Denim has been an integral part of American fashion since it debuted in the 1800's as a widely available and inexpensive clothing option for workers in the fields, forests, mills, and coal mines. Russian-American tailor Jacob W. Davis is credited with inventing blue jeans in his tailor shop is Reno, Nevada. Davis' specialty was the creation of heavy duty textiles for laborers like tents, wagon covers and horse blankets made from durable cotton denim supplied by to him by San Francisco's Levi Strauss & company. Davis was commissioned to make a pair of rugged custom work pants for a client who was a woodcutter, and he fashioned them from heavy duty "duck cotton" and reinforced the seams with copper rivets, thus laying the blueprint for the blue jean which became immensely popular in part due to the California Gold Rush.
Henry David Lee, the founder of Lee Mercantile Company, which is now known as Lee Jeans is credited with the addition of many elements of the blue jean which are still popular today. In the 1920's Lee introduced the first jeans to feature a zipper fly as well as inventing the Union-All work jumpsuit, which eventually morphed into denim overalls. The actor James Dean further popularized blue jeans in the mainstream when he wore them in 1955's Rebel Without A Cause. Elvis Presley and Marylin Monroe are also credited with popularizing jeans in the mainstream.
Lee's and Sergio's were everywhere, but I needed somethin' new that I could wear.
- Fresh - The Fresh 3 MC's, 1983
The Funky 4 + 1, 1980 Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
1970's New York Gang culture birthed many of Hip-Hop's early styles. As illustrated in Steven Hager's Hip-Hop: The Illustrated History Of Breakdancing, Rap Music And Graffiti, jean suits and custom made jean jackets worn by gangs such as The Black Spades were worn by many early Hip-Hoppers who sometimes were affiliated with those street organizations.
The custom jean jacket often contained artwork and/or crew names and logos created by Graf artists. DJ/MC Crews, B Boys and Graf artists alike would sport this custom denim as an identifier of who they were as crews and individuals as well as a means of advertisement.
Steven Hager's Hip-Hop: The Illustrated History Of Breakdancing, Rap Music And Graffiti page 104
Denim was generally blue or black, but as Hip-Hop does, it embraced and influenced more colorful styles, produced by both Lee and Levi in the early 1980's. These vibrant colors which were available in white, Carolina blue, pink, red and even yellow allowed Hip-Hoppers to better accessorize , often sporting sneakers that perfectly matched their jeans. There was also the issue of affordability. The 1970's era of "designer jeans" were a lot less affordable than the Lee's and Levi's that catered more to Hip-Hop's sensibilities and didn't carry the price tag of Sergio Valente, Jordache, Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein.
From the collection of Geechie Dan
There was actually backlash at one point against the designer jean in Hip-Hop. A mere three years after Melle Mel shouted out "Dj Flash cuts so mean and he wanna know your favorite jean is it Jordache? Gloria Vanderbilt? Is It Sasson? How about Sergio?, Could it be Calvin Klein" on "It's Nasty", Run proclaimed "Calvin Klein is no friend of mine, I don't want nobody's name on my behind" on "Rock Box".
Through the decades Hip-Hop fashion trends have come and gone, and different brands have enjoyed popularity. MC's and Dj's have turned into moguls creating their own clothing companies and becoming wealthy in the process. What has not fallen out of style is denim, despite what company manufactures it. The comfortable fit, ruggedness and means of individual expression that it provides will be here forever, just like Hip-Hop.
DJ Flash cuts so mean, and he wanna know your favorite jean
- It's Nasty - Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5, 1981
Keith Cowboy of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5
Lee on my leg, sneakers on my feet, D by my side and Jay with the beat
- Rock Box - Run-DMC, 1984