Denim Jeans: A History, What To Look For In The Perfect Pair & How To Style Them

Introduction

Jeans are the ultimate wardrobe staple – the stoic backbone to any capsule wardrobe and the most versatile item of clothing one can own. No longer perceived as a ‘weekend only’ option, we’re now reaching for our jeans when getting dressed up, just as much as when we’re taking it easy and dressing down. A great pair of jeans will take you everywhere and anywhere – from office to lunch, to an evening out.

Image: Pinterest/Source Unknown

The Origin Of The Word ‘Jeans’

Research on the word ‘jean’ suggests it may have emerged from the fabric’s city of origin Genoa, which the French refer to as Gênes.

The Origin Of The Word ‘Denim’

In the French city of Nîmes, weavers tried to reproduce jean fabric but instead developed a similar twill cloth that became known as denim, derived from de Nîmes, meaning “from Nîmes”.

The History Of Denim Jeans

Originating in the 1800’s, denim jeans have been adopted by miners, cowboys, Hollywood legends, rebels, rock stars and fashion houses alike but where did this garment, worn and loved the world over, begin its journey?

Levi Strauss’ Iconic 5 Pocket Jean

The most iconic jeans – Levis – made from indigo-dyed denim with pockets and sturdy riveting suitable for workwear – were patented in 1873 by a tailor, Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss, owner of a wholesale fabric house in San Francisco.

Levi Strauss label
Image: Levi Strauss Archives

In the 1870’s Davis and Strauss introduced copper rivets to reinforce their workwear garments’ points of stress – the pocket corners and bottom of the button fly – for which they received a US patent.

The duo made their utility garments in a brown cotton duck but quickly found denim a more suitable material for their proposed usage – work pants.

Levi Strauss advert
Image: Levi Strauss Archives

Initially their jeans were simple, sturdy trousers worn by miners, factory workers, farmers and cattlemen.

Men’s trousers featured the fly down the front, whilst women’s pants had the fly on the left. In 1873 Levi Strauss & Co patented their mass-produced protype, featuring two pockets in the front and two on the reverse. A small, riveted watch pocket was added in the late 1870s and in 1901 their 501 model was the forerunner to what is now the industry standard’s ‘5 pocket’ configuration.

Denim Goes To Hollywood

Hollywood exposed blue jeans to the masses in the 1920’s and 1930’s by putting the trousers on legendary cowboy characters played by the likes of John Wayne and Gary Cooper.

In a search to develop leisurewear for weekends and holidays, the sale of jeans quickly soared – and iconic photographs of actresses like Ginger Rogers wearing jeans convinced women that the style could be embraced by them too.

California Rodeo Salinas 1939
Image: Levi Strauss Archives

Denim – The Fifties And Sixties

However, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that jeans were unexpectedly associated with rebellious youths. Marlon Brando and James Dean popularised the image of the denim-wearing teen idol – and soon rock’n’roll stars were adopting them as cool too. During the 1960s and 1970s hippies and anti-war protestors chose to wear jeans as a way to show their support for the working classes. Feminists and women’s lib supporters soon chose blue jeans as a way to demonstrate their support for gender equity.

During the 1960s, it is believed some high schools banned the wearing of jeans due to the garment’s anti-establishment connotations, which predictably only served to enhance their appeal.

Fifties and Sixties Denim
Image: Pinterest/Original Source Unknown

Denim – The Seventies And Eighties

By the late 1970s and early 1980s jeans were being embraced by the jet set. Calvin Klein was the first fashion designer to send denim-wearing models down the catwalk and not long after, Gloria Vanderbilt introduced her legendary hit jeans in 1979.

Gloria Vanderbilt jeans campaign
Image: Gloria Vanderbilt campaign

Brooke Shields’ infamous Calvin Klein campaign and Claudia Schiffer’s smouldering adverts for Guess in the 1980s, portrayed jeans in a sexy and seductive light and by the 1990s, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Dior had also hopped on board, with their own designer version of the humble jean.

Denim Jeans Today

Today, almost all luxury labels and high-fashion designers have featured jeans in their collections and they’re available at both ends of the price spectrum, in a multitude of styles, cuts, colours and finishes.

Celine jeans / Dolce & Gabbana jeans
Image: Celine via Vogue and Dolce & Gabbana via Harrods

“I have often said that I wish I had invented blue jeans. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity — all that I hope for in my clothes” – Yves Saint Laurent allegedly told New York Magazine in November 1983

Finding The Perfect Pair of Jeans

Why’s It So Hard To Find A Great Pair of Jeans?

Many women admit to spending a lot of time – and money – trying to find the best pair of jeans to add into their wardrobe. It would seem you’re not alone if you have a stack of denims in your cupboard – but how many of those pairs do you actually wear?

We’ve all owned jeans that look great after they’ve been washed, but an hour of wearing later and they’re bagging at the knees. And we’ve all experienced a pair of jeans that looked great in the shop but get them home and they just don’t sit right. And as for that pair that were on the tight side when you bought them, but will be perfect once you’ve shed a few pounds, does that sound familiar too?

According to research by Mintel, women are more than twice as likely than men to find jeans that fit them properly, a fact put down to women’s physiques varying enormously.

What To Consider When You’re Shopping For Jeans

Whether it’s the style, the wash, the crop, the rise or the colour, there are many factors to consider in our search for the ultimate pair of denims – and, as we get older, comfort starts to play a lead role too.

Do we want a tighter or a looser fit in the hip and thigh area? Do we want them to sit low, midway or higher up the waist? Do we want the denim to hug the leg, skim it or be loose? Would we like them narrow towards the ankle, or straight – or to flare from the knee? We need to look at different types of denim washes too e.g. dark rinse, indigo, stone washed or bleached. Then there’s fabric finish to consider too e.g. distressed, raw edged, ripped etc…

And as for colour – where do you start!

What Makes The Perfect Pair of Jeans?

From a personal perspective, for a pair of my jeans to be elevated to the position of ‘favourites’, they’ll need to be a pair I instantly want to wear again and again – from day through to evening, from supermarket to date night. They’ll be comfortable, retain their shape and look great every time I put them on. The style will be quite classic, so that the cut isn’t too extreme or likely to outdate. The cut will be both flattering and comfortable and endure long periods of wear without loosening on the knees, bottom and waist. Once this ‘perfect’ pair has been found, I’d buy them in all the key colours – light, mid and dark denim, along with black, white and off-white too. I’d keep some pairs long to wear with heels and get others shortened to ankle length, to wear with trainers and flat sandals.

Cleverly Wrapped jeans
This is me – Harriet – wearing my favourite jeans – from Cleverly Wrapped!

According to Madeline Fass’ Vogue article, Vogue’s Ultimate Guide to the Best Jeans for Women, “If you’re in the market for new denim this season, keep in mind that trends come and go, but classics are forever.

Different Jean Styles and Cuts

Over the decades there have been hundreds of iterations of denim styles, some more divisive than others. Here are some of the perennial bestsellers, along with a brief description of their silhouette.

Boot-Cut Jeans And Flared Jeans

Similar but different, these two denim styles may have seen heightened peaks of popularity e.g. during the Seventies, but have always been an essential in most brands’ collections due to the way they flatter the figure.

Not only do they make your legs look longer with their slim at the thigh / wide at the ankle silhouette, but their characteristic higher waistband enhances the leg-lengthening optical illusion too.

Boot-Cut Jeans

A boot-cut jean fits slim through the hip and thigh with a slight widening towards the ankle. Historical records suggest the style was influenced by trousers worn by sailors in the 1850s, which were designed to accommodate the wearing of boots. They quickly became popular amongst cowboys and ranch workers for the exact same reason.

When embarking on the purchase of a new pair of jeans, Madeleine Fass suggests a bootcut style as one of the, “can’t-go-wrong silhouettes every woman should have in her wardrobe.”

Khaite jeans
Image: Khaite via shopbop.com

Flared Jeans

Flared jeans traditionally have a slightly looser fit than a boot-cut and the leg ‘flares’ or widens slightly from just below the knee.

Of flared jeans, Good Housekeeping journalists Francesca Rice and Jodie Dunworth, say, “This surprisingly wearable style keeps denim looking super chic, and not to mention, extremely flattering too.”

Boyfriend Jeans

These ‘borrowed-from-the-boys’ jeans are a favourite of many fashion industry insiders and icons, including Marilyn Monroe who was spotted wearing them on the set of Misfits. Sitting lowish on the waist and a little oversized, boyfriend jeans are traditionally a slouchy, relaxed fit. According to leading jeans brand Current Elliot “…the boyfriend jean is the epitome of effortless chic dressing, with a touch of boyish charm.”

Citizens of Humanity jeans
Image: Citizens of Humanity via shopbop.com

Cigarette Jeans

Overall, cigarette jeans have a slender silhouette and are close fitting around the bottom and thighs. They are narrow under the knee, but unlike a skinny which tapers tight into the ankle, they follow a straight, but tight line from the knee down. The length usually finishes on the ankle.

Citizens of Humanity jeans
Image: Citizens of Humanity via shopbop.com

Mum Fit Jeans

This retro-style jean was a favourite among mums in the 80s and 90s and today’s version usually features a high waist and a loose fit around the crotch and leg areas. With a more tapered leg, they are often rolled up at the ankle, have long back pockets – which make the bottom appear flatter – and are usually made in a lighter blue denim. They are usually styled with the top tucked in, along with a belt to add definition and create a feminine silhouette.

Mum fit jeans
Image: Gap UK

Skinny Jeans

The unique characteristic of a skinny cut is that it’s the only jean style that actually tapers in from the knee. They also hug the thighs and calves, so overall they create a very stream-lined silhouette, following the body’s natural curves very closely from top to bottom.

Skinny jeans
Image: DL1961 via shopbop.com

Straight Jeans

This fit is called ‘straight leg’ because the legs run vertically down, retaining their width from the top to the bottom. The fit is usually quite close in the thigh, but they are looser around the calf. They’re the perfect choice for those that don’t want to go to figure-hugging but still seek a stream-lined look.

Levis jeans
Image: Levis via shopbop.com 

Wide Leg Jeans

This style of jeans was popular throughout the hip-hop era of the1990’s. They have a tapered design in which they become progressively wider from the hips towards the bottom hem, so that the entire length of the leg is large in circumference. They are a liberating and easy-to-wear alternative to a more fitted cut as they give the entire leg room to move freely.

Wide leg jeans
Image: DL1961 via shopbop.com

Goodbye Skinnies

Although different jeans styles go in and out of fashion, for many of us, there are other factors that come into play when choosing a pair of denims, including comfort and a flattering fit.

‘As I get older, it’s not about showing off skinny legs, or figure-hugging clothing – feeling comfortable in my clothes and in myself is more important,’ says fashion editor and The Frugality blogger Alexandra Stedman. ‘Plus, the denim styles at the moment are moving away from slick silhouettes to more relaxed…and I love that.

According to Parisian creative consultant Camille Charrière – ‘It was very hard to get out of skinnies. I think it comes with being a certain age – you look more rock’n’roll in skinny jeans, but more elegant in boyfriend jeans.

What To Wear With Your Denim Jeans

Denim jeans are a staple for many of us, not only because they are comfortable, reliable, affordable and resistant to wear-and-tear, but the options when it comes to style, colour, finish and fit are endless. What also appeals to most of us is that jeans are versatile, easy to style, timeless and ageless too…

A classic white tee or crisp white shirt is a classic combination that cannot go wrong regardless of a jeans’ colour, cut or finish. Tuck in your top to elongate the leg, or let it hang loose for a more relaxed look. Keep accessories to a minimum for ‘less is more’ style – or add statement jewellery and a standout bag and heels for a more dressed up look.

Harper’s Bazaar
Images: Harper’s Bazaar UK and Harper’s Bazaar Australia

We’re loving the current trend for tucking a little bit of your top into the waistband. Just a glimpse of the hip or waist area highlights the figure beneath and suggests some definition. This little style tip will also ensure longer shirts come down over the bottom – something many of us like to keep covered.

Mint Velvet jeans
Image: Mint Velvet via very.co.uk

An oversize jacket is a more relaxed approach to wearing a two-piece suit. Wear the jacket over a neutral-coloured tee, blouse or shirt then team with sneakers, heels or ankle boots and you’ve a go-anywhere look – brunch, lunch and beyond. The addition of a belt will add more structure.

Harper’s Bazaar and emersonfry.com
Images: Harper’s Bazaar: Singapore and emersonfry.com

Wearing a denim shirt, jacket or blouse with your jeans – referred to as ‘double-denim’ – creates the illusion of height, (especially if denim tones are similar), due to the vertical column of colour. Play with your proportions by throwing on a hip or waist belt to break up the vertical line.

Elle Australia
Image: Elle Australia

Add some colour to your look with a pretty blouse or shirt. With a great pair of denims creating a very neutral base, you can opt for solid colour or a multicoloured print. Either will work well! It’s the finishing touches – the shoes and the accessories you add into the mix – that will steer your outfit from dressed down to dressed up, day to evening, casual to more formal.

Vogue Germany and Fame Flynet Pictures
Image: Vogue Germany and Fame Flynet Pictures

What could be more feminine than a pretty top, vest or camisole under a cardigan. Keep the cardigan open down the body towards the thighs. Styled like this, the open knit creates two strong vertical lines and the illusion of length, which is very slimming.

Fashion Jackson
Image: fashionjackson.com

High waisted jeans look great with a cropped top, the hem naturally sitting on the waistband of the jeans. No fiddly styling or tucking in required but be prepared for little peaks of midriff. Not something everyone is comfortable with, particularly as we get older!

Orseund Iris
Image: orseundiris.com

Sweaters team effortlessly with jeans, the contrast of textures – wool with denim – a perfect pairing. Quick tip – if you’ve a broad frame or a large bust, consider a V-neck sweater to break up the bulk.

A long line coat or mac, when teamed with jeans, creates the illusion of length when left open. Keep the layer beneath simple in both cut and colour.

Atlantic Pacific
Image: Atlantic Pacific via whowhatwear.com

A shirt dress

A shirt dress
Image: bedazelive.com

A leather jacket: A leather jacket is a staple. It goes with almost anything, as do jeans. Put them together and you have a timeless, effortless winning look.

Vogue Germany
Image: Vogue Germany

How to Style Jeans at Any Age

Although it’s great flicking through glossy magazines and seeing long limbed models beautifully clad in expensive designer creations, my outfit inspiration comes from Instagram – from a bunch of women I find a lot more relaxed and relatable. Here are some of my favourites, along with pics from their recent denim posts…

@thatsnotmyage

Alyson writes a style column for The Telegraph. In a recent post she said ‘What a relief to be back in jeans and a blazer again. These are the clothes that I love and wear on repeat.’

Alyson writes for The Telegraph

@doesmybumlook40

Kat Farmer is a writer and self-confessed rambler on fashion and beauty. She was recently a stylist on BBC1’s You Are What You Wear and embraces a laidback look that frequently features a pair of denims.

Kat Farmer

When interviewed by the BBC for an article – Five Essential Items No Wardrobe Should Be Without – Kat’s co-presenter Lucie Clifford said – “Shouldn’t every wardrobe include a great pair of blue denim jeans? Whether you like a mom, boyfriend, high waisted, super skinny, or a kick-flare jean, denim is everyone’s best friend. Versatile, comfortable and super stylish, no matter what age, shape or size… a great fitting pair of jeans will be a staple in anyone’s wardrobe.”

@lindavwright

Parisian based Linda Wright is an ex-model and owner/creative director of @crimson_cashmere. Despite being in her seventies she wears jeans on a regular basis and always looks very relaxed and stylish.

Linda Wright

@lindaandwinks

Another Linda but this time New York based Linda Rodin. Despite a career spent styling for luxury publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Linda admits to an addiction for denim. In a Q and A interview with Refinery 29, she says – “I like jeans with anything! Causal or dressy. Jean jackets with a dress or skirt, jeans with vintage sequined tops… Jeans are always right. They have been the main part of my wardrobe since I was 16.”

Linda Rodin

When asked what she loves most about her favourite denim pieces, she says – “That I have been wearing them for so long in so many different ways that they can all go in the washing machine with no special care. I like all kinds of jeans. I have very, very wide jeans; very, very skinny jeans; old Levi’s boot-cut jeans — I love all jeans.” 

Cleverly Wrapped’s Jeans

Our Cleverly Wrapped Indigo Blue Two Pocket Jeans, designed exclusively for us, were launched in May 2021 and they are everything we think a jean should be. Having done extensive research, we’re proud to have successfully created something that is comfortable, stylish and flattering too.

Indigo Two Pocket Jeans Indigo Two Pocket Jeans

 

Made in a slightly stretchy fabric, they have just the right amount of elastane to retain their shape during prolonged periods of wear. The waist is cut high which not only holds the stomach in, but it creates the wonderful illusion of longer legs, especially when you wear your blouse, shirt or top tucked in at the front.

Cleverly Wrapped Jeans

The leg gently flares out very subtly at the bottom which compliments both a curvy and a more boyish figure.

The jeans will be full length on most people who are 5 ft 8“ or below. People 5 ft 2” or below may need to get them shortened. We are shortly developing the jeans in a longer leg length that will be perfect for those over 5 ft 8’ or for those wanting to wear them with a wedge.

Cleverly Wrapped Jeans

Leg length is down to personal choice. Those that choose to have the hems skimming the ground will further elongate their legs, especially if they wear a heeled shoe or boot.

We deliberated long and hard over the colour of our launch jeans and with our research revealing a darker blue fabric as the most flattering and versatile colour to have in your wardrobe, we opted for an indigo blue denim. These jeans can therefore easily be dressed up for smarter occasions, by styling them with a blouse, blazer, heels and statement jewellery – or casually teamed with a classic white shirt or tee and trainers.

Cleverly Wrapped Jeans

Having launched these jeans in a regular length, which equated to full length on most people who are 5 ft 8“ or below, we have now created a longer length version too. These are perfect for those over 5 ft 8’ or for those wanting to wear them with a heel or wedge. People 5 ft 2” or below may need to get them shortened.

The incredible success of this first pair of has already inspired us to develop further denim colours, with black being available from min November. White and ecru is also on our list for next year as is a mid-blue wash too.

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