Goodbye to an American Icon

On 26 September 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle announced that in 2004 plant closings would mark the end of the Levi's U.S. jeans-making era. Levi Strauss & Co. was a reflection of more than 150 years of American history, from the rough days of the California Gold Rush and the opening of the wild west, through the Great Depression. The impact of Levis grew during two world wars and Vietnam resulting in fashions that emphasized casual dress and conspicuous consumption simultaneously. Through it all, Levi Strauss & Co. became an icon with undisputed class.

during the California gold rush of the 1850s and 1860s. While the twill weave used in those first trousers for gold miners was undeniably hardier than the plain weave that canvas miners had been wearing, it was the metal-riveted pockets that began to appear in the 1860s and 1870s that most interested the miners.

Jacob Davis, a tailor and wholesale customer of Levi Strauss, came up with the idea of putting metal rivets at the points of stress on denim trousers. Strauss hired Jacob Davis to oversee the manufacturing in San Francisco of the blue denim "waist overalls" as they were called. On 20 May 1873, Davis and Strauss received patent #139,121 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for an "Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings." The riveted waist overalls were made from denim fabric furnished by the Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, New Hampshire. The waist overalls that are commonly called "jeans" or "blue jeans" were a hit with miners and other workers whose clothing had to be rugged. Cowboys who often spent days, and even nights, in the saddle herding cattle wore the trousers extensively.

In the 1900s, denim was most associated with rugged trousers dyed indigo blue. It is not known exactly when or why jeans or waist overalls yarns first began to be dyed blue. One of the best reasons given is that blue seems to hide dirt and stains better than the tan first associated with waist overalls. The uneven surface of twill weaves hides soil as well. Also, because the yarns can be more tightly packed in twills than in plain weaves, the fabric resists soiling by liquid spills.

Until the 1920s and 1930s denim waist overalls were scarcely known east of the Mississippi River. They were worn in the West as work pants.

From the mid-to-late 1950s and 1960s, blue denim ceased to be used mostly for work clothes. Indigo or blue denim became a hot fashion item. Men's and women's suits were made from denim, as well as evening dresses, which began to be studded with rhinestones instead of rivets. In the 1960s denim blue jeans became one of the signs of rebellion among teenagers and twenty-something young adults. The young rebels, known as hippies and flower children, embroidered their jeans and painted them with flowers, peace signs (in protest of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam), and psychedelic designs.

In the 1980s and 1990s, denim became associated with various shades of blue as much as with its twill weave. Sheets, pillowcases, upholstery, bathing suits, dresses, leather and cloth shoes, underwear, paper, and even pencils were called "denim." Wood furniture was stained to have a denim appearance.

Almost every well-known European and U.S. designer from Calvin Klein to Giorgio Armani has made denim part of their fashion lines. Denim was seen as an American lifestyle fabrication and style. Denim was no longer the fabric of choice for just the blue-collar worker. It became an upper-class classic, even "preppy" look. Casual denim skirts and trousers were often combined with cashmere jackets and mink or ermine coats on the runway and on the streets. Denim trousers became accepted in high profile, black-tie events, worn with a formal tuxedo shirt and jacket. Virtually the only place where the casual nature of blue jeans remained unacceptable was in the dress of attorneys in the courtroom.

Old or vintage blue denim was very popular in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in Asia and the United States. In Japan, the demand for vintage denim blue jeans was so great in the 1990s that it outstripped supplies.

Blue denim jeans in the 1990s were decorated extensively with colorful braid and glass bead fringe at the waist and edges of trouser legs. Legs of denim jeans were often slashed from the mid-thigh to the trouser leg edge and then laced with cord. Cotton was combined with latex for a fabrication that could be worn skintight and yet remain comfortably elastic. Denim was produced in colors other than blue, including black, green, pink, and tan— but those colors never attained the popularity of blue denim. In the early 2000s, it appears that denim will never be seen as a fad. It is an international classic.

See also Jeans; Levi Strauss & Co. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barber, E. J. W. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Kadolph, Sara J., and Langford, Anna L. Textiles. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1998.

Internet Resource

Levi Strauss & Co. 2001. Available from <>.

Carol Anne Dickson

DEPARTMENT STORE The birthplace of the department store was Paris. The Bon Marché opened in 1852, soon followed by Printemps (1865) and the Samaritaine (1869). Existing shops in the United States— Stewart in New York, Wanamaker in Philadelphia and Marshall Field in Chicago—adopted the format during the 1870s. The department store brought together a series of retail methods tested out in smaller European and American shops earlier in the century, for example, the proto-department stores in industrial cities in the north of Britain (Lancaster, chapter 1). The department store proper was distinctive from previous experiments in its scale, lavishness, and resonance with the society that spawned it. The early Parisian stores were hugely influential models for subsequent stores springing up all over the world. The history of the department store has been largely located in Western Europe and North America. The arrival of the format in East Asian cities such as Shanghai and Tokyo in the early twentieth century has been associated with westernization, but the stores were often locally owned and managed, creating complex issues surrounding their identity.

The conditions for the rise of the department store lay in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century industrialization and urbanization, which led to the growth of prosperous, urban, middle-class populations and the ready availability of mass-produced consumer goods, along with an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the pleasurable rather than merely utilitarian possibilities of consuming them. Important department stores were situated in urban centers, on principal shopping streets, working in conjunction with other shops, entertainment venues, and transport networks. However, well-heeled suburbs also had department stores in their high streets. By the late nineteenth century, considered the hey-day of the department store, these shops had become emblematic of metropolitan modernity and were famously made the backdrop of Emile Zola's novel The Ladies' Paradise.

The major department stores of each important city— for example, Harrods, Liberty's and Selfridges in London— quickly became urban landmarks and cultural institutions, cited in guide books as tourist attractions. During the early twentieth century, American stores took the lead as innovators, becoming increasingly influential on their European counterparts. During the interwar and early postwar periods, while alternative shopping sites were developing, fashion magazines such as Vogue show that the big department stores retained their central position within urban consumption practices in many cities. However, despite stores' attempts to address broader sections of the population, the opening of teen departments and the provision of new buildings, fundamental modernization of the format did not occur. The combined competition from the multiple store and alternative boutique in the urban high street and from the suburban shopping center and out-of-town mall led to a slow decline in the cultural and economic importance of the department

Department Stores The 19th Century
Moscow's GUM department store. Formerly known as the State Department Store, Gosudarstvenny Universalny Magazin (GUM) is located in Moscow's Red Square. Its three stories of shops boast some five kilometers of shelves. © David H. Wells/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

store from the 1960s, accelerating during the 1980s. There were several factors that increased a store's chances of survival: possession of an international reputation, such as that of Harrods, London; absorption into a larger group, such as the House of Fraser or the John Lewis Partnership; positioning on a major metropolitan shopping thoroughfare or as the anchor in a shopping center. The early twenty-first century has witnessed a revival of the metropolitan department store, connected with a renewed focus on luxury goods and designer fashion, prime examples being Selfridges and Liberty in London. The department store has proved to be enduring.

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