A Brief History of Denim

Emily Pack – 06 February 2022

The launch of our spring-summer 2022 collection has arrived, which, following the success of our brand expansion into trousers and jeans last year, features all new denim styles. Today’s post will focus on a brief history of this staple material, which no modern man’s wardrobe is ever without, and will also offer some exclusive new photos of our newest denim styles.

‘Denim’, as we know it, was first created in the late 17th century in the city of Nîmes, France, allegedly during an attempt by manufacturers to replicate an Italian cotton material called ‘jeane’. Hence the name ‘Denim’ - ‘De Nîmes’ meaning ‘from/of the city of Nîmes’ in French. Denim was made using a twill weave, with the weft passing under the warp threads. Indigo - then a natural dye extracted from plants - was used to dye the warp threads blue, and the weft threads were left their natural white cotton colour, creating the iconic blue denim look we still have today, although synthetic dyes have been mass produced since the 1880s and are now commonly used instead. Synthetic indigo is more reliable, due to the longer lasting colour offering greater permanence and durability.

The material initially gained popularity in 1873 when Jacob W. Davis, a tailor from Nevada, created the first pair of rivet-reinforced denim overalls. He had allegedly been commissioned by a gold mining company to create pants which were strong and durable for the miners, and he (literally) struck gold. His blue denim overalls were so popular that his shop could not keep up with demand, so he partnered with Levi’s, his denim supplier, to begin producing the pants at their factories and patented the style, creating their signature riveted blue jeans. ‘Tobacco’ orange stitching remains the most common colour on denim jeans today, and this colour was originally chosen to match the copper rivets that were used to construct Levi's jeans. An ode to tradition, we’ve incorporated tobacco stitching into our new denim jacket and overshirt styles.

 At the beginning of the 20th century, denim became the preferred workwear fabric choice for miners, railroad workers, cowboys and farmers in the USA, becoming a classic symbol of the American West. Competitors to Levi’s also began to appear at this time, with the emergence of Wrangler in 1905 and Lee in 1911. Denim also became a popular choice for military uniforms in the US and Europe from the 1900s, with US Army and Navy factions started to wear blue denim as conventional attire (later replaced by khaki denim). During World War II, blue jeans were even declared an ‘essential’ commodity to be sold only to those partaking in defence or military work.

Whilst the origins of denim jeans in the West are well documented, their establishment in the East is less clear, but it has been suggested that denim was first introduced to the East in the 1930s, during the 'dude ranch’ phenomenon inspired by Western movies. In the 1940s also, American GIs brought their denim with them overseas and would wear them off-duty, inspiring the local style.

From the end of the war, their was a shift in the way denim jeans were viewed, going from work and military wear to being more associated with youth culture and leisure. The dark indigo tone and stiffness of denim made it a popular material for trousers in the 1950s. In 1954, zippers were incorporated into denim jeans for the first time and the youth couldn’t get enough. It was at this time that denim pants became colloquially known as ‘jeans’ rather than 'denim overalls’. Pop culture stars including James Dean, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe reimagined denim jeans as a rebellious and moderately sexualised style in movies such as ‘Rebel without a Cause’. The younger generations, including motorcycle boys and juvenile delinquents, wanted to emulate these idols and so jeans became a cultural symbol of rebellion, with college students also wearing them in the protests against the ‘establishment' and Vietnam War. Straight leg denim jeans became so associated with anti-establishment that many US schools even banned them in their uniform rules.

Denim jackets also became popular youth wear at this time. Thus, the ‘Canadian Tuxedo’ came to public consciousness for the first time, the origins of the phrase allegedly coming from a newspaper article in 1951 printed after Bing Crosby was refused entry to a hotel in Vancouver, Canada, because he was wearing a denim jacket and jeans. Levi’s, following this incident, created a tuxedo made entirely of denim for Crosby as a publicity stunt, thus the Canadian tux was born. We’ve reimagined the denim jacket this season, to create a unique denim overshirt style, finished with military inspired buttons as a throwback to denim’s rich military history.


Through the 1960s, denim spread through hippie culture as ‘bell bottom’ jeans, and by the 1980s denim was prolific in other subcultures including punk, rock and grunge. New finishes became popular, including 'acid wash’, 'ripped' and the denim skirt also emerged. By the 80s, denim jeans and jackets had become a go-to leisure and causal wear style for all. Denim first emerged in high fashion at this time too, with designers including Armani and Calvin Klein incorporating denim into their collections and creating ‘designer jeans’, giving denim a new ‘premium’ reputation. The 'skinny jean’, denim blended with spandex to create a new, stretchy fit, also emerged. We’ve incorporated these innovations in stretch denim, as well as more modern techniques and manufacturing, to create sturdy but comfortable denim jeans for SS22.

The 1990s welcomed a new era of denim and styling with the arrival (or rather, return to?) of oversized and baggy jeans, including the wide leg JNCO style, and dungarees. Pop stars including the Spice Girls and TLC helped popularise these styles amongst their young fanbases. The ‘boot cut’ also came to replace the slim fit and bell bottom styles, combing the two to create a denim jean which fit slim to the leg but also had a subtle flare at the ankle, more practical for everyday wear. ‘Low rise’ also came into style, until the 2010s, when slim fit made a rapid return and waistlines began to rise again. In 2022, skinny jeans are seemingly back out and wider ankles back to the fashion forefront. Flares are on the up, and despite low waistlines edging into the fashion scene again, many of us are still opting for the chicer higher waistline style, more evocative of the seventies, which inspired our silhouettes for spring-summer.

Despite the now extensive range of materials available worldwide, denim remains one of the most versatile, durable and desired materials. Jeans are a style staple which transcend seasons, gender, age, and class; they have a timeless appeal which makes them an integral part of our collections at PHIX, always reimagining this classic and using the latest technology and manufacturing to ensure the highest quality, premium styles.

Click to shop our latest denim pieces online now.

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