Design that made history: blue jeans

by Luke Paka March 10, 2016

blue jeans

Most of us own at least one pair of jeans. It’s a staple piece of casual clothing that can fit into almost anybody’s wardrobe. But only a few know the story behind them. What makes jeans so special?

Designed to last

"Ain't no coal mine deep enough"

Just like the trench coat, jeans were made with a purpose that went beyond the reach of a mere fashion accessory. What set them apart was their exceptional durability and resilience to the harsh working conditions that existed back then. And by then I mean the late 1800s, during the California gold rush and the era of the cowboys. 

It all started with this gentleman

Jacob W. Davis

"Jacob W. Davis is the name"

He was a tailor who “made tents, horse blankets and wagon covers that were usually been bought by railway workers on the Central Pacific Railroad”. For these products he used heavy cotton fabrics (duck and denim), which were supplied to him by a gentleman named Levi Strauss:

Levi Strauss

"You are indeed welcome."

In January 1871 a customer arrived asking Jacob if he could make a strong pair of pants for her husband, who was having difficulties finding anything to wear due to his large build. To meet the requirements of “extra strong”, he fastened the pockets and other seam points with rivets he previously used on horse blankets.

I had to google “horse blanket”. A good name, very descriptive.  

 Name matches the thing pretty well

“I was wearing jeans before they were even cool”

Jacob succeeded, and thus jeans were born.

Word quickly got around about these inexpensive, yet very durable overalls (all jeans were called overalls back then). The demand went through the roof, and Davis could barely keep up. Seeing the business potential of his idea, he decided to patent the rivet design. But there was a problem – the patent cost $68, which was too much for a tailor to handle at the time. In today's terms, the economic power of $68 would be thousands of dollars. So to buy a patent you had to be quite well-off:

"Not on a tailor's salary"

Because he already had a business relationship with Levi, he decided to partner up with him in exchange for him paying for the patent. That they did, and so the amazing business that changed the face of casual wear took off.

The design was simple, yet effective:

  • Strong cotton fabric that can withstand the harsh working environment
  • Rivets that add to the strength of the trousers
  • Indigo (dark blue) is the most stain resistant color

A pair of trousers that helped workers get on with their day without getting in their way - the definition of good and honest design. While jeans are no longer the standard for durability or performance, they are nonetheless still one of the most commonly used and, therefore, important pieces of clothing in our lives. 

Luke Paka
Luke Paka


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