(8 minutes 49 seconds reading time)
No, not the ones currently in your wardrobe. We’ll tell you what we mean - but first, let’s start from the very beginning. Once upon a time..
A Brief History of Jeans
The origins of our denim jeans are far and wide.
- Indigo dyes were brought from India.
- Inspiration was taken from a twill cotton fabric ‘genoa’ of Italy.
- The sturdy Denim weave was created in Nimes, France (& named Serge de Nimes - yes, that’s where the name comes from).
- Denim was exported & sold in America by the German immigrant (expat? heh) Levi Strauss to be used for wagon covers, tents, etc.
- The iconic Levis rivets were added by Strauss and his tailor/customer Davis so as to use denim for clothing.
& finally FINALLY were born denim overalls in the 1870s in America and denim jeans in the 1890s.
The history of denim jeans traverses through India, Italy, France, Germany & America - quite the symbol of globalization, aren’t they? & this is even before they started being used across the world by men, women, children of all classes and cultures.
But for all its intricate origins, Levi Strauss & Jacob Davis in America must be credited with denim reaching the HUMONGOUS scale it has today.
How Did The Story Of Levi Strauss Begin & End?
Like so many others, Levi Strauss went to California, America in 1853 during the Gold Rush. His aim was to take his family business to the West & one of the products imported by this family business of his was denim fabric.
Here, he met Jacob Davis, a local tailor who bought denim from him to make wagon covers, tents and other things that were required to be durable & protective. When Davis was commissioned by a gold mining company to make sturdy pants for their workers, he entered into a partnership with Strauss to use his denim for clothing.
They began using metal rivets with denim to make overalls to make them doubly strong & even patented this creation of theirs. Check out their patent here!
Soon, they became the clothing of choice of the entire working class of the United States of America - farmers, miners, lumberjacks, railroad workers, everyone! & Levi Strauss became a rich, rich man.
Especially since it was a good 35-40 years after the creation of his overalls that competitors like Wrangler & Lee even began emerging in the market.
Was denim a horror story at this point? Probably not.
While its utilization was spreading, it was still largely confined to America, the population was a lot lesser, cotton growing methods not quite as destructive, and over-consumption less of a reality.
But, unbeknownst to Levi Strauss, it was the start of one.
How Did Denim Take Over The World?
The Dude Ranch.
Yes, you read that right.
Everyone wanted to experience the Wild Wild West of America & they did at dude ranches - essentially, amusement parks that helped people live the cowboy life in-house, but without all the guns & disease. Okay, it’s America, there were obviously still guns.
These Dude Ranches claimed that living the cowboy life for a while would send people back changed - THE IRONY! (“I went to America to find myself!”)
& it was here that jeans became acceptable as holiday wear, especially for women. This led Levi’s to introduce their denim for women - the Lady Levi’s. People would return home with their Levi’s as souvenirs of their time there. & even though jeans were considered unacceptable for women otherwise, their utility began being understood, and denim began spreading across the world.
With the advent of the World Wars, more and more women began taking up labour-intensive jobs and denim jeans were found to be appropriate and practical work outfits, and by World War 2 they became a symbol of war efforts everywhere.
Post the World Wars, their depiction in Hollywood movies by the ‘bad boys’ like Marlon Brando & James made them a fashion statement. A depiction possibly inspired by the war veteran biker boys of Post-War America. A fashion statement of rebellion.
With Hollywood popular across the world, the romanticization of dude ranches & the war-weary freedom-aspiring sentiments prevalent through Europe & Asia, Denim & everything it stood for spread to the East. Jeans even got banned in classrooms (no place for rebellion or sexuality, eh?) which only added to their appeal.
Even Japan (Toyota Motors) came up with their own Japanese Denim - eventually becoming so advanced to be considered to be of better quality than even American Denim.
When Marilyn Monroe took to them, they began to symbolize empowerment, equality & sexual freedom for women. Denim wasn’t only about utility anymore - they were an emerging fashion & socio-political statement (the two often being intertwined, after all, fashion is often about self-expression even today).
With the 60s came social movements & counter-culture efforts. & once again - what was their uniform? Denim. It helped that there were jeans for women & men - already removing a gender divide while others were being protested against.
By the 80s, the world had designer Calvin Klein denim, and then Vanderbilt, Gucci, YSL, and more - from the tough ranches of Texas to the runways of Milan, quite the journey!
The very interesting history of denim through America made them the closest thing they could have to ‘traditional attire’. Which of course, meant the Soviet Union Government had to ban them. People listened to American music & wore jeans as a sign of rebellion against the tyrannies of the government. & if you look at photos of the fall of the Berlin Wall, all you see is denim. Young people fighting for freedom clad in Levi’s 501s. Once again, we see the power of fashion.
With globalization and the mingling of people and cultures, denim gradually spread & is now seen in every country, worn by all kinds of people, almost every single day.
A little-known fact, however, is that the denim capital of the world is no longer in America. It’s now in China. Wondering how that happened? Read on.
How Did China Take Over as The Denim Capital of the World?
With denim extending its roots through the world, unlike Russia, Communist China embraced it. It was not just the people of China, large industrial & governmental support was given to manufacturers in China to begin mass-producing cheap denim.
With no labour laws, no wage laws & no heed paid to the health of the nearby communities, the manufacture of denim was (and is) dirt cheap in Xintang. How could El Paso compete?
And so, Xintang, a small agricultural village in China previously relying primarily on banana plantations, slowly turned into a raving industrial hub providing jeans to the entire world. By the 1990s, Texas was all but out of the picture. The more popular denim got, the more Xintang’s denim industry boomed.
& now China supplied the USA with its denim jeans. Their ultimate symbol of all things freedom now came from everything they’d fought against! Levi Strauss jeans are now made in China.
But, that isn’t where the story ends. Denim is destroying Xintang. Its environment and its people.
What is Denim Doing to China?
Well, not enough to the rich and powerful as yet.
But what of the everyday people of Xintang? What of the factory workers?
Did you know that Indigo dye causes aniline poisoning in factory workers? Xintang’s Pearl River has literally turned an Indigo colour and is causing disease throughout the city. The dust in Xintang has Indigo in it.
Also, jeans are sandblasted, which causes silicosis and lung cancer. Bleaching and fading jeans cause pollution with hypochlorites and potassium permanganate.
Distressed jeans, acid-washed jeans, stone-washed jeans, and the various styles of jeans use even more toxic substances to make.
Xintangs waterways are polluted with dangerous levels of lead, copper, and cadmium and with a pH as high as ammonia.
A pair of jeans takes 3kg of chemicals to make. An arbitrary statement, but not when you consider that most of these are toxic & improperly disposed of. & when you take into account the fact that roughly 8,00,000 pairs of jeans are manufactured in China every day, is there even a proper way to dispose of this massive quantity of toxic substances?
These chemicals cause every imaginable ailment in factory workers and people living near denim factories and the waterways polluted by them. Men, women & children, sentenced to early deaths. One can only imagine how the wildlife and marine life have suffered.
& when you take into account the pesticides & fertilizers used to grow the cotton to make the denim in the first place.. We shudder to think how much devastation a pair of jeans causes.
Also, it takes roughly 4000-6000 litres of water to make a pair of jeans. Not including the water spent in growing and making the cotton. Including that, it has been found that 8000-12000 litres of water go into producing a pair of jeans.
& while Xintang has been worst affected, and is the textbook example of all the ill-effects of denim, it isn’t the only place bearing the brunt of the world’s thirst for denim. As privileged consumers of denim, is it not up to us to look inwards & assess whether this is worth it?
Does humanity have these many disposable resources to be throwing them away like this?
It’s hard to see these facts & not feel overburdened by guilt and helplessness. But without guilt, there is no change.
& as for the helplessness, that’s what we’re here for. To help. There are alternatives, after all.
Even Levi Strauss & Co. is now making an effort to reduce their environmental impact. There's a long way to go, but you see how big the problem is when even giants like Levi’s start trying.
Sustainable Alternatives to Denim Jeans
- Reducing Our Dependence on Denim
Pants made of organic cotton, Tencel, hemp, khadi & linen. These are not difficult alternatives, nor are they difficult to find.
Denim was made to be worn by people undertaking physical labour. Its durability may have some use in our lives too, but how much? It is perhaps time to reassess and see where we can cut down on it. How we utilize a material affects its lifespan in our wardrobes and on a larger scale.
Going to the office - do you need denim? Hitting your local coffee shop - do you need denim? Going for a drink - do you need denim?
The fabrics mentioned above are also durable, comfortable & with high tensile strength - so let’s utilize them. Not to mention, they make for absolutely gorgeous pants for men & for women.
We’ve just begun to associate casual pants with jeans so much so we often overlook alternatives even when they’re right before our eyes. Hopefully the next time you think pants, you don’t just think denim jeans.
If you’re off on a wanderlusty road trip we will not guilt you for wearing denim, but just imagine how much longer our denims would last if we wore them only when required.
What we think an urban Indian might need: A pair of jeans & 3-5 alternatives (based on utility & seasons) and we believe this could last an individual a good 5-6 years. A much better practice than buying a pair of jeans every 6 months and then wearing them out quickly by using them when they don’t need to be.
This way even if the total number of pants we utilize over a period of time remains the same, their carbon footprint is much lesser. We need to get smarter about our consumption habits!
2. Buy Sustainable Denim
Denim made of organic cotton rather than cotton or made of hemp rather than cotton reduces its carbon footprint, water footprint & toxicity footprint 10-fold.
Sometimes they might be more expensive, but, we’d recommend buying less but buying quality so that your overall expenditure amounts to the same.
Moreover, this way we’re increasing the demand for ethical, safe & eco-friendly denim. This will drive down the costs of ethical denim as it will begin to become more mainstream.
3. Recycled & Upcycled Denim
This uses way fewer resources than creating a pair of jeans from scratch & is hence a better alternative.
We have questions & concerns about this - are we still propagating the demand for a material that’s causing so much devastation? Is it simply increasing consumer complacency while becoming the middleman between irresponsible denim and consumers trying to do better?
Just like with thrift stores, it still matters how the garment was made & acquired by the original consumer.
A secondhand pair of jeans that were acquired responsibly in the first place would be ideal.
Either way, all of these alternatives are better than buying cheap, irresponsible denim. So let’s put an end to this modern-day horror show & assess what we can be doing better if we can be doing better.