A SHORT HISTORY OF DENIM (c) 2007 Lynn Downey Levi Strauss & Co. Historian
Denim is more than just a cotton fabric; it inspires strong opinions within the hearts of historians, designers, teenagers, movie stars, reporters and writers. Interest bordering on passion can be found among textile and costume historians today, especially in the debate over the true origins of denim. These experts have put decades of work into their research; here are summarized the prevailing opinions about the birth of denim, followed by a discussion of the way Levi Strauss & Co. has helped to contribute to denim’s movement around the world. In 1969 a writer for American Fabrics magazine declared, “Denim is one of the world’s oldest fabrics, yet it remains eternally young.” If continuous use of and interest in an item makes it “eternally young” then denim certainly qualifies. From the 17th century to the present, denim has been woven, used and discarded; made into upholstery, pants and awnings; found in museums, attics, antique stores and archaeological digs; worn as the fabric of hard honest work, and as the expression of angry rebellion; used for the sails of Columbus’ ships in legend; and worn by American cowboys in fact. Legend and fact are also interwoven when scholars discuss the origin of the name denim itself. Most reference books say that denim is an English corruption of the French “serge de Nimes;” a serge fabric from the town of Nimes in France. However, some scholars have begun to question this tradition. There are a few schools of thought with regard to the derivation 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. There still remains the question of how the word “denim” is popularly thought to be descended from the word “serge de Nimes.” Serge de Nimes was made of silk and wool, but denim has always been made of cotton. What we have here again, I think, is a relation between fabrics that is in name only, though both fabrics are a twill weave. Is the real origin of the word denim “serge de nim,” meaning a fabric that resembled the part-wool fabric called nim? Was serge de Nimes more well-known, and was this word mistranslated when it crossed the English Channel? Or, did British merchants decide to give a zippy French name to an English fabric to give it a bit more cachet? It’s likely we will never really know.
Then, to confuse things even more, there also existed, at this same time, another fabric known as “jean.” 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; here we do see evidence of a fabric being named from a place of origin. It was apparently quite popular, and imported into England in large quantities during the 16th century. By the end of this period jean was being produced in Lancashire. By the 18th century jean cloth was made completely of cotton, and used to make men’s clothing, valued especially for its property of durability even after many 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...
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