Put it down to fashion’s utilitarian mood or the fabric’s versatility, but denim’s time in the sun never seems to cease. It was ubiquitous on the Spring/ Summer ’19 runways—bleached jackets, Bermuda shorts, boiler suits and even boots were seen at Isabel Marant, Balmain and Stella McCartney. How did denim become the darling of luxury fashion and high-street establishments all at once?
The year was 1873: Levi Strauss, a businessman who had moved from Germany to San Francisco to take advantage of the Gold Rush, and Jacob W Davis, a tailor from Nevada, created the first-ever pair of jeans. Crafted out of sturdy denim fabric (which accidentally originated in Nimes, France) and metal rivets (at vital stress points on the garment), it arose from the need for durable clothes that could be worn by miners. Strauss and Davis could never have known the cultural tornado they were setting in motion—that this item of necessity would go on to become the symbolic face of counterculture movements across the world before turning mainstream and making it into all our wardrobes. And then well, never leave.
Denim might be the norm today but back in the 1950s, Hollywood’s favourite bad boy James Dean popularised it in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). He was a young, edgy star and his blue dip-dyed Lee 101 Riders became synonymous with the same characteristics. In some ways Marilyn Monroe was the female equivalent of this sexy, rebellious sentiment—donning a Storm Rider by Lee jacket (which until then had mainly been sported by male celebrities) and a pair of jeans while filming her last cinema outing, The Misfits (1961).
Then came fashion’s favourite eras: the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that saw denim becoming stylised: acid-washed, stonewashed and in innumerable cuts (bell-bottoms, flared, low-rise hip-huggers) with embellishments, patches and embroidery. It was also the start of sexualised denim campaigns by big design houses—then 15- year old Brooke Shields posed in a pair of skin-tight jeans for Calvin Klein infamously purring into the camera, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins”. Fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s ‘Taxi Driver’ collection from 1993 featured a pair of ‘bumster’ jeans sitting several inches lower than the belly button, showing off the bottom of the wearer’s spine. Madonna sporting a pair in an advertisement for MTV catapulted the style into pop culture and into the wardrobes of stars Aaliyah, Christina Aguilera, and Paris Hilton, among others. Kiera Knightley made waves for wearing low-rise denims to the premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003. The transition of a lowly garment designed for the working class into a rarefied status symbol was now complete.
In India, where denim had mainly been manufactured for export until the early ’90s, the craze was catching fast. Urmila Matondkar’s denim shirt in Rangeela (1995) was far removed from the overly feminine saris and miniskirts Bollywood heroines had been known to wear. Three years later followed Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), where Shah Rukh Khan’sbaggy jeans and Kajol Devgn’s oversized denim jacket inspired a whole generation of college-going students to include the material in their closet. Jeans became accessible in metros and aspirational in smaller cities—everyone wanted to own a pair. And soon it seemed like everyone did.
What makes these blues so evergreen? Denim is unassuming. It pairs with everything and dots the streets and runways alike. From Bella Hadid’s 2016 Second Skin Overalls jumpsuit and Jennifer Lopez’s Versace Resort 2019 denim boots to your local shopkeeper’s worn-in jeans—it lives in wardrobes across ages, genders, seasons and status. The fastest growing apparel in the world seems in no mood to stop, nor does our obsession with it.
Photographs: Imaxtree.com/2019, Getty Images, Shivaji Juvekar (Lakmé Fashion Week), Gulshan Sachdeva (Lotus Make-up India Fashion Week), Arjun Mark (Diya Prabhakar), Ricardo Abrahao (Zayn Malik) and Vikram Kushwah (Radhika Nair and Tamara Moss)