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Jeaneology: All about denim

FashionJapanBrigitte BardotRalph LaurenKatie HolmesPaul NewmanBrooke Shields

Neon and pastel jeans brightening the concrete this spring might lead one to conclude that denim today carries all the gravitas of marshmallow Peeps.

But there's always a dark side to denim. In 2012, it's hiding out in the freezer in a gallon zip-close bag.

"There are some people now who will get a pair of jeans and never, ever wash them. It's water that leads to indigo loss, and people are trying to preserve the color," explains Jon Patrick, whose blog The Selvedge Yard has chronicled the nostalgic resurgence of raw, midnight-blue denim — often woven on vintage looms in Japan, which confer a coveted nonfraying selvage edge. "It's kind of gross, but they'll wrap their jeans and put them in the freezer for a while because cold will kill the bacteria and the smell."

These days, those rough and rigid artisanal jeans from brands like A.P.C., Tellason and Prps regularly cross paths with soft and stretchy, candy-colored commodity jeans bought at the Gap. That the extremes can lead parallel lives in fashion points to denim's unique universality.

Jeans can be all things to all people, and yet still display each individual's DNA like nothing else.

"What else can be worn by presidents and construction workers, supermodels and soccer moms?" said Andy Knight, creator of the hybrid blog/store Denimology.com. "Denim is a second skin and like your body it ages with time and tells a story about who you are."

"For women there definitely is more of a focus on who is wearing what," said Patrick, who previously worked in corporate merchandising for Ralph Lauren. "Also, with women's body types and curves, they find a designer brand that fits them really well and they pay a premium for it, and they're very loyal because for lots of women finding a perfect fit is tough." 

Earning a cult following, labels such as Prps and Evisu (a play on Levi's, dropping the "L" and tacking on a "U") have reincarnated American heritage styling in Japan, which salvaged the old-fashioned shuttle looms but applied modern tweaks. The denim is made to patina with wear, revealing the owner's signature.

Influenced by Americana sites such as A Continuous Lean, other denim aficionados are reviving domestic brands that date to the late 19th century, such as Stronghold of Los Angeles and Cone Denim of Greensboro, N.C.

Patrick identifies with both the Japanese and American denim camps. He collaborated with Prps on a limited edition Selvedge Yard jean, which hits stores in April and is priced around $500. But he still fondly remembers his first pair of Levi's 501s from his youth in Phoenix.

"When I was in fifth grade or so, I got a weekend job busing tables at a restaurant working for a couple bucks an hour. The first thing I bought were my very own Levi's 501 shrink-to-fit jeans, still my favorite to this day."

The colorful jeans of spring may never achieve that iconic immortality, said Chris Laverty, who has paid homage to vintage denim on his Clothes on Film blog. "The '50s rebel in his thick selvage Levi's careering about town on a motorbike and scaring the elderly is long gone," Laverty said.

But transitory styles also deserve a page in the denim record books, he said.

"Right or wrong, such jeans capture the zeitgeist of an era — that is denim's heritage."

It speaks any language, said Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

She points to her book "50 Years of Fashion: New Look to Now." She chose a Dior dress for the cover of the American edition. "I was delighted but surprised by what they did in the French edition," she said. The cover replaced the Dior image with a pair of blue jeans.

Blue jeans: An American story

The French town of Nimes is credited with inventing denim — "de Nimes," get it? The word "jeans" originates from the French word for Genoa — Genes — where sailors wore denim trousers. "But at the end of the day where it really happened was with Levi's making trousers for miners in San Francisco," said Jon Patrick, who writes the blog The Selvedge Yard.

1873: Levi Strauss & Co. files a patent for riveted pockets, to reinforce stress points on pants. This is considered the birth of blue jeans, known as "waist overalls" for several more years.

1936: Levi's introduces the iconic red tab on left rear pocket.

1940s: American servicemen expose Europeans to jeans.

1950s: Jeans stand for rebellion on Marlon Brando in "The Wild One" (1953), James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) and Elvis Presley in his 1957 "Jailhouse Rock" performance.

1956 Brigitte Bardot in "And God Created Woman" taps into denim's sex appeal.

1967: Hippies embellish their denim in the Summer of Love in San Francisco. Paul Newman as "Cool Hand Luke" reinforces denim's jailhouse swagger.

1971: Jeans become the dress-down uniform of the decade, from Cher to Jackie Onassis to Jane Birkin.

1973: Volkswagen produces the Jeans Beetle with all-denim trim.

1979: Short-shorts are immortalized as "Daisy Dukes" in "The Dukes of Hazzard."

1980: Nothing comes between 15-year-old Brooke Shields and her Calvin Klein jeans, in the first wave of designer denim.

1985: Hair bands rock acid-washed jeans; misguided youths do same.

1987: Baby-wannabes lop off their jeans and roll them above the knees a la Jennifer Grey in "Dirty Dancing."

Mid- to late '90s: Designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood elevate denim to high fashion.

Mid-'90s: Rap artists drop their drawers. This droopy-crotch look, called "sagging," is later banned in schools and some cities.

2000: The premium denim revolution dawns, with Seven for All Mankind earning $13 million in its first year and establishing Los Angeles as the premium jeans capital.

2008: Katie Holmes starts the "boyfriend" fashion craze with baggy, pegged jeans.

2009: "Jeggings" enters the vernacular thanks to stretch-denim pants..

2012: Skinny jeans maintain a stranglehold on women's fashion, but are reinterpreted in pastels and florals as the next evolution of the colored-denim trend.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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