A Denim Story

Originally the reigning textile signifier of alternative, transgressive «outsider» identities, denim became the emblem of a vastly democratized wardrobe.

Key Takeaways

  1. By 1976—the time it had found the way onto its first fashion runway, at Calvin Klein—the blue jean had already moved through a variety of historically-contingent taxonomies, though its original cultural footing positioned it as a garment synonym with practicality, durability and affordability.
  2. «In order to blunt the buyer’s calculating consciousness, a veil must be drawn around the object,» said Roland Barthes of the necessary cognitive dissonances created by the mythologies that underpin, and explain the semiotics of enduring and kaleidoscopic fashion hypes.
  3. It is believed that at any given moment, approximately half of the world’s population is wearing denim.

When the Venetian retail entrepreneur Renzo Rosso founded what was to become a virtually unrivaled global ready-to-wear empire, his intention was as clear as it was, perhaps, wide-eyed: to do away with conformity, dismantling the diktat of aesthetic acquiescence to an unpleasant norm. “Only the Brave” was among Diesel’s first slogans—one emblazoned on thousands of jean tags, T-shirts and perfume bottles, brandishing the rebellious spirit of its die-hard consumer base, separated by circumstantial realities, but united in their shared penchant for aesthetic grit.

Established in 1978, the denim titan took its name from the alternative fuel popularized during the 1973 oil crisis, and sure enough, for most of its pop history, denim itself has—somewhat paradoxically, considering its commercial prevalence—served as the reigning textile signifier of alternative, transgressive «outsider» identities: the cowboy in the 1920s and 1930s, the charismatic teenage dissenter à la James Dean in the 1950s, the angry grungehead in the 1990s.

By 1976—the time it had found the way onto its first fashion runway, at Calvin Klein—the blue jean had already moved through a variety of historically-contingent taxonomies, though its original cultural footing positioned it as a garment synonym with practicality, durability and affordability—a triad of functions associated with the post-war working class, of which the vastly democratized wardrobe staple quickly became an emblem.

Diesel by Glenn Martens. Photography by Johnny Dufort.


True to form, for the past decade in particular, couture runways ranging from Balenciaga to Burberry have been consistently brimming with nods to (or direct iterations of) what is now casually referred to as “utilitarian” dressing: construction worker gear, postman uniforms, run-down post-Soviet minimalism and riffs on the ‘chav’ attire. Poverty fetishism is certainly rife amid high-end design, aestheticizing luxury as a way of naturalizing the body by historicizing and signifying utility stripped of its tangible physical, and psychosocial demands. «In order to blunt the buyer’s calculating consciousness, a veil must be drawn around the object,» said Roland Barthes of the necessary cognitive dissonances created by the mythologies that underpin, and explain the semiotics of enduring and kaleidoscopic fashion hypes. However complicated the commercialized aesthetic really is, commodification must render it pristine.

While some such designs leave little to the imagination, embracing the destructive irony of a first-degree approach—think Vêtements’ DHL T-shirt—others operate more ambiguously. Polymorphic as it is, denim has always been of the latter. Perhaps symptomatic of high fashion’s well-documented tendency of indulging in the sartorial reification of the working class, or perhaps simply cashing in on the accessibility and malleable nature of its cotton fabric itself, denim easily made its way from retail stores to mid-level designers, and eventually the world’s most revered catwalks, invading and informing a new understanding of style, sex-appeal, and, crucially, luxury. The 1970s saw the advent of the fresh, wholesome Americana silhouette crystallized by Charlie’s Angels’ Farah Fawcett (later echoed by Guess campaigns starring Claudia Schiffer). By the 1990s, most European couture houses had incorporated jeans—straight cut, bell-bottom, pre-washed, patterned or perforated—in their collections. Fiorucci’s signature “Safety Jeans”, the Versace Jeans Couture sub-label, embroidered denim-infused mens’ and womenswear at Dolce & Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli all peaked in the 1980s.

“I wish I had invented blue jeans,” Yves Saint-Laurent told New York Magazine in 1993. “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity—all that I hope for in my clothes."

It is believed that at any given moment, approximately half of the world’s population is wearing denim. Yet perhaps the most notable characteristic of denim is its conceptual flexibility, and ability to be reinvented, peppering the sartorial zeitgeist with a wealth of seemingly infinite meta-revivals, as attested, for instance, by Belgian designer Glenn Martens’ affinity for denim as one of the trademark textiles of his avant-garde, experimental label Y/Project. If history is known for repeating itself, fashion’s propensity to recycling itself has gotten less and less diluted — Ghesquière-era Balenciaga accessories are back with a vengeance, and Hedi Slimane’s (denim-heavy) Celine does little but replicate the archetype of the heroin-thin Caucasian rocker. Loaded with as much semantic baggage as it is with untapped possibility, denim acts as an ever-moving fixture, superficially coalescing structurally antipodal poles of culture. In a world steered by spectacle, such potential isn’t to be dismissed.