Why We Rock Denim

Why We Rock Denim

Denim is considered our second skin, but how did it become one of the most widely used fabrics in fashion?

Published July 13th

In 1985, G. Bruce Boyer, a journalist who held stints as fashion editor at Town & Country, GQ and Esquire published his first book, an opus simply titled Elegance. Boyer’s aim was to “discuss the proprieties and possibilities of men’s attire by considering its history and contemporary applications, and to provide information related to quality in purchasing and maintaining a good wardrobe.” Basically, Boyer put pen to paper in order to educate guys everywhere about what was acceptable to rock and what was not. And, for the most part, the guy who, at the time, was hailed as one of the leading experts on contemporary fashion, nailed it. Except for when it came to denim. “There is a rumor,” Boyer wrote. “That things are getting better. My yardstick is the observation that the mania for designer jeans is now mercifully behind us.”

Boy was he wrong.

Just as Guru (and, most recently, Hov) said of lemonade, denim — woven from two different colored threads (usually white and indigo) — was a popular fabric and it still is. What started out as workwear for laborers who toiled away on factory floors, railways and farms, slowly but surely became a staple of the modern wardrobe. This was due to a number of different factors. There’s the fact that after the Great Depression in 1929 many people had no choice but to wear their “work” clothes when off the clock because all of their coin went to feeding themselves and their families. Then there were people like James Dean and Marlon Brando, who popularized the fabric in the 1950s when they rocked them in the hit movies Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One, respectively. Denim jeans became seen as the item of clothing you had to wear if you weren’t a lame.

Denim got even more visibility in the next decade. Brian Robbins, writing in his Denim Design Lab book, explained that “images of American youth who rallied against the establishment were common in newspapers, magazines, and TV programs during this time; more often than not, they were wearing denim.” By the time Woodstock rolled around in 1969, denim was officially the uniform of the cool kids. Take a look at some old Woodstock footage and you’ll see that nearly everyone — from the stars on stage like Jimi Hendrix and Joan Baez to the fans who traveled thousand of miles to upstate New York to take in the show — was wearing at least one piece of denim.

It was only a matter of time before denim would go upscale. And that’s exactly what happened in the ‘70s. The January 1971 issue of Vogue marked the first time denim would appear on the magazine’s cover with a woman wearing a denim button down next to a cover line that read “The Blue Denim Look.” Brands like Calvin Klein took the opportunity to cash in on the burgeoning trend by releasing jeans aimed squarely at those who wanted something a little more exclusive and sexy than what was being offered by brands like Levi’s and Lees. CK's provocative ads and commercials, a stark contrast to the way denim was being marketed at the time, definitely helped the jeans fly off the shelves. It was pretty much a wrap after that.

Brands hocking high-priced denim flooded the market, offering a wide range of fits and washes that gave consumers agency to rock denim wherever and whenever they wanted. And that trend continued all the way into the ‘90s, when rap became the most popular form of music. Whereas James Dean dictated the style of jeans everyone wore back in ‘50s, rappers dictated the style of the ‘90s. Jeans got baggier, added a number of accoutrements like zippers and velcro straps, and came in a number of different colors. A number of brands made by and for the urban markets flourished — FUBU, Karl Kani, Cross Colours, Enyce, Sean John, Rocawear, Maurice Malone and a bunch more all rose to prominence. For the first time, it seemed as if Black brands were driving the popular trends. And the world was paying attention. European brands like Iceberg, Diesel, Marithé et François Girbaud and more all worked to ingratiate themselves with the hip-hop world.

As the times changed, so too have the styles and brands that are celebrated. Gone are the jeans baggy enough to fit two. In its place are silhouettes that adhere closer to the wearer’s actual shape. And while Iceberg and those ‘90s mainstays may no longer get name -ropped on songs, other high-end European houses like Balmain have taken their place.

More so than any other garment of clothing save for sneakers, we find denim jeans to be one of the most personal clothing items a person can own. Sure, all clothes are personal to a certain extent, but your jeans are your second skin. The best ones change with you. They fade beautifully as the seasons change. When they rip, you take ‘em to a tailor to get them fixed and maybe even customized to make them even more unique. Denim has proven to be one of the most versatile fabrics ever made; able to be made into pants, shirts, jackets, shoes, purses, backpacks, etc.

It’s with that in mind that we have decided to use this year’s How to Rock to celebrate all things denim. Over the next month, we’ll explore all the different ways you can rock your denim pieces, where to buy them, how to care for them, how to customize them, what denim pieces you should and should not be rockin’. We'll explore all the different ways denim fits into your life and how your favorite celebrities choose to wear it. 

G. Bruce Boyer was right: Things did get better. Just not in the way he expected. And since it's not going anywhere anytime soon, you might as well stick around and learn how to rock denim. 

Written by BET Staff

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