This iconic garment was not invented in the American Wild West

Library of Congress; The Crowley Company

It is said that at any time, half of the world’s population wears blue jeans. The estimate is probably not far off. The garment, originally known as work pants, is now everywhere, and it fits everyone. “This garment can be both universal and individual,” says fashion historian Emma McClendon in the new PBS documentary, Rivet: the history of jeans. “There is nothing like it in the history of clothing.”

But the history of blue jeans has been tweaked to better suit its biggest producers, reveals Levi’s and Wranglers, the new PBS documentary. While dry goods purveyor Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis are credited with incorporating denim pants with reinforced stress points and pockets, there are people before and after them who deserve credit for creating jeans as we know them.

Sure, cowboys and those who worked in the American Wild West were incredible advertisers for these Newly American stockings, but “denim was changing and so was America,” McClendon continues. “This image of someone wearing denim at the turn of the 20th century is inevitably, you know, romanticized. And the reality is that people of all ages, races and genders wore denim at that time.”

pbs jeans


Not only have the images of those wearing jeans been whitewashed, but so has the history of production: from who taught Americans how to grow and use indigo to who even invented pants in coarse cotton and blue in the first place. Indigo can be traced back to Dungri, India, (worn colloquially through overalls), where workers as early as the 17th century wore hardwearing indigo-dyed blue trousers; The Genoese (from where the word jeans derives) made waxed work trousers in Italy; and in Nîmes, France, the indigo-dyed fabric was called “de Nimes” (the root of the word denim).

The knowledge to cultivate indigo came from slaves.

In Africa, indigo was also used, and when many West Africans were captured and moved against their will to America, they brought the trade with them, passing the knowledge on to white slave-owning families through South. And, as this country has done with many other popular products, knowledge of the contributions of these captive peoples has been written down. The United States History curriculum celebrates the daughter of a colonial governor, Eliza Lucas, for cultivating indigo and initiating its production as a cash crop in South Carolina.

“Eliza Lucas was probably one of the best-known indigo producers in colonial America,” explains historian Daina Berry in the 59-minute video. “But Eliza’s hands weren’t blue. She didn’t get her hands dirty with the indigo harvest. The knowledge to grow indigo came from the slaves.”

More fascinating, but very heartbreaking, the reporting in this PBS documentary reveals that enslaved Africans not only prepared the indigo dye, but of course also picked the cotton needed to make blue jeans. They collected the crop, it was shipped north to factories in the states of the Union, and returned south as a wearable garment. And a lot, numerous slaves wore jeans. (They were inappropriately called “Negro Cloths” during the mid-18th century.) Listings of runaway slaves archived in a database called freedom on the move feature vivid descriptions of these individuals and what they were wearing when last seen.

freedom in motion

freedom on the move

“You have ads that have very, very, very detailed information about slaves. And the slaves actually wore jeans,” Berry continues.

One such advertisement in the Weekly Standard for a self-liberating Sampson Dew states that he was last seen wearing a “green coat and blue trousers”. Another, for Henry, says he was spotted in “blue cotton pants.” As you can see, Levi, Wrangler and Lee represent the tip of an industrial iceberg that dates back to 17th century India. (For context, Strauss and Davis are credited with creating jeans on May 20, 1873, but waist-length overalls, as they were called, had been around for decades.)

In America, the story begins with American slaves. They took with them the intelligence to transform a raw green leaf into an oxidized vat of blue dye. They picked up and produced the cotton to make these damn things. They wore jeans long before cowboys and rock stars, and this documentary strives to hammer home the contributions of captive people we’ve long overlooked in favor of stories shaped by brands themselves in order to sell more products. .

Indigo really encapsulates this problem of how do we begin to tell the story of captive people and how we document their contributions to America, and to denim history in particular,” says author Catherine Mckinley at the start of the documentary.

Rivet: the history of jeans
Written, produced and directed:
Michael Bicks and Anna Lee Strachan for PBS

Duration: 52:39


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Michael O. Stutler