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The History Of Denim – Denim Through The Decades

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Denim is a wardrobe staple for most people these days. In the age of casual Fridays, denim is no longer reserved just for weekends or dirty work ware. Though the original denim producers were Levi, brands like Wrangler and LEE began to compete with the denim trade, and towards the end of the 20th century designers jumped on the denim bandwagon and popularised denim even further.

This article will take a look at the evolution of men’s denim through the decades, and how those pairs ended up in your wardrobe.

Where It All Started

Denim first really came into fashion courtesy of the Wild Western American’s in the 19th century around the time of the civil war. Denim jeans were originally work wear for labourers on farms and down in the mines due to the hardwearing fabric but also the stretch and comfort, meaning that jeans were perfect utilitarian trousers. Denim made durable clothing that could withstand wear and tear. ‘Cowboys’ popularised denim and inspired the costumes of many Wild West films and pops up on catwalks regularly, attributing the origin of denim.

A tailor from Nevada, Jacob Davis, approached Levi Strauss, from whom he bought material from, with the idea including riveting on trousers to prevent the pockets being torn off, after he was asked to design a pair of trousers for a woodcutter. Strauss accepted and on May 20, 1873 both he and Davis received a patent number 139,121 on riveting pants by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In 1936, Levi Strauss added his signature red flag to the back pocket of jeans, making it the first item of clothing to have an outside label, that is still a globally recognisable trademark and makes LEVI’s stand out. The company created their first pair of Levis 501 Jeans in the 1890s, a style that went on to become the world’s bestselling item of clothing.

first pair of jeans

The 1930’s

It was also in the 1930s that Vogue featured its first model in denim on the cover, hinting that jeans could perhaps be a fashion statement, and not just reserved as practical clothing for working men. It wasn’t until the outbreak of World War II that jeans were wore outside of the Western American states. Until then, to the East, the notion of the rugged cowboy in jeans was synonymous to the rural and working class. Richer easterners would escape humdrum suburban life to holiday to a western ranches- working farms where they could play at being cowboys – and wearing jeans was part of the experience.

However during and after World War II, American soldiers would wear their Levi’s jeans when they were off duty whilst serving in Europe and Japan. This gave a global audience their first look at both Levi’s and their original 501 jean.

The 1950’s

The fifties saw jeans become the wear of bad-boys in popular culture. In 1953, Marlon Brando wore Levi 501 jeans in The Wild One, starting a link between rebellion and denim which was a theme repeated in many films during this period. Denim became associated with popculture icons like James Dean and of course Danny Zuko and the Thunder Birds from Grease.

james dean denim

This link between denim and rebellion led to denim being banned in some public schools in America. Variations of jeans came into fashion in the fifties, for example light washes, cuffed jeans and black denim were the trends among men. The fifties way of wearing denim can be recreated today, with a leather jacket, straight leg jeans, converse and a pair of aviators.

Another fan of denim was the late, great Elvis Presley who made double denim work for him by opting for slightly different shades and textures of denim.

elvis presley denim

The 1960’s

The Sixties saw England adapting the bad-boys-in-denim idea, with the emerging ‘Rockers’ subculture based around motor-cycling and their appearance reflected this. Their ‘look’ was reminiscent of the 1950’s rock and roll icons.

rockers in denim

However there was further development in the way denim was worn in the Sixties with the Hippies using denim as their fabric of choice. Tie dye and embroidery made denim more colourful while Denim waist coats and flares/bell bottoms created a chilled out vibe.

hippies denim

The sixties also saw denim travel into the wardrobes of the Middle Class, with protesting students showing their nonconformist attitude by wearing jeans. Possibly inspired by Ringo Starr, who even on the cover of Abbey Road, wore double denim instead of the tailored suits like the other 3 Beatles. Flares continued into the Seventies, becoming more extreme and dramatic and paired with platforms.

The 1980’s

On to the Eighties when acid or stone washed denim became popular. Not only was the standard blue jeans given an acid makeover, pastel colour jeans became popular. Rips, tears and general distress style jeans were also in. George Michael often wore stonewashed jeans, and Guns ‘N Roses favoured the distressed style.

guns and roses denim

This was the decade designers began to take denim more seriously and denim started to appear on the catwalks. Calvin Klein stood out by using Brooke Shields on his denim adverts.

calvin klein denim

Distressed denim followed through to the nineties, with the growth of the grunge trend. Extremely torn jeans, sometimes with more flesh showing than actual denim, was a popular look.

The 1990’s

Denim saw a decline in popularity in the ‘90s. Head-to-toe denim was amongst the trendiest looks, such as dungarees or overalls. The rise of hip hop brought along a rise in popularity of baggy jeans and saggy denim. Although the waistlines were still relatively high (by today’s standards) low rise style jeans started to become popular.

In Todays Market

Bring it up to the noughties denim has evolved so much since its utilitarian roots in Southern America. From skin tight Drainpipe, to ultra-baggy urban style jeans denim is well and truly a wardrobe staple. Denim trends come and go, such as double denim making a recent return; however denim itself will never go out of fashion. Spending a large amount on a decent pair of jeans should be seen as an investment therefore. Finding the perfect fit, style and colour for you is imperative, but once you make your choice (buy at least two pairs!) you will always have a fail-safe, timeless piece in your wardrobe. Here are some of our product recommendations:

contrast trim denim jacketperry washed denim jacket

black vintage slim jeanslight wash skinny jeans

dry denim jeanswhite tab jeans

pistolero tapered jeanslevis skinny jeans

So there it is… the history of denim.

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  • John Butler

    Neat article, well written. I was a Mod in the 60’s but had to wear Brutus jeans as couldn’t afford Levis. What looks great is a white Levi jacket with dark blue jeans and maybe red polo shirt and red baseball boots (what you guys call Converse nowadays). Plus, in the 60’s we wore Bleachers, that’s dark blue jeans with big bleached out patches. Peeps say the Skins (skinheads) started this but Mods were doin it long before.

    Also, back in the late 50’s / early 60’s there were jeans that were a goldy brown, that is brown on the outside but gold on inside, so when you did turn ups, the turned up bit would be a gold colour. and there were also a red/rust colour too, which i think were an almost black outside but rust/red inside. Damn, wish we’d had digi cameras etc back in the 50’s 60’s. I never seen any bronze or red/rust jeans since the 60’s

    Oh and the jacket at top with darker blue coloured pockets, I’ve been paintin the pockets on jean jackets for years, especially on white jean jackets, and doin nice bleachin on blue jean jackets too. I’ve always wanted to be in the fashion trade, but when i was a kid there was no chance. So we created our own fashion for the streets. We were the MODS

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