‘Riveted’ doc unfolds controversial historical past of denim denims

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Lengthy earlier than skinny denims triggered a mode standoff between millennials and Gen Z, denim was controversial.

Poster for PBS's documentary "Riveted"
The documentary “Riveted” premieres Feb. 7 on PBS.
Courtesy: AMERICAN EXPERIENCE/GB

A brand new documentary, “Riveted: The Historical past of Denims” (out Monday, Feb. 7, on PBS), unfolds the untold story of America’s most iconic and ubiquitous garment. It follows denim from the slave-tilled fields of a worthwhile South Carolina plantation to the muddy pits of New York’s Woodstock, the place hippies wore patchwork denims — and impressed a technology of vogue designers.

For the movie’s co-writers and administrators, Anna Lee Strachan and Michael Bicks, “Riveted” was a possibility to unzip among the myths about denims — reminiscent of the concept they had been initially worn by strapping, chivalrous cowboys — and reveal the surprisingly complicated story of what’s now an over $60 billion world trade. 

“It’s all the time Marlon Brando and cowboys and Levi Strauss,” Strachan informed The Submit of denim’s oft-repeated lore. “However when you begin unraveling the material and following the thread, you discover every kind of stuff . . . What different issues haven’t been a part of this conventional denim narrative that will get informed?” 

Beneath, fascinating — and typically gritty — particulars from the lengthy historical past of the fabled cloth.

Within the antebellum South, denim was known as ‘Negro fabric’

Two young Black boys wearing overalls in a field
Cowboys get the credit score for being the primary group to put on denims, however enslaved individuals wore denim nicely earlier than that.
Library of Congress

Bicks and Strachan informed The Submit that cowboys usually get credit score for being the primary People to sport dungarees, however that’s not truly true. As a substitute, slaves wore denims and overalls, constructed from denim “Negro fabric,” as a result of the heavy-duty cotton weave may stand as much as compelled labor. Denim’s conventional blue coloration got here from indigo — a temperamental tropical plant native to the Caribbean and West Africa — which the enslaved women and men, who got here from these areas, taught plantation homeowners methods to develop. “The South wanted one thing so as to add to crop rotation [alongside cotton, tobacco and rice],” denim skilled Evan Morrison says within the movie. “Including indigo into your crop rotation was a approach so as to add extra revenue.”

Levi Strauss’ denim empire was constructed on tiny copper rivets

Close-up of a Levi Strauss label on a pair of jeans with copper rivets
Utilizing copper rivets to strengthen seams was the important thing to Levi Strauss’s success.
Jon Santa Cruz/Shutterstock

Denim as a material was robust, however the seams had been nonetheless susceptible to tears. Enter Jacob Davis — an important character within the historical past of denims who’s nonetheless unknown to all however essentially the most dedicated denimphiles. Davis was a tailor working in Reno, Nevada, within the 1870s when a lady got here into his store, complaining that her chubby husband’s pants stored splitting. “Jacob Davis goes, ‘Hmm. I see that these rivets over there, they’re helpful to restore saddles,’ ” Bicks informed The Submit. “ ‘If I exploit these, perhaps they’ll make my pants stronger.’ ” After Davis found out methods to reinforce the stitching on denim with rivets, enterprise “exploded,” mentioned Bicks. However he was unable to maintain up with demand, so he reached out to Levi Strauss, his San Francisco-based dry items provider, with an concept. The pair patented the metallic reinforcements in 1873, and Strauss’ legendary blue denims operation was born.

Rich girls began carrying denim at dude ranches

A "cowgirl" at a dude ranch
Rich girls began carrying denims at dude ranches.
Alamy Inventory Picture

Till the 1930s, a wealthy white girl would by no means put on denims. However that modified through the Nice Despair, when struggling farmers opened up their properties to snappy vacationers beneath the mantle of unique dude ranches. “These rich individuals from Connecticut or Rhode Island would exit, typically for weeks or months at a time, and so as to get pleasure from themselves and play this position of cowboy, they needed to gown the half,” Strachan mentioned. “And also you had these [equivalent to] pop-up retailers, Levi’s and different manufacturers on the time, they had been promoting menswear for girls to put on to do these chores for enjoyable.” When the conquering agro-tourists returned house, their denims grew to become “souvenirs” that they confirmed off to their mates, Strachan mentioned. Slowly, humble denim workwear grew to become a full-blown vogue development amongst Northeastern gals.

Denim sellers launched a marketing campaign to make denims appear much less risqué 

Marlon Brando in "The Wild One"
Marlon Brando’s juvenile delinquent character in “The Wild One” contributed to the impression that denims had been for outlaws.

Within the 1950s, youngsters wore denim — however so did bikers and outlaws. Brando’s juvenile delinquent character in 1953’s “The Wild One” strutted throughout the display screen in a uniform consisting of a leather-based bike jacket and cuffed blue denims, solely fueling rising suspicions that denim pants went together with an outré life-style. In response, colleges and anxious mother and father began banning denims. That’s when denim sellers obtained collectively to brainstorm methods to guard their product’s status. The outcome? They launched a nationwide promoting marketing campaign to wash up denim’s picture. “They begin going again to the myths of denim. Christopher Columbus, cowboys, stuff like that,” Bicks mentioned. Within the early 1960s, the denim council even aligned itself with President John F. Kennedy’s newly based worldwide volunteer program. “They really outfitted the Peace Corps as an try to resurrect their picture,” Bicks mentioned.

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