American garmens -- not farmers in other countries. Thankks to school photography, we know that rural boys were not wearing overalls, even in the late-19th century. This did not change until the 20th century. Suddenly we see rural boys wearing overalls (about 1908). And soon they were a major garment at the small rural schools that existed throughout rural America. We have no idea why this sudden change occurred (1908-09), but was established by the 1910s, but only in rural America. A limited exception was some play clothes for younger boys.) It can easily be seen in school photography. They were inexpensive and hard wearing, the very characteristics that appealed to miners and factory workers appealed to farmers and mothers in rural areas. At the same time they became a symbol of rural backwardness and lack of fashion sence. And the farnm bioys that flooded out of the Southern Plains during the Depressiion and Dust Bowl mostly wore bib-front overalls. They were not worn by city boys. This was changed by Hollywood. A film stapel from the earliest days of Hollywood became the Western. And Hollywood stars like John Wayne were outfitted in jeans--essentially overalls without the bib-front (1930s). American boys as they moved from knickers to long pants in the 1930s, jeans became a staple. This was the case after World War II (late-40s and 50s). This was helped by the fact that jeans became a standard U.S. Navy work garment during the War. They were at first most popular for younger boys and a play garnment. Some were made with di=uble knees becauuse somny boys wirev outb the knees as they began eraring longb osnts. And boys began wearing them to elementary (primary) school. Many high (secondsary) schools banned them. Jeans eventually became the signature garment for teenagers (1950s). Stars like James Dean brought them out of Western lore. And girls, especially bobby sockers, took to them as well--although demanding 'designer jeans'. While overalls were limited to America, jeans swept the world--even penetrating the Iron Curtain. Although the Soviet never figured out how to make a decent pair of jeans. .


Jeans or overalls as they were first called were designed as work clothes and this was how they were used for decades. Overalls was the old name for jeans. I remember my dad always referred to them in the 1950s as overalls which I didn't understand at the time as us boys called them blue jeans.) Far from today's fashionable image, the original overalls quickly became popular among laborers because of their almost indestructable nature. By the 1890s farm boys began wearing overalls and begin to see them in rural schools. In most cases it was boys from poor rural families who wore them. The design was exactly the same as those made in men's sizes. Overalls were nor seen as children's wear in the 19th century. They were seen as work clothes and as many children worked in the 19th century, they were worn by children, especially children in rural areas. The first overalls specifuically designed for children appeared in 1912, and were marketed as Koveralls.


Boys in the 19th Century

Levi Straus introduced bib-front overalls in the mid-19th century. They first caught on for miners in California. They are now the icoic garment of the American farmer. I'm not sure, however, just when farmers began wearing them. They do not seem to have been common farm wear during the Civil War. we do not notice boys wearing them in the photographic record during the 19th century. This would presumavly be because mothers would dress up their boys in their best clothes for a portrait. But we alo do not notice boys wearing overalls in early school portraits. The school portraits suggest that children did dress up for school to sone extent, but we suspect that schoolwear was a reasonable reflection of actual clothing. And we do not see boys commonly wearing overalls to school until the turn of the 20th century. So we are unsure just to what extent boys wore them in the 19th century.

The 1900s

We still do not see many American boys wearing overalls at the turn-of-the 20th century. We can follow this as never before, because thanks to the Kodak Brownie, photography came out of the studio an snapshot appear in large numbers. There were some snapshots in the 1890s, but not many. The Bronie made the snapshot easy to take. As a result, almost instantly we have huge numbers of them. We see industrial factory workers wearing them, but not children to any extebnt. And the exiustence of so many snapshiots is very helpful, although most are not dated. We know that because we do not see them in schools until very late in the 1900s decade. We know that because school photography became a well-estanlished school tradition in the late-19th century. And thus schoolwear can be followed in great detail. This is especially helpful as we have found quite a few dated school images. And based on the photographiic record, overalls do not become an important American school garment until the late-1900s decade. We are not even sure that farmers were wearing overalls. It is likely that they were, but it is curious that so few boys were being sent to school wearing overalls. Children tended to be dressed up for school and this included many rural children. We are not sure about the early-19th century, but it was by the late-19th century. There was a sudden change in the late-1900s decade, about 1908. We are not sure just what changed or why, but suddntly e see rural children coming to school in overalls. By the 1910s, overalls would become if not universal, standard wear in rural schools. Inexplicably at the same time, in addition to overalls there was a shift from knee pants to knickers.

World War I: The 1910s

The 1920s

The Depression: The 1930s

Ovearalls were commonly worn on the farm and by workingmen by the late 19th century. We don't see boys wearing them to ant extent until late in the 1900s decade. Even in small rural schols, boy tended to dress up. By the 1910s they werec standard wear fior bioys in rural America adc this continued throuught the 1930s. We see thenm partuiculasr with the Oalies that streamed outvof thecSouthernPlains as a result iof a doublle whammy--the Depression an the Dust Bowl. 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.

World War II

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's 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.

Post-war popularity

Jeans in the post World War II era began to become increasingly accepted by adults, teenagers and children.
Adults: Fashions such a overalls and "T" shirts worn by American soldiers and sailors spread throughout the country after the war. Jeans for adults were strictly for casual wear for te first few years, but after the War they were being worn all over the country.
Teenagers: Hollywood again intervened. Films like The Wild One (1953) with Marlon Brando and Rebels Wiyhout a Cause (1955) with James Dean pictured teens and young men challenging the system. The gritty edge of these films helped to give jeans a non-conforming image that appealed to teenage Americans and soon teenagers in Europe. When Brando and Dean stepped before the film camera wearing their blue jeans the whole world was watching. Their representation of rebellion caused the status of blue jeans to change almost obernight from a symbol of the rugged frontier, to a symbol of defiance towards the adult world. The movies also changed the way teenage girls viewed jeans. No less than Marilyn Monroe appeared in the movies attired. Teenage girls were soon wearing jeans along with the boys.
Children: Hard-wearing jeans were in many ways ideal for children. American boys had begun wearing jeans like never before in the 1950s. (Before the 1930s and cowboy westerns, mostly poor rural boys had worn jeanss.) Only a few years after the War, jeans were being worn by virtually all American boys. Few American boys grew up without wearing jeans, especially for play clothes. Boys in public schools were allowed to wear them to elementary school. (In America primary schools are usually called elementary schools.) Throogh the 1960s, however, they were not commonly allowed in high schools.


Jeans in the 1950s were only made as long pants for boys in America. Jeans came out as short pants in England and Europe in the 1960s, but American boys never wore short pants jeans until the 1970s when "cut-offs" became popular.


The Levi Strauss company in the 1950s attempted to take advantage of the fashion trends and expanded 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 of 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 1950s left a lasting impression for the world of blue jean manufacturers because there were many changes occurring in the industry. For The copmpany conceived of "Lighter Blues" casual slacks and the "Denim Family" line mark the company's entry into the sportswear business.

Popular Culture

Jeans as casual wear was not immediately accepted. Most American high schools banned them. Girls in the 1950s and even 60s wore dresses to school. Boys in high school were expected to wear slacks. Boys wearing jeans were punished or sent home. 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, however, could stop the spread of jeansd. Levi's jeans were exhibited at the "American Fashion Industries Presentation" in Moscow during 1959, just as the Cold War was reaching a critical stage. Jeans were a sensation in in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The Soviets were, however, never2able to make a decent pair of jeans.


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Created: 10:51 PM 10/22/2022
Last updated: 6:46 AM 5/25/2024