‘Riveted’ document uncovers controversial history of denim jeans

Long before skinny jeans caused a style clash between Millennials and Gen Z, denim was controversial.

The documentary “Riveted” will air February 7 on PBS.

A new documentary, “Riveted: The History of Jeans” (out Monday, Feb. 7 on PBS), unravels the untold story of America’s most iconic and ubiquitous piece of clothing. It follows denim from the slave fields of a profitable South Carolina plantation to the muddy pits of New York’s Woodstock, where hippies wore patchwork jeans – and inspired a generation of fashion designers.

For the film’s co-writers and directors, Anna Lee Strachan and Michael Bicks, ‘Riveted’ was a chance to decompress some of the myths about jeans – like the idea that they were originally worn by cowboys. – gallant and chivalrous boys – and to reveal the surprisingly complex history of what is today a global industry of more than 60 billion dollars.

“It’s always Marlon Brando and the cowboys and Levi Strauss,” Strachan told the Post of the oft-repeated denim lore. “But once you start unraveling the fabric and following the thread, you find all kinds of things. . . What other things haven’t been part of this traditional denim story being told? »

Below are fascinating — and sometimes gritty — details from the legendary fabric’s long history.

In the pre-war South, denim was called “negro fabric”

Two young black boys wearing overalls in a field
Cowboys have the credit of being the first group to wear jeans, but slaves wore denim long before that.
Library of Congress

Bicks and Strachan told the Post that cowboys are often credited with being the first Americans to wear overalls, but that’s not true. Instead, slaves wore jeans and overalls, made from denim “negro fabric” because the tough cotton weave could withstand forced labor. The traditional blue color of denim came from indigo – a temperamental tropical plant native to the Caribbean and West Africa – which enslaved men and women from those regions taught plantation owners to cultivate. “The South needed something to add to crop rotation [alongside cotton, tobacco and rice]”says denim expert Evan Morrison in the film. “Adding indigo to your crop rotation was a way to add extra profit.”

Levi Strauss’ denim empire was built on tiny copper rivets

Close up of a Levi Strauss label on a pair of jeans with copper rivets
Using copper rivets to reinforce seams has been key to Levi Strauss’ success.
Jon Santa Cruz/Shutterstock

Denim as a fabric was strong, but the seams were still vulnerable to tearing. Enter Jacob Davis, a crucial figure in the history of jeans, yet unknown to all but the most committed denimphiles. Davis was a tailor working in Reno, Nevada, in the 1870s when a woman walked into his store complaining that her chubby husband’s pants kept splitting. “Jacob Davis goes, ‘Hmm. I see those rivets over there, they’re useful for fixing saddles,’ Bicks told the Post. .’ “After Davis figured out how to reinforce seams on denim with rivets, business ‘blew up,'” Bicks said. But he couldn’t keep up with demand, so he reached out to Levi Strauss, his San Francisco-based dry goods supplier, with an idea. The pair patented metal reinforcements in 1873, and Strauss’ legendary blue jeans operation was born.

Rich women started wearing denim on dude ranches

A "cowgirl" on a ranch
Wealthy women started wearing jeans on the ranches.
Photo by Alay

Until the 1930s, a wealthy white woman would never wear jeans. But that changed during the Great Depression, when struggling farmers opened up their properties to eye-catching tourists under the guise of exotic ranches. “These wealthy people from Connecticut or Rhode Island would go out, sometimes for weeks or months at a time, and to have fun and play that cowboy role, they had to dress accordingly,” Strachan said. “And you had these [equivalent to] pop-up shops, Levi’s and other brands at the time, they sold men’s clothes that women wore to do those chores for fun. When the conquering agritourists returned home, their jeans became “souvenirs” that they showed off to their friends, Strachan said. Slowly, humble denim workwear became a fashion trend in its own right among Northeast girls.

Denim sellers have launched a campaign to make jeans less risky

Marlon Brando in "The wild"
Marlon Brando’s juvenile delinquent character in “The Wild One” helped make jeans seem like they were just for outlaws.

In the 1950s, teenagers wore denim, but so did bikers and outlaws. Brando’s juvenile delinquent character in 1953’s ‘The Wild One’ strutted across the screen in a uniform consisting of a leather motorcycle jacket and cuffed blue jeans, only fueling growing suspicion. that denim pants accompanied an outrageous lifestyle. In response, concerned schools and parents began banning jeans. That’s when denim sellers came together to brainstorm ways to protect the reputation of their product. The result? They launched a national advertising campaign to clean up the image of denim. “They’re starting to go back to denim myths. Christopher Columbus, cowboys, stuff like that,” Bicks said. In the early 1960s, the denim council even aligned itself with President John F. Kennedy’s new international volunteer program. “They actually outfitted the Peace Corps to try to resurrect their image,” Bicks said.