“So, what are you going to wear tonight?” you ask your friend. “Oh, just jeans and a top.” Denim has defined the fashion industry for decades and, especially with regard to this season’s fashion dictation, it isn’t going anywhere soon. 

The terms “denim” and “jeans” are of European origin. Initially a very sturdy fabric called “serge” was made in Nîmes, France. Serge de Nîmes was then later shortened to “denim”.  “Jeans” was coined after the fabric was often worn by sailors from Genoa, Italy. The French word for Genoans is Gênes, hence “jeans”. But there is also a strong American influence in the jean culture; Levi Strauss, he Levi’s fame, was the first in America to use the tough and durable denim fabric for overalls and work wear.

But since when is wearing a material intended for overalls fashionable?

It was only in the 1930s that jeans became less associated with sweaty workers and manual labour and more synonymous with cowboys and leather. But when James Dean and Marlon Brando donned denim in the rebellious, rock ‘n roll 50s, the trend made its mark on teenage wardrobes.

From there, the trend rolled with the decades, constantly being reinvented. The swinging 60s and 70s served up a customized version of denim that transformed the fabric into a fashion statement that was impossible to ignore. From flower power embroidery to studs and eyelets, as long as it came in flared bell bottoms. The hippy season carried the denim craze through to cool summer wear: cut, hemless, frayed shorts and mini skirts.

Although psychedelically coloured and/or torn jeans carried through to the eighties, the bell bottoms did not. The new trend evolved to a new extreme – tapered jeans: faded, high-waisted and positively nauseating to the youth of today. If anything, this was the era of designer jeans – think Calvin Klein, Gloria Vanderbilt and Armani. Also, the stonewash came into effect. This is a process where jeans are abraded using different types and sizes of stones to achieve a faded, worn look.

If colour bridged the 70s and 80s, stonewash carried through from 80s to 90s. Just picture those almost white, sloppy looking jeans worn by Jon Bon Jovi in the grunge era. But the 90s made a revolutionary mark on the denim industry when lycra was combined in denim fabrics to produce stretch jeans – worn and loved by all shapes and sizes, even today.

At the turn of the millennium, jeans took a more glamorous turn. Gold sprays, crystal stones and fur were sewn with denim to glam up after the sloppy eighties and nineties. The denim fever even spilled over to shoes, bags, corsets and jewellery.

The latest craze in denim seems to be the skinny cut. First year BA Own Choice student, Didi Tlhaabye, is proof of this. “Skinnys are all I wear. I wear [them] all the time,” she says.

Perdeby caught third year BA Languages student, Catherine Judder, as she was trying on a pair of skinny jeans. For her, the style of jeans can change, but jeans themselves will never go out of fashion. Her favourite style of jeans is low cut. “I didn’t think I would, but I’m beginning to like the skinny jeans right now because you can wear them with boots. But if I’m wearing flats, I prefer bootleg jeans.”

Nowadays, jeans are very much a combination of past decades – as is characteristic of the postmodern era. Skinny is the new stovepipe and bell bottoms balance the hips. Low cut or high-waisted, faded or torn, stonewashed or sandblasted, studded or embroidered – anything goes as long as it’s denim.

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