Fashion is mysterious, as a rule. Why are blue jeans a classic? You just hit on something that happens to be timeless and right.
-Diane von Furstenberg
There’s something mystical about blue jeans. This one item — a pair of pants made of indigo-dyed, cotton fabric — can be dowdy and wholesome (see SNL’s “Mom Jeans“) or the symbol of revolution. They are embraced equally by fashion models and kids skating on the street. As culture changes and subcultures spring up, jeans have a way of changing with us, morphing into whatever we need at the moment. They’re simply one of the most versatile pieces of clothing ever created.
More than just “clothes,” blue jeans have been central to virtually every youth subculture over the last 70 or 80 years. We may not immediately see the connection between the beat generation of the 50’s and the golden age of hip hop in the early 1990’s, but we can instantly recognize that both scenes embraced jeans as a part of their signature style.
For those who stand in opposition to society’s strictures, fashion choices become symbols of rebellion. John Lydon, the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, once said, “If there’s not a rebellious youth culture, there’s no culture at all.” And rebellious youth across the ages have adopted blue jeans as a sign of their resistance, independence, and self-expression.
They take the jean and make it their own. Just as their parents and their grandparents did before them,
“What’s so special about denim is that it can become anything to anybody,” Amy Leverton, author of the book Denim Dudes, explains. Leverton is a blue jean expert, having worked in the industry as a designer, denim journalist, and now, as a denim forecaster.
“When jeans were first being worn, it was just workwear,” she continues. “In the 50s, the James Dean era, it started being seen as a kind of rebellious fashion item. They’d blend with a personal character — that’s the key to denim’s success.”
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Whether they’re straight legged or bell bottomed, skinny or baggy, sharp or distressed, it seems like behind every movement or subculture, there’s a pair of blue jeans. They’ve come to represent freedom in many forms. Freedom from restrictive gender stereotypes, freedom from oppressive governments, freedom from the rules and expectations of the older generations, and (a bit ironically) freedom from consumerism.
We (briefly) tried to track the changes in this iconic outerwear as they were adopted by various subcultures. Not that we could touch on all of them — there are simply too many iterations and movements of blue jeans. And just like any good pair of jeans, the love affair between denim and youth subculture shows every sign of lasting well into the future.