Early 20th century – Denim as Workwear
In the early 20th century, denim was adopted as the preferred workwear fabric choice for western cowboys, miners, farmers in the US. Not only was the fabric cheap, but denim was more durable and sturdy than the popular alternative – ‘jean’ (traditionally made from cotton, linen and wool). After Levi’s & Strauss patented the metal rivets to make them more hard-wearing, they began producing the iconic denim blue trousers that became a common feature among working men.
Jeans & American West
The classic symbol of the American West is now a staple in wardrobes. Modern jeans began to appear in the 1920s, but sales were largely confined to the working people of the western United States, such as cowboys, lumberjacks, and railroad workers. It’s thought that Levi’s jeans were first introduced to the East during the dude ranch craze of the 1930s.
Dude ranches arose in response to the romanticisation of the American West that began to occur in the late 19th century. Today, tumbleweed, rodeos and Wyatt Earp are as much symbols of our Western ideal as the humble denim jean. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner stated that the United States frontier was demographically “closed” which in turn conjured feelings of nostalgia for bygone days. With the ruthless lifestyle of the Wild West now gone, this nostalgia could be explored without the risk of gunslingers and shoot-outs. It was an era when the Wild West could be commercialised and romanticised.
The Western adventures of famous figures were made available to paying guests from cities of the East, who were referred to as ‘dudes’.
Some guest ranch visitors expected a somewhat sanitised and more luxurious version of the “cowboy life”, while others were more tolerant of the authentic odours and timetable of a working ranch.
Another chapter unfolded during World War II, when blue jeans were declared an ‘essential’ commodity and were sold only to those engaged in defence or military work.