From something practical to an icon, the American Way of life
As a very resistant fabric, denim was originally used in California to make workmen's trousers. With pockets and crotch reinforced by rivets, denim was the favourite of the working classes who initially wore it as overalls; overwear covering and protecting their everyday clothes. This use as overwear was subsequently adopted by the Cowboys in the '20s, which reinforced denim's credentials. In an America which was searching for its proper identity, it became a symbol of courage, morale and independence. In wearing blue jeans the middle classes sought to acquire a small part of this myth, which was reinforced by the cinema and literature. Jeans became a very popular article of chic casual dress. For men they remained traditionally straight or bootcut, but could be transformed for women's fashion, for example with a zip fastening on the side. The middle class children in the '40s, who wore these sturdy trousers to play in, became adolescents in the '50s in a deleterious and oppressive post-conflict climate, with the cold war and McCarthyism. A cultural gap grew between adolescents and adults, demonstrated by new styles of music, new languages, new symbols, and particularly a new way of dressing. Those who didn't want to become adults and "grow-up" in these conditions kept wearing the jeans they previously wore in play. But now wearing denim became a sign of rebellion, of being a rocker. A modern day story, blue jeans are like rock and roll, a fusion of rhythm and blues and country. It was also the period of the bikers rebellion where most of the participants had just been demobilised; they revolted against the privileged and the establishment. Wearing Levis and leather jackets, they contributed to the iconic denim's personification of rebellion and revolt. In parallel, the particularity of blue jeans was such that they still remained the chic casual dress of the American good times...
To each their denim, destination Europe
Blue jeans became Europeanised. On the other side of the Atlantic, the British hipsters and mods appeared towards the end of the '50s. Although they were the rivals of the rockers, the mods also wore blue jeans. Soul versus rock and roll, Vespa versus Harley, side parting versus the swept back breaker DA, amphetamines versus alcohol, but all wearing denim. The Mods' jeans were all about elegance, slim cut, drainpipes, faded, Sta-Prest wrinkle resistant, but also the 501 like their slicked back enemies. During the '60s blue jeans became intellectualised. The rigidity of the traditional values at the beginning of the century coupled with that of the communalism of the '50s, turned into a desire to profit from life in a simple way without prejudice. Through the Beat Generation and culture as well as the abstract expressionist painters and folk and jazz music, jeans earned their artistic stripes, and at the same time went back to their proletariat roots. From Pollock to Dylan, Kerouac to Picasso, anticonformism was nearly always and exclusively dressed in Levi’s or Lee jeans with a large turn-up. With the hippy movement of the '60s and '70s, jeans became part of a period overflowing with experimentation. This was more than an evolution, it was a rupture, particularly with the all pervasive materialism of the consumer society. The move towards DIY (Do-It-Yourself) started off an era of creativity which knew no limits: wider legs, higher or lower waist lines, tighter thighs and hips, accessories, and more pockets. Practically all of the modern day styles and cuts were tried out during this period. Jeans became a material you could patch, embroider, paint, dye, and fray how you like, in a surge of rejection of materialism. The famous mythical bell bottoms or flares were inspired by the Orient. The hippies described the others as 'straight', referring to their mentality: from 'straight' to 'flares' also for their jeans. But where the hippy would patch and add pastel colours, the punk would tear, physically attack and intentionally desecrate this symbol, creating the 'destroyed' jeans. They also created the 'skinny' jeans. The craze for extremely straight trousers was accentuated by the more widespread use of stretch fibres. Skinny stretch jeans were embraced by the hard rock and heavy metal scenes in the '80s and '90s, but only sporadically by the electronic music movement. Jeans became even sexier when the Guess label from Marseilles, now in Los Angeles, proposed a 'capri' cropped jean which was ultra figure hugging: the « 3 zip Marylin ». Once again fashion and music contributed in popularising a jeans model, the 'baggy', a wide straight cut, harking back to the very beginnings of the blue jean, but with a low crotch and very large back pockets. Towards the end of the '90s, rappers would 'sag their pants', where the top of the jeans were well below the waist, revealing their underwear, like prisoners in US jails where belts are prohibited. Originally worn by skaters, for purely freedom of movement reasons, the style is transformed here into something more militant and provocative.
The time of the designers, direction France
The hippy years saw the emergence of true fashion jeans. Until then they had remained relatively conventional in style, even though they had been adopted by rockers. But from now on designers dared to radically shake things up, transforming the iconic symbol and freeing it from its past. During these years of abundant creativity, Marithé and François Girbaud made a substantial contribution to the evolution of these trousers. They brought functional innovations and transformation processes which allowed fashion designers to have new creative tools which they used during the '80s.
Denim was now used more widely, but not just for jeans. It was an unusual and original fabric in the world of luxury, which would dramatically change its bourgeois conformism and attract a younger generation. In any case that is what Yves Saint-Laurent envisaged in 1970 by proposing skirts and outfits made from the cheap fabric. The same idea motivated Jean-Paul Gaultier a few years later when he created a jacket in imitation denim made out of plastic. In 1984, Karl Lagerfeld made a version of the Chanel 'tailleur' women's suite in denim. In 1986, Azzedine Alaïa solved the problem of the roughness of the fabric by using appropriately placed zips on his denim dresses and jackets. A change in fashion habits which has since become omnipresent. Nowadays, not one Maison de couture fashion house fails to include a piece in their collection which has a touch of denim in it. However, the ‘bad boy’ textile is often used alongside more prestigious materials, such as silk, linen or leather.
Now Jeans have arrived in Marseilles
In terms of denim more than other fabrics, the avant-garde role of the Maisons de couture fashion houses is largely dominated by those labels which are always looking for the new cut and style emblematic of the Now Gen Tribe. The historic home of denim and producer of the 'bleu de Gênes' twill type fabric which originated in Genoa, Marseilles offers a future for jeans which is not only creative but innovative, with leading labels like Kaporal, Reiko, and le Temps des Cerises. These labels specialise in making jeans and each season propose collections with innovative production processes. For example Kaporal has recently launched a line of stretch jeans where the fabric allows complete freedom of movement while maintaining a real denim feel and look. With the wind in their sales, the jeaners from Marseilles have an excellent opportunity to conquer the international market, and eventually the market in California, where they will have come full circle.