September 21st, 2021


Why You're Wearing What You're Wearing

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published Sept. 9, 2015

  Why You're Wearing What You're Wearing

You get up in the morning and walk out the door clad in history. Every item you're wearing owes a debt to the genius of yesteryear, just as surely as the Rolling Stones owe a debt to Muddy Waters and vegans owe a debt to vegetarians.

The problem is that it's hard to see the thread — as it were — until you look at the sweep of fashion history. That's exactly what Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl do in their new book, "The History of Modern Fashion."

"Fashion always interlocks with culture," says Deihl, director of the master's program in costume studies at New York University. For instance, adds Cole, who teaches fashion history at both NYU and the Fashion Institute of Technology, just look at the jeans you're probably wearing right now. (I am!)

Denim is a uniform for many of us today, but most likely, it was first used in Europe as a boat covering, says Cole. The word denim comes from "de Nimes," French for "from the town of Nimes."

It was those classy Italians in Genoa who turned the boat cloth into pants. The word jeans sounds like "Genes," the French word for Genoa.

Levi Strauss is often given credit for inventing the iconic pants, but it seems he didn't. However, "he was still a genius," says Cole. That's because Strauss realized jeans were the perfect thing to make and market in 1849 San Francisco, epicenter of the gold rush.

The miners there spent a lot of their time knee-deep in the river, panning for gold nuggets. The woolen pants they were wearing rotted when wet. Denim, a strong cotton weave, did not. It could handle mud, water and a lot of wear.

It still can. That's one of the reasons jeans are still around. "You can buy Levi's today that are essentially the same design as the 1850s," says Cole.

You can also buy jeans that are very different.

For their book, six years in the making, Cole and Deihl pored over images from every era. In a 1920s magazine, they found an ad for denim gardening overalls in pastel colors for women. Bingo! That's when denim leaped the gender barrier.

By the 1950s, movies starring brooding young men showed those men brooding in bluejeans. Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" wore jeans tighter than you'd want to wear if, say, you were panning for gold. Or even gardening. But they were perfect for making audiences swoon.

Pretty soon, if you wanted to look young and sexy, you, too, were wearing jeans, rebelling (in lockstep) against the establishment by refusing to wear neatly pressed pants or dresses. The first Gap store opened in San Fran in 1969, its name a salute to the chasm between the generations. Jeans were the Gap's specialty.

By the disco era, the designer world had caught on and given us jeans by Calvin Klein, Gloria Vanderbilt and Yves Saint Laurent. Now jeans could be fancy.

Those who think deeper about fashion than the rest of us have realized clothes provide three things: utility, status and seduction. Jeans do all three. No wonder they're still so popular.

Today, says Deihl, fashion is busy mining the past for the next big thing.

Seems as if it always has.

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